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In the Name of Our Families

This fourth instalment of poetic conversation, begun in 2014, between poets and friends Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella investigates the meaning of family.


Kwame Dawes, John Kinsella
Jamaica, United States of America, Australia
Date published
6 Aug 2020

In their fourth round of dialogue, Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella set themselves the intertwined tasks of exploring the long poetic line and making interventions upon what has always been implicit in their conversations, the meaning of family. The long-breathed line becomes metonym and metaphor for a subject that is evasive, problematic, distressing, comforting, joyous and challenging. Poems acknowledge the life-giving support of the domestic, but also confess that though they may write “in the name of our families… our families will care less for we will always fail them”. There’s the difficult meaning of ancestry: for Kinsella the heroic myths of the settler past, the grandmother “usurping/with her birth cry” the land stolen from Aboriginal people, and knowing that as the family tree spreads, physical trees “fall so fast. Roots and all”. For Dawes there’s the immediate puzzle of the literally contested ownership of his Jamaican ancestral space (and the meaning of all past family spaces), but beyond that ancestry leads through slavery to the broken heritage of Africa. It is also about what one inherits not only from history but from the genes, the knowledge that comes to Dawes in this year of writing, that he has inherited the condition that has brought blindness to other family members. And in their place in the chain, both men ask what will they bequeath as husbands, fathers and writers to the future?  Not least there’s the painful reminder of the family’s mortality, the surprise of death that undermines all sense of security. And beyond our own, what do we owe those who are not family, who may need, as Kinsella writes, “every bit of loving going out there.”   

Kinsella begins the dialogue by hoping the long line “will take me somewhere beyond the restraints of my past” and certainly both poets discover a deeply rewarding reflectiveness in the conversational expansiveness of voice, and sometimes the long line lends itself to a magnificent prophetic flow that like a mighty river carries all before it. But before the end, Dawes confesses, “John, I am winded from these long-breathed lines”, and in a poem that goes to the very heart of the connections between voice, metre, lineation and meaning, reminds us both that this is a dialogue between writers of real differences of vision, but one that has brought deep mutual and self-understanding.

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John Kinsella

John Kinsella's many books of poetry include Armour (Picador, 2010), Jam Tree Gully (WW Norton, 2012) and Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador, 2016). He has published work in all genres and across a few of them as well, and collaborated with many artists, composers, writers and poets. He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University.

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Kwame Dawes

Kwame Dawes is the author of twenty-two books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. He is Glenna Luschei Editor-in-Chief of Prairie Schooner and George W. Holmes University Professor at the University of Nebraska. Dawes is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His awards include an Emmy, the Felix Dennis (Forward) Prize for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing, and the Windham Campbell Prize for poetry.

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