Literary Fiction by People of Color discussion

Kwame Dawes' Inaugural Poem "New Day"

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message 1: by Wilhelmina (last edited Jan 24, 2009 09:34PM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I had planned to wait for Qiana to post on this poem since I learned about it through her, but I was too excited to wait. I hope Qiana will forgive me. :)

This poem is brilliant . Dawes has composed a poem in eight verses, each a loosely formed sonnet, reaching back from this historic election to the Lincoln years.
As if this were not enough, he has the poem being read by a diverse group on a video at this website:

In addition, he has a video on this site where he discusses his process in producing this fine poem. Believe me, this is not one that you want to miss!

Dawes was commissioned by the SC newspaper "The State" to write this wonderful poem. I hope that Qiana will be able to give us some suggestions about more of Dawes' work that we can read. (Hint, hint!) Thanks, Qiana, for leading us to this wonderful poem.

message 2: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Thanks, Mina, for posting this! I'm SO glad that you enjoy the poem as much as I do.

In my opinion, what is really rewarding about "New Day" is how Dawes pays tribute to both the small, subtle changes and the sweeping, historic ones in relation to Obama's presidency in a really well-balanced way. And I've mentioned this before, but I also really think that he had much more creative freedom than Alexander did in her very public role as "the inaugural poet." (And I'm one of the few who actually liked Alexander's poem very much.) He could emphasize what Obama means for African Americans, in particular, and could be more specific about the circumstances of the election. Even being able to use Obama's name is a plus.

I really like the section on "Palmetto" but also "On Having a Cool President" captures Obama's persona really well!

Cool is knowing how to lean back and let it come,
but always ready for it to come. He will be no minstrel show
fool, but a man who shows, in the midst of chaos, unruffled calm.

And that final image of Lincoln in the last section is especially moving (and I say that as someone who has had my fill of Lincoln/Obama comparisons....)

In terms of suggestions, I haven't read all of Dawes' poetry. (He also writes fiction and has done some critical work on Bob Marley.) But my favorite work of his is Requiem; it is a book of poems about slavery and the middle passage that was influenced by Tom Feelings' amazing graphic narrative, The Middle Passage White Ships/ Black Cargo. Considered together, both are quite amazing. The images are as troubling as you might expect, but it is a real pleasure to read and see history come to life on the pages.

message 3: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I have the Tom Feelings book; he was one of my favorite artists starting back in the '60s. I had two of his posters on my wall back then. It broke my heart when he died. I will hunt down Requiem to go along with it.

I liked Alexander's poem, but as you say, she was under serious constraints. I especially liked it, once I could see it printed as she intended it to be.

message 4: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments at first i read kwame dawes poem and i didn't like it at all, while i was all in love with elizabeth alexander's. then it started sinking in. see, i have real trouble with poetry. i don't always hear poetry in english, and, also, i miss a lot of the references and the rhythms, cuz it ain't my language and i learned it too late, ya know? also i'm really uneducated in the english/american poetic tradition, i really am. working on it, but because of aforementioned it's hard going!

but maybe, qiana, since you like the Palmetto section you can explain it to me? (someone else can, too!) i don't get the contrast between those who went and those who stayed. where did those who went go? does he mean away from their hometowns and their communities and on to international fame? and what about palmettos, are their a regional reference? here in south fla we have palmetto bugs, but i'm not sure we have palmettos.... :-)

but, as i said, i like it a lot now, especially the cool president section, and also the confession section.

i've been working on an inaugural poem of my own (crazy, right???) that i've been thinking about a lot and it requires some work still but if y'all promise not to pounce on me i'll share it with you... very very shyly...

message 5: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments No pouncing - promise! That would be great.

message 6: by jo (last edited Feb 07, 2009 10:04AM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments humbly, my inauguration poem


message 7: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments That was wonderful, Jo!

message 8: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments thank you! but... that's all the feedback i'm gonna get? :-)

message 9: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Wow look at these new posts - and a new poem from jo! Just give me a day to respond. I'll have much more to say soon, promise!

message 10: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Jo, I loved your use of names and what they reveal, the restrictions and the changes. I also liked the way that you used repetition to indicate the weight of history on what should be a simple interaction between human beings. The lifting of a little of that weight from all of our shoulders that we felt with Barack's election. Very, very nice.

message 11: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Jo, so it's almost two week later (!) but I've got my morning coffee in hand, the baby's asleep and I just read your wonderful poem.

Like Mina said, what you do with naming here is really lovely and the poem has a nice sense of pacing (or is it rhythm? - not a poetry scholar). Presidential names, even bringing it to Adam, and then the "naming" of our nation.

but now we have barack
and i wonder what that does
to naming
not just presidential naming
but naming altogether
because it’s through naming we make sense
and own
and god asked adam to name all living creatures
“and whatsoever Adam called every living creature
that was the name thereof” (genesis 2:19)

Nice. "Through naming we make sense" - Toni Morrison couldn't have put it better!

Your riff on "friendliness" really intrigued me as well, because you've put something that's so often unspoken and unacknowledged between blacks and whites in a way that feels very honest and moving.

So how long did it take you to write this? Have you plans to try to get it printed/published somewhere or are you just circulating it among friends?

