Kevin: Now, in the September 23, 2019, issue of the magazine, The New Yorker published your poem “Before Winter,” which we will hear you read momentarily. First, though, is there anything you’d like us to know about this poem or how it came about?
Kwame: You know, one of the things that I’ve been really thinking about, because “Before Winter” now appears in a collection called “Nebraska,” which just came out, I’ve been thinking and writing about the relationship between the lyric, the poem, the sort of “I” in a poem, the positionality of a poem, and then my body inside the poem. And what does that mean? And in one of the amusing moments, when I sent the manuscript to the editors at the University of Nebraska Press, they sent back their editorial blurb, the copy that was supposed to go in the book, and I read it and I wrote back and I said, “You don’t want anybody to buy this book!” It’s like death and doom and so on, so forth. I said, No, but then I thought . . . The thing about a poem—and you know this, Kevin—is we capture a moment and the moment is immensely true. But, written and sort of locked into the frame of a poem, it suggests a kind of permanence. And it almost seems . . . So people will call me and say, are you O.K.? Are you dying? And I’m going, No! Like then I might have been. But it’s O.K. now. That moment is gone.
Kevin: Winter is over.
Kwame: Winter is over! Like it goes on. So that’s the framework for this poem. But this poem is about me thinking about the body and mortality.
Kevin: OK, here is Kwame Dawes reading his poem “Before Winter.”
Kevin: That was “Before Winter,” by Kwame Dawes. What a beautiful poem and always a delight to hear you read.
Kwame: Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: I love how it goes between the human and the animal. And, by the end, the body is an animal, you know, hibernating. And there’s a great line that I think gets me every time, where you say, “You must know that this is a preamble to an epiphany I will record—” You know, it’s talking about what’s going to be discovered but it also is aware that discovery is ongoing and then somehow—there’s something about that that’s a kind of hinge in the poem. Is that how you see it?
Kwame: It is completely the way I see it. And the weird thing is, it is . . . And I think I’ll say this because it’s the truth of it is that, even as I wrote that line, I didn’t know what the epiphany was going to be. In other words, the poem is really a discovery for me. And I can’t say that enough, you know. I don’t know, I think I think some poets sort of finish the whole idea in their heads.
Kevin: Who are these sorcerers?
Kwame: That’s right! But for me, I’m trying to find where it is and, in that moment . . . But I also know that two things that are true: that, if it survives, there must be something that will come, even if that thing is a disappointment. So it’s an act of faith, but it’s also an act of prodding that is saying, “Where’re you going with this? What, you know, what is going to happen with this?” You know, already I’ve sort of looked at my body, the changes of my body. And then what does it mean in that moment? That sense is a desperation that says it must go somewhere. It must mean something.
Kevin: Well, because there’s also a leap of faith—as you’re putting it—in the beginning. “I imagine there is a place of deep rest.” So the poem starts with a speculation and maybe a restlessness—a yearning. Someone who says that, we think, isn’t there yet. I mean, and some of that is saying, “I’m still alive.” But some of that’s also saying, “Am I just existing? Am I just going through it? And is there a rest somewhere?”
Kwame: And that’s the des—maybe desperation is not there, but that is the low grade depression.
Kevin: Sure. It’s almost winter.
Kwame: It’s almost winter and I’m going, is this it?
Kevin: It’s slate gray.
Kwame: It’s slate gray and so on. And so that sense of it . . . But it’s going to sleep, right? And sleep is not—you know, this is what we were talking about with Walcott—sleep is not always a sort of stand-in for death in that sort of, you know, tragic way. But sleep is rest. It’s the contentment.
Kevin: And the poem, I don’t know. It says, “not in the resting, but after”—it even says that—“when the body has forgotten the weight of fatigue or of its many / betrayals.” It’s a poem of aging, as it is to indicate. And “Before Winter,” you know, is another way of saying autumn, you know, another way of saying the autumnal quality. But there’s something resilient and funny a little bit about the poem. I mean, it’s not ha-ha funny, but it is filled with ironies.
Kwame: You see, I’m glad you said because there are a number of sort of inside jokes in the whole poem. One is I’m walking a damn dog! Kwame Dawes is walking a dog!
Kevin: In the cold!
Kwame: In the cold! This is a Jamaican man walking a dog. That’s a joke. Like that’s almost like. . . And it’s there, and I know the people were chuckling and going, “Wow, Kwame, look what you come to.”
Kevin: You changed. You done changed, man!
Kwame: Look what you come to!
Kevin: I have to say, in all seriousness, that’s one of my favorite parts: “even standing there waiting for the dog to squat.” It’s not even the dog to do its business, but it’s getting ready.
Kwame: It’s getting ready because, you see, when the dog does its business, the Jamaican man is going to have to pick up the business.
Kevin: Yeah, exactly.
Kwame: But so that’s one kind of joke. The other joke—it’s not, it is not a joke, but it’s also a moment of what it means for this particular body. That is, my own body. Thinking about weight, thinking about my ankle, thinking about these things, to walk through this alien territory. And there’s a sense in which I am alien in this space. I’m an interloper. This is not my sort of native landscape and place. And yet all the language of comfort—hibernation, the idea of change and seasonal change—has become part of my hope. And that way in which I’m embracing that, even as my body sort of is resisting that, I think becomes that kind of statement about this immigrant body, this immigrant person in this landscape.