Mapmaking: The Poetic Art of Kwame Dawes

A Retrospective

Tree ring print art by Kendall McMinimy

Art © Kendall McMinimy

In light of the growing concerns around COVID-19, we've made the difficult decision to postpone the Kwame Dawes Mapmaking events scheduled for March 18-20, 2020.

Our top priority is always the health and safety of our campus and community. We apologize for this inconvenience, but thank you for understanding.

Schedule of Events

Information will be posted here as it becomes available

About Kwame Dawes

Kwame DawesBorn in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood and early adult life in Jamaica. He is a writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and plays. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of Ghana, citing in an interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius remains the most authoritative study of the lyrics of Bob Marley. Of his twenty-two collections of poetry, his most recent titles include, Tangling with the Epic (2019), Nebraska (2019), City of Bones: A Testament (2017), Duppy Conqueror (2013), shortlisted for the PEN Open Book Award; Wheels (2011); Back of Mount Peace (2009); Hope’s Hospice (2009); Wisteria, finalist for the Patterson Memorial Prize; Impossible Flying (2007); and Gomer’s Song (2007). Progeny of Air (1994) was the winner of the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection in the UK. Other poetry collections include Resisting the Anomie (1995); Prophets (1995); Jacko Jacobus (1996); Requiem (1996), a suite of poems inspired by the illustrations of African American artist Tom Feelings in his landmark book The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo; and Shook Foil (1998), a collection of reggae-inspired poems. His book, Midland, was awarded the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize by the Ohio University Press (2001). Dawes was a winner of a Pushcart Prize for the best American poetry of 2001 for his long poem, “Inheritance.” Other collections include, Vuelo: Poemas, a translation by Gustavo Osorio, and Speak from Here to There: Poems, written along with John Kinsella. Dawes and Kinsella have collaborated on two other additional collections, A New Beginning (2018) and Tangling with the Epic (2019), which was a Poetry Society Selection in 2020. The fourth in the critically acclaimed collaboration, In the Names of Our Families, will be released in 2020. His recent collection, Nebraska (UNP, 2019), is a traverse into the intersection of memory, home, and artistic invention. He was also among the 2018 recipients for the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry. In 2018, Dawes was named an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the UK.

He has published three novels: The Mountain and The Sea (2020), Bivouac (2009), and She’s Gone (2007), winner of the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Best First Novel; and a collection of short stories, A Place to Hide and Other Stories (2002). In 2007, he released A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock: A Personal Narrative. His essays have appeared in numerous journals including Bomb Magazine, The London Review of Books, The Washington Post, Granta, Essence, World Literature Today, and Double Take Magazine. In 2019, Akashic Books released a US edition of Bivouac, and in 2020 Audible Books released The Mountain and the Sea as a part of its “straight to audio” series.

Dawes is also the editor of several anthologies: Bearden’s Odyssey: Poets Respond to the Art of Romare Bearden (2017), A Bloom of Stones: A Tri-Lingual Anthology of Haitian Poems After the Earthquake (2020), New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Boxset (2017), When the Rewards Can Be So Great: Essays on Writing and the Writing Life (2016), Hold Me to an Island: Caribbean Place: An Anthology of Writing, Home is Where: An Anthology of African American Poetry from the Carolinas (2011), and Red: Contemporary Black Poetry (2010). As founder of the African Poetry Book Fund, he has overseen the publishing of the poetry collections of almost 100 African poets over the past five years through his work as series editor with the University of Nebraska Press and Akashic Books. For his literary activist work over the years and for his role in advancing the literary arts, Dawes has had such recognition as the Poets and Writers Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award (2012), the UNESCO Paul Engle’s Award (2013), The Musgrave Silver Medal in Jamaica (2008), the Elizabeth O’Neil Verner Governors Award for the Arts (SC) (2008) and the Gwendolyn Brook Awards at the National Black Writers Conference (2018). In 2009 he was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.

In 2009, Dawes won an Emmy for, an interactive site based on his Pulitzer Center project, HOPE: Living and loving with AIDS in Jamaica. It has also won other accolades, including a People’s Voice Webby Award, and was the inspiration for the music/spoken word performance of Wisteria & HOPE which premiered at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina. In 2011, Dawes reported on HIV AIDS after the earthquake in Haiti; and his poems, blogs, articles, and documentary work were a key part of the post-earthquake Haiti reporting by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting that won the National Press Club Joan Friedenberg Award for Online Journalism.

Dawes is an actor, playwright, producer, an accomplished storyteller, broadcaster, and was the lead singer in Ujamaa, a reggae band. Fifteen of his plays have been produced, and he has acted in, directed, or produced several of these productions himself. In 2001, his play, One Love, opened at the Lyric Hammersmith in London which was commissioned by Talawa, Britain’s leading black theatre company, and inspired by Roger Mais’ classic novel Brotherman.

Dawes joined the faculty at UNL in 2011 and was the recipient of the ORCA, the university’s most prestigious award for outstanding research and creative activity in 2019. Dawes is the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska, where he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English. He teaches in the Pacific MFA Program in Oregon.

Wisteria: Twilight Songs from Swamp Country

Nebraska Premiere

A collaborative narrative and musical performance featuring Dr. Kwame Dawes with music by award-winning composer Dr. Kevin Simmonds paying homage to the voices of women who lived during the era of Jim Crow America with the raw honesty of people who have waited a long time to speak their mind. This performance represents the Nebraska Premiere of this major work.


In Wisteria, Kwame Dawes finds poignant meaning in the landscape and history of Sumter, a small town in central South Carolina. Here the voices of women who lived through most of the twentieth century—teachers, beauticians, seamstresses, domestic workers and farming folk—unfold with the raw honesty of people who have waited for a long time to finally speak their mind. The poems move with the narrative force of stories long repeated but told with fresh emotion each time, with the lyrical depth of a blues threnody or a negro spiritual, and with the flame and shock of a prophet forced to speak the hardest truths. These are poems of beauty and insight, that pay homage to the women who told Dawes their stories, and that, at the same time, find a path beyond these specific narratives to something embracingly human. Few poets have managed to enter the horror of Jim Crow America with the fresh insight and sharply honed detail that we see in Dawes’s writing.

Cover of WISTERIA by Kwame Dawes


Valetta Brinson is from Memphis where she is Associate Professor of Music at Southwest Tennessee Community College. She performs regularly in recitals featuring Negro spirituals, art songs and arias in the US and abroad. She also sings jazz, soul and pop with the Soundