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Story Publication logo September 9, 2010

Bearing Witness: The Poet as Journalist


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Poet and writer Kwame Dawes travels to Jamaica to explore the experience of people living with HIV...

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Multiple Authors
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Poems and photographs work together in the multimedia project, “Hope: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica.” Photo by Joshua Cogan (

Poet and journalist Kwame Dawes has traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to work on multimedia projects for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. In combining his poetry with the images of photographers Joshua Cogan and Andre Lambertson, the life circumstances of people living with HIV/AIDS are revealed. Dawes describes these photographers' work as "rich with the possibility of language" and his poems as providing a "dialogue with their dance of light and moment." The multimedia Web site for "Hope: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica," a collaboration with Cogan, was awarded an Emmy last year in recognition of its new approach to news and documentary programming. In this essay, Dawes, who is distinguished poet in residence at the University of South Carolina, writes about the interwoven roles he experiences as a witness—as poet and journalist.

No matter how often I do it, I am unable to shake the nagging sense that an interview I am about to conduct is not going to reveal anything interesting or anything that will hold the interest of anyone else. At the heart of the fear is the concern that the person I am about to interview will not want to say anything at all. This is especially so when I am about to do an interview involving matters that can be intimate and deeply private. My fear is not merely academic. I have interviewed people who simply would not speak. I could tell quite quickly that they had either misunderstood what the interview was about or they had changed their minds.

But as a poet everything is useful material. Such material might be drawn from a long interview filled with brave details about violence against homosexuals and risk-taking honesty about the person's own life, as I did in Jamaica two years ago, words I never heard again after the cameraman somehow lost the videotape. Or from talking with the self-centered head of a major organization in Haiti who gave me pat answers and spoke as if he had done this interview a million times before, which, alas, he might have; he gave one hint of something new and interesting in all that he said. Yet, as a poet, I am always storing material for some use.

This seems to present a false parallel between the making of poems and the writing of a news report—journalism, in a word. But this is not the case. Poetry and the collecting of material for poetry are never self-conscious. Indeed, the material that I collect for poetry is never collected for poetry but collected by me to keep track of where I have been, who I have been with, and how I feel about what I have seen. I am collecting, yes, but not consciously. What I am doing is responding as a human being to what I am seeing and hearing and trying to find ways of keeping track of what I am discovering.

I've recently made two reporting trips to Haiti. When I came home after the first trip I did not know if I would find anything to write about in poems. I knew I had a lot to write about in terms of straight journalistic pieces, but a poem is not the "story," it is something deeper; it has to do with an image, an image that can be both something seen or something that happens, a snippet of a narrative. It can be a detail, a scent, a question, a fear, a desire. I come to the poems without answers. By now I've seen and felt enough in my time in Haiti to write many poems, but the odd thing is that when I look at the poems I have since written, I do not have a clear recollection of making any mental notes of what drove them to existence while I was on the ground. I never refer to notes when I am writing the poems...

Read the full article at Nieman Reports.



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