What's ironic is that if anyone is carrying "the burden" now, it's Obama. I try my best not to see him as the Second Coming, but it's hard not to want to praise the seismic shift this country has experienced with his presidency.

message 12: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Hey, baby's still sleeping! So if you are interested, here are some thoughts on Kwame Dawes' New Day - specifically the section called Palmetto:

Of course, my home has kept its promise to itself;
the one that made Eartha Kitt, Chubby Checker, Althea Gibson,
James Brown all pack their bags, clean out their shelves,
never to look back, not once. They found their homeless songs,
like people who have forgotten where their navel-strings
were buried. We kept the promise that made those who stayed, learn
to fight with the genius of silence, the subterfuge of rings
of secret flames held close to the heart, kindling the slow burn
of resistance. But good news: despite the final state count,
we know that the upheaval of all things still brought grace
here where pine trees bleed and palmettos suck up the brunt
of blows, and so we can now hum the quiet solace
of victory with a surreptitious shuffle, a quick, quick-step
for you, Smoking Joe, Dizzy, James, and Jesse, slide, slide, now step.

Just to clarify some of the allusions:

The Palmetto is South Carolina's state tree and it's on the flag - around here it has become short-hand for the state: "The Palmetto State"

Dawes use of the word "promise" in the opening line is tricky, because promise generally has positive, uplifting implications. But in this context, (I think) promise refers to South Carolina's legacy of racial subjugation and white supremacy. This is the force that pushed some of the more notable black figures like James Brown, Jesse Jackson, and Eartha Kitt to abandon the state and move on to better and more progressive regions. (I didn't even know that Jackson and Kitt were born in SC till I read this poem.)

The section then points out that despite this "promise," the ones who stayed adopted survival strategies that allowed them to persevere ("the slow burn of resistance"). And even though SC is still a red state, these same black people feel a part of Obama's victory. I think it is telling that their celebration is not one of shouting praises, but in keeping with the racial politics of the state (which change much more slowly), they "hum the quiet solace of victory with a surreptitious shuffle, a quick, quick-step." Those last words about the "slide, now step" bring to mind a kind of James Brown funky dance or an image of old person who can no longer keep their pride and joy to themselves and can't help but do a little "quick, quick-step."

I like this section because I think he really captures the kind of pride that many black southerners felt on election day, and still feel. With all the suffering that the South is known for, here's a moment of understanding and joy that isn't full of applause and self-congratulation, but a very humble (and humbling) kind of pride.

So, anyway, that's my take.

I should really stop referring to my daughter as a "baby" (she's almost three!) but hey, she's still sleeping so time for another cup of coffee. Yay!!!!

message 13: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments thank you, qiana, both for your nice words about my poem and for the explanation of the palmetto stanza in dawes' poem. i wouldn't have gotten it in a million years (unless i had researched it, that is, but one is too lazy for that, especially when one has friends who can do the work for one).

this passage is very beautiful: "learn to fight with the genius of silence, the subterfuge of rings of secret flames held close to the heart, kindling the slow burn of resistance."

i'm reading Someone Knows My Name and am acutely reminded of the genius of silence that allowed a people to survive impossible circumstances and develop a magnificently rich culture to boot. and the book, or at least the part i've read thus far, is set in the carolinas, so that's a nice convergence and alignment of stars!

i wonder if you are from south carolina yourself, or if living there (do you live there? am i getting it all wrong?) is making you passionate about it? i find that i want to know everything about the places where i live, and that i become proprietary about them almost immediately.

as to my poem, it took me like half an hour to write it but about 2 weeks to work it out in my head. and i have, in fact, been thinking for years about american presidential naming, thinking for instance of how interesting it is that clinton's middle name is jefferson. i am constantly puzzling out that mystery that is america, you see. this is a country particularly rich with myths, especially because it takes itself so damn seriously :-) i say this as an italian, and, as such, someone who belongs (partly) to a culture that takes itself extremely unseriously and takes tremendous pleasure in mocking itself bitterly and relentlessly. (of course there is also enormous pride in such self-mocking, but such are the ways of the human psyche, individual and collective...).

i think she stays a baby until she learns how to write in complete sentences with fully formed secondary clauses. :-)

message 14: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments LOL @ "fully formed secondary clauses"

I have lived in SC for the last six years, but I'm originally from Virginia (and still claim VA as "home"). It's funny that you ask this question, since I am teaching a class on SC writers - so I have this subject on the brain. I think one of the reasons why I sound so proprietary about this state is because I frequently find myself in the position of having to defend my decision to live here.

Seriously, people are afraid to visit me. SC is so often affiliated with racial violence and segregation (second, I guess, to Mississippi and Alabama?), or with being the very last in the education rankings, high rates of poverty, and then there's the Confederate Flag that we can't seem to get off the capitol grounds. (To be honest - this was also MY view before I came.)

But my everyday life here is just great, my daughter is getting a wonderful education, and where I live is surprisingly more integrated and friendly than any other place I've ever lived (Fort Worth, Atlanta, Connecticut). This place reminds me in that way, of home. But it's hard to explain this to friends who won't even come to see me (smile) fearing that the KKK is waiting at the state line...

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