Dawes, Pulitzer Center Take On HIV/AIDs in Jamaica

October 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, an unusual tale of AIDS, journalism, and poetry. Jeffrey Brown has the story.

KWAME DAWES, poet: So many scenes frighten me, and I grow silent. Disease has a name, HIV/AIDS.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2007, poet Kwame Dawes returned to Jamaica, the country he’d grown up in, for an unusual reporting and writing project. Dawes has written numerous books of verse and taught at the University of South Carolina since 1992. Now he was assigned to document the lives of victims of HIV/AIDS.

The project he says challenged and then compelled him to seek different ways to tell the story through prose and ultimately poetry.

KWAME DAWES: The story took me. In other words, I was taken by the story as I started to do it. And where I am now with the story is quite different from where I started with the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The AIDS assignment came from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit media organization based in Washington that promotes in-depth coverage of international affairs.

Jon Sawyer, the center’s founder, wanted to commission a story on Jamaica’s AIDS problem, but one that would see and address it through an unconventional lens.

Appealing to unlikely audiences

JON SAWYER, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting: We thought it was very important to go beyond normal journalism, to -- our goal at the Pulitzer Center is to engage people, particularly non-traditional audiences, young people who are not paying attention to newspapers or not subscribing, they're not looking at broadcast television news, and we're looking for ways to go to them.

And to me, it's the best of what a journalist should be, and that sort of -- that ability to put yourself in the other's life and experience is what great journalism is all about.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Jamaica, where 1 percent to 2 percent of adults are living with the disease, Dawes and the Pulitzer team interviewed victims for a long and detailed article that appeared in a journal, the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Soon, though, Dawes felt the need to turn to poetry.

KWAME DAWES: Poetry for me has always been a way to process, experience. It has always been a fascinating way to turn experience into something that is, frankly, beautiful.

It may be painful. It may be difficult. But at the end of the day, it's beautiful. That filter of poetry allows me to engage with experience in a way that contradiction, emotional conflict, conflicting ideas, and so on are still able to be present in that single moment.

The poems' individuals

JEFFREY BROWN: The poems, now part of an extensive multimedia Web site called "Hope: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica" tell of the individuals Dawes met and interviewed and sometimes use their own words.

"Nichol," for example, who once worked in a bar, an imposing man before he contracted HIV and suffered a series of strokes. It begins this way.

KWAME DAWES: How coolly it has broken you,

trying to mask the knowing

wit behind your eyes--

every smile, brilliant

against your gleaming

black skin, is defiance.

You stammer, push out

words; tell your story;

slap your knees to show

Where your stroke-frozen

body would crawl

across the concrete

To reach the yard,

with the gawking

on-lookers. You laugh.

"Man must live.

Man must live."

How casually broken.

His phrase -- and that just was like a -- like just a bell. When he said it, he says -- he sort of leans back and says, "You know, how it had me. I couldn't walk. I couldn't talk. But man must live. Man must live."

The poem cannot be a journalistic piece because then the poem has left the idea of its artistry. You know, and the...

Poetry, not journalism

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean? What's the difference between the poem and the journalism?

KWAME DAWES: Well, the difference is that the commitment in the journalistic piece is one idea of truth, that is, the truth of fact and the truth of information and the truth of data. That is actually the commitment, the contract you make with the reader.

In the poem, that's not your commitment. But if you look for the poems for an emotional truth, a kind of psychic truth, and a way in which the contradictions of experience are articulated through rhythm, and sound, and the beauty of language, and the quest for language and meaning, then that's what you find in the poems. And that's what I hope happens.


For Annesha

Mama settles in the shadows, her prayers--

curl through the ornate burglar bars,

dance above the flat concrete roof,

then dally over the Gardens

Moved by the stories

JEFFREY BROWN: In the poem "Altar," Dawes writes in the voice of Annesha Taylor, a young Jamaican who once served in a government publicity campaign to help de-stigmatize AIDS, even as she herself continued to live in fear and poverty.

KWAME DAWES: I was very touched by her story and also very moved and very -- And I had this weird struggle with the question of, am I -- you know, what do I do in relating to her, as a journalist, as somebody who's writing about her experience, and at the same time -- trying to get a story from her, and at the same time being concerned about what is happening to her? And that weird place was, I think, solved for me by the poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: The poem ends this way.

KWAME DAWES: In this haven, mama's voice

carries high against the news;

and someone is whispering to me:

"Father Holung coming for you, baby girl. Is your time now;

the priest in white with flaxen hair

coming for you, is your time now."

My cocktail of Baygon and rum;

my cocktail of bleach and tar;

my cleansing, my purging,

my fire into this worthless soul -

"AIDS a go kill me; AIDS a go

kill me." Poor Mama, how tiny

her voice wailing for mercy;

asking God how come, how come;

and me praying for my daughters;

mercy, mercy until the shadows come.

JEFFREY BROWN: A book of poems from this project will be published next spring.