Today’s Sunday Poem, “Tornado Child” by Kwame Dawes, is one of many powerful poems in Dawes’ book Wisteria, Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country. The poems in this collection are based on Dawes’ conversations with the elders of Sumter, South Carolina, who shared their memories of growing up in the Deep South under Jim Crow.
Dawes skillfully channels the voices of Sumter’s elderly African-American women—beauticians, seamstresses, teachers, domestic workers and farmers who lived through the 20th century. These moving accounts, retold in Dawes’ empathetic and unique, musical style, honor the resilience of these women who, until now, have largely been invisible.
Dawes, a prolific poet, playwright, novelist, actor, and musician, was born in Ghana in 1962, and grew up in Jamaica, where the “reggae aesthetic,” in particular, the music of Bob Marley, had a profound and lasting impact on the direction of his work. The musical traditions of both reggae and Negro spirituals seem particularly relevant to the poems in Wisteria. As the journal Chicken Bones says, “Dawes understands that redemption is essential, and he finds it in the pure music of his art.”
The musicality of Dawes’ poetry is best appreciated when his work is read aloud. This video of “Tornado Child,” which is part of PBS’s Poetry Everywhere series, captures Dawes at his most lyrical. Enjoy the poem and your Sunday!
About Kwame Dawes
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood and early adult life in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of that lush place, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius remains the most authoritative study of the lyrics of Bob Marley.
His 11th collection of verse, Wisteria: Poems From the Swamp Country, was published in January 2006. In February, 2007 Akashic Books published his novel, She’s Gone and Peepal Tree Books published his 12th collection of poetry, Impossible Flying, and his non-fiction work, A Far Cry From Plymouth Rock: A Personal Narrative.
Dawes has seen produced some twenty of his plays over the past twenty-five years including, most recently a production of his musical, One Love, at the Lyric Hammersmith in London .
His essays have appeared in numerous journals including Bomb Magazine, The London Review of Books, Granta, Essence, World Literature Today and Double Take Magazine.
Kwame Dawes is the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner, a Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and a faculty member of the Pacific MFA program and of Cave Canem. He is also the programming director of the Calabash International Literary Festival, which takes place in Jamaica in May of each year.
For more information about Kwame Dawes, please visit his website.
This video is part of the Poetry Everywhere project airing on PBS. Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation. Filmed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival on location at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. “Tornado Child” © Kwame Dawes. To read a print version of “Tornado Child,” visit the Poetry Foundation website.