In Haiti, Writer Kwame Dawes Tells of Quake Aftermath Through Poetry
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USA Today, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and The PBS NewsHour are exploring life in Haiti a year after a devastating earthquake. For more coverage, go to usatoday.com and pulitzercenter.org.
GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a conversation with writer Kwame Dawes. His works include poems, plays, essays, criticism, and novels. Now he’s turned to reporting, and turned his subject matter into poetry.
Jeffrey Brown spoke with Dawes just before the holidays, and soon after Dawes returned from one of several trips to Haiti.
The story was produced through a partnership with USA Today, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the NewsHour.
KWAME DAWES, poet: Sometimes, I wonder why.
JEFFREY BROWN: The words tell the story of one of the many victims of Haiti’s earthquake. They were written by Kwame Dawes, who has been going to the island nation over the last year to report on and write poems that capture the human side of the tragedy.
KWAME DAWES: I cry, and then I laugh. Just like that, in a few seconds, I laugh, and then I cry, and I dream again.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dawes works with a photographer and composer to create short videos.
Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana and spent most of his early years in Jamaica. He’s written 15 books of poetry and is poet in residence at the University of South Carolina.
Welcome to you.
KWAME DAWES: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about the work in Haiti. What were you after? What were you doing?
KWAME DAWES: You know, when the earthquake took place — and this was in January of this year — I was in Oregon teaching.
And Andre Lambertson, who is the wonderful photographer, called me, and he said to me, Kwame, I really want us to do something in Haiti.
And so we talked a bit about it. And we decided to approach the Pulitzer Center to see if they would support something of us going to Haiti to meet people and find out what is happening with them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we should explain, you and I met a couple of years ago.
KWAME DAWES: That’s right.
JEFFREY BROWN: And we talked about this. You have — you do this combination of reporting and writing.
KWAME DAWES: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Explain. Explain it.
KWAME DAWES: You know, a few years ago, I was approached to do some work on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.
And one of the reasons they picked me was that they thought I could go in to do reporting because I knew Jamaica. But they were open to the idea that, if I wrote poems in response to what I heard and saw, they would be interested in seeing how it could be used.
And it worked out marvelously, because I write poems as a way to process and to work through the experience. And it also gives us an intimacy in the relationship with people.
So, when I was going to Haiti, the idea was really to report, to find out what was happening. But I knew that, somehow, I would have to find ways to respond to it in poetry. And that’s what happened.
JEFFREY BROWN: And in the work in Haiti, as in when you went to Jamaica and we talked, you’re often dealing with the weakest of the weak, often in cases of HIV, people with HIV/AIDS, right?
KWAME DAWES: That’s absolutely true.
And it was an important entry, because, you know, while I was working in Jamaica, everybody was talking about Haiti and how Haiti’s work with HIV/AIDS had been marvelous and made changes and progress. So, the thought was, what would happen to this progress after the earthquake? Will it be retarded?
Will there be a situation where the HIV gains, the gains — that is a reduction of occurrence of HIV, something like 4 percent reduction in about 10 years — will be reversed somehow? So, I was very interested in seeing what would happen to people’s lives.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, what did you see? You first went early in the year, April.
KWAME DAWES: That’s right.
JEFFREY BROWN: And then you have been going back throughout the year.
KWAME DAWES: Yes, four times. And every couple or so months, I would go back and spend about a week there.
The first thing you’re struck with is the devastation. I mean, when I landed in April, the buildings were — you know, 80 percent of these buildings were destroyed. And they were all over the street. The rubble was everywhere. The tent cities had already sprung up. There were 1.5 million people who were displaced and living in these tent cities.
So, that was just the very first thing that struck me. The second thing that struck me was that people were — were traumatized. They were living with the trauma, but were finding ways to cope with that trauma. And they would talk about not wanting to go into buildings, about where they would sleep and so on.
And then the last thing was the energy of the Haitian people, that is, of trying to find a way to make things work, to hustle. This is the people working with the government, people just living their daily lives, trying to make things work.
And you were just struck by that, because people were still able to laugh or to talk about difficult things, even as they reflected on the tragedy.
JEFFREY BROWN: And then, amid the enormity of that and the millions of people affected, you find some individual stories, and then write, talk to them, meet them, get into their lives, and then write a poem.
KWAME DAWES: And this is the thing about it. You know, I’m not your standard, at least as far as I know, journalist. I don’t go to do sort of immediate news stories.
