What does our literary work owe us in return for bringing it out into the world? If you’re a professional writer, it owes you a living – at least that’s how you need to frame the relationship for it to make sense. But beyond that; what are we owed by our creative work?
Kwame Dawes, who is the George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the founder of the African Poetry Book Fund, and the Glenna Luschei Editor of the respected literary journal, Prairie Schooner, speaking recently at a virtual event organized by the Academy of American Poets reminded us of how before we even ask it to pay us, find us validation in artistic or academic circles, or make us famous; poetry, or any other art form, has a deeper purpose.
Dawes said; “I grew up in a home in which my mother was an artist. She was a sculptor. And my father was a novelist and a poet. If I end the sentence there, it sounds really bourgeois and cute. It would mischaracterize my life. My parents had to have jobs that were not related to their art. My parents never discussed their art as a function of making money.
But what I get from a lot of young, emerging poets is ‘How can I make money as a poet?’ as if that’s what’s going to give it its value. I didn’t grow up in that environment. I grew up in an environment where the musicians, the artists, and so on, didn’t think it peculiar that they were carpenters and civil servants. Nobody sat down and said, ‘I wish we were in a world where we could stop doing all these things and make our art.’
The question was not whether being a bus driver was more important than being a poet, the question was how do you get your rent paid and yet be faithful to this thing that you’re making? That has always guided my way of thinking and my way of approaching art.”
Dawes was speaking alongside Marie Howe, Dorianne Laux, and Natasha Trethewey on a virtual panel discussing the relationship between labor and poetry. Over two-thousand three hundred people registered for the event. The conversation was moderated by Brenda Hillman and explored the place of poetry and art in our communities, in race relations, and in the human experience as a whole.
You can watch the replay of the discussion here.