Dawes named Jamaica’s next Poet Laureate


Troy Fedderson, April 12, 2024

Dawes named Jamaica’s next Poet Laureate

Kwame Dawes, George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner magazine at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has been named the next Poet Laureate of Jamaica.

The appointment was announced April 9 by Olivia “Babsy” Grange, minister of culture, gender, entertainment and sport for Jamaica. Dawes was selected through a public nomination process, followed by a vote from a seven-member committee organized by the National Library of Jamaica.

Dawes said the appointment is a “tremendous honor,” especially as he is a great admirer of Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison and Mervyn Morris, a trio of Jamaican writers and previous poet Laureates for the island nation.

“There are many honors one can receive as an artist and as a poet, but one that expresses a nation’s valuing and appreciation of who you are and what you have done is easily at the top for me,” Dawes said. “I have never stopped seeking ways to serve Jamaica, and I believe this honor offers me even more opportunities.”

Dawes will serve in the role for three years, through 2027.

“Dr. Dawes has been a cultural ambassador and a global leader who uses the power of words to illuminate the human experience and expand access to literary excellence,” Chancellor Rodney D. Bennett said. “This is a well-deserved honor, and I am certain that his tenure as Poet Laureate of Jamaica will be outstanding.”

Video: Kwame Dawes reading his poem, “Purple” as part of the Dear Poet 2022 series. The poem is part of Dawes’ book, “Nebraska.”

Dawes was born in Ghana, Africa, and grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. He is an internationally acclaimed poet, editor, critic and musician whose work has explored multiple themes, including identity, migration and the human experience. He is the author of 35 books of poetry, two novels, several anthologies and his essays have been featured in numerous publications, including the Washington Post and USA Today.

Dawes joined the University of Nebraska–Lincoln as the Chancellor’s Professor of English in 2011. His long list of accomplishments includes the Windham-Campbell Prize, 2004 Musgrave Medal, 2009 Emmy Award for a multimedia documentary on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the University of Nebraska’s 2019 Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award.

“Through the power, grace, and insights of his poetry and his prodigious record of professional editing and other writings, Kwame Dawes has consistently brought international recognition and widespread acclaim to the University of Nebraska and the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences,” said Mark Button, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Dr. Dawes’s appointment as the next Poet Laureate of Jamaica is a most deserving honor for a scholar, artist, teacher, mentor, and leader of uncommon brilliance whom we are proud to have as a colleague.”

Dawes is founder of the African Poetry Book Fund, which promotes the development and publication of African poetry. He is also co-founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival, and a former chancellor of the American Academy of Poets.

In 2021, Dawes and his wife, Lorna Dawes, associate professor of University Libraries, received a $750,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation award to expand the African Poetry Digital Portal. Established in 2017, the project documents the work of African poets and provides digital access to related creative and intellectual artifacts, materials and research.

Kwame and Lorna Dawes
Kwame Dawes, George Homes Distinguished Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner, and Lorna Dawes, associateprofessor in the University Libraries. Annie Albin / University Communication

And, in 2022, Dawes was awarded the Order of Distinction Commander class by the Jamaican government. The honor is reserved for Jamaican citizens who have demonstrated a record of outstanding service to the nation and its people.

“UNL has always allowed me the space to be a writer and scholar here in Nebraska and around the world, and I like to think that this anchoring has benefited the university as much as it has benefited me,” Dawes said. “The more UNL and Nebraska become open to the rich artistic and intellectual power of the world, the greater we become in our service to the world.”

Marco Abel, chair of the Department of English, agreed that Dawes’ commitment to championing creative writing from around the globe — and in particular from Africa and its diaspora — has yielded tremendous benefits for the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

“The fact that the Department of English at UNL has become arguably the hub in the U.S. for the study of African Poetics is due to Kwame Dawes’ singular vision, one that is embodied as much in his remarkable creative oeuvre as it is in his dedication to forge the kind of institutional structures that have made it viable in the first place for highly talented students from abroad to even consider making Lincoln their temporary intellectual home,” Abel said. “The creative and scholarly connections and initiatives, not least the multi-pronged African Poetry Book Fund, he has established over the last decade between Nebraska and the world have been a tremendous boon to our department and the university. It is easy to imagine how he will use his time as Poet Laureate of Jamaica to intensify these global collaborations.”

Dawes said he has started to form a dynamic and imaginative team in Jamaica which will help develop initiatives for his time as poet laureate.

“We will seek to celebrate the poetry of Jamaica, create greater engagement with poetry among Jamaicans at all walks of life, and secure the historical legacy of poetry of Jamaica in ways that will make the artistic legacy of that country accessible to Jamaican people,” Dawes said. “ ‘Talk yuh talk’ is my admonition to all Jamaicans.”

Dawes next work, “Sturge Town,”, is a book of poetry that releases in the United States in June.

Learn more about Dawes and his recent work.