I really want to meet people. I want to find out how they’re living. And, really, what ends up happening is that I become very friendly. I become a friend. I become somebody who is just interested in their stories and their lives.
And I can’t — I cannot avoid a good story. You know, a good narrative tells me there’s a poem here or there’s an image that is going to emerge out of it. And I would listen to people’s stories and walk away. And, at night, I would be thinking about it, and maybe an image would come back to me, and I will find a way to turn that into poetry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one example I want to ask you about, because I saw that in the video, is a man named — well, you called the poem “Job.”
KWAME DAWES: Yes, I called it “Job,” yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
KWAME DAWES: The man’s name is actually Joel Sainton, remarkable guy.
This is a guy who tells the story of contracting the virus in 2001 from his wife. He just got married. Joel is a pastor. And he contracts the virus. He is pushed out of his church because his leaders say that he should reject his wife and throw her out. And he says he can’t do that.
He is convinced he’s about to die, he’s going to die soon. And then he realizes he’s living. And he says the only reason why he should continue to live is to help people and to help those around him. And Joel Sainton sets up this organization called APIA where he visits over 400 people on a regular basis in Carrefour, which is a subdivision just outside of Port-au-Prince.
And he visits them, prays with them, tries to find food and help for them. And the only way you understand it is when you see the pictures of him, when you see him embracing people, how he makes himself a presence in their lives. It’s just a stunning thing, despite his hunger.
I mean, Joel will wake up in the morning and not have a meal all day. And he’s going around visiting people. It’s just a remarkable, remarkable example of faith in that place, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the video of that poem is on our website.
KWAME DAWES: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: We’re going to play another one now, a very powerful one called “Mother of Mothers.”
KWAME DAWES: “Mother of Mothers.”
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you want to just explain what that is?
KWAME DAWES: What struck me about Haiti was that the women were carrying most of the burden of the disease of HIV, not because only women had the disease, but they were the ones who would first be tested.
They would be the ones who get pregnant and have to be tested. And then they would have to decide, what do I do with this information? They would be the ones to care for the children. They would be the ones to carry the guilt when their children were carrying the disease because it came through them.
And it struck me that these mothers were the ones who were also holding the community together. I will tell you a quick story. I was in a church. And I watched an old woman walking around the church. The church had been broken down, so we were in a courtyard.
And she just kept marching around, praying, circling the whole congregation again and again. And I asked who she was. They said, she’s the mother of the church.
That woman — and she — there’s an image of her in the video poem. She struck me as a powerful example of the strength of the Haitian women.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, Kwame Dawes, it’s nice to talk to you again.
KWAME DAWES: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And here for our audience is “Mother of Mothers.”
KWAME DAWES: Thank you.
“Mother of Mothers.”
“When a brave woman’s out walking, she’s mistress life’s spitting image” — Michel-Ange Hyppolite.
The faces of mothers of mothers, their cheekbones gleaming against taut skins, their eyes glazed with the scarring of so much loss. In Haiti, the mothers of mothers have lamented for so long. All that is left is the sturdy presence of grace, the wide-open heart of knowing how much a casket weighs, how it feels on the open palm.
The mothers of mothers march through the congregation while the children of men clap their hands, beat tambourines, scratch the grater, and sing the flat harmony that shivers the air.
Beneath a cascade of flame yellow and red flamboyants, she stalks the outskirts of the feet-worn worship ground, the outer limits of the congregation, where the weeds and stones have accumulated, here, where the excavation of rubble takes us as far as weary arms and the creaky wheelbarrow can go.
These women draw a pattern of circles with their heavy, planted feet, their arms raised high, their voices continuing with greater ceremony and occasion, that conversation that began with Jesus at 4:00 in the morning.
Oh, the mothers of mothers, who know too well the hottest sorrow, the broken bodies of children, the boy who covers a jaw full of maggots, and the tall lanky son whose spine gives under the weight of concrete before he is pulled out, laid under the soft blue light of a wayside clinic, waiting to go, and, quietly, with the flies returning to his skin, he is still, though he must wait there until dusk, before they notice, before a procession of mothers leads the body out into the night, and mother of mothers, she hears her child wake, look around, and speak, “How nice the air is out here,” before he dies, this time for good.
Mother of mothers, in your bandana and with your holy testament, you must draw the line of defense around the beleaguered souls, and speak a torrent of curses on the beast lurking in the shadows.
GWEN IFILL: Jeff is on a reporting trip to Haiti now, and has filed a video dispatch from Port-au-Prince. That’s on our website, as are links to the USA Today and Pulitzer Center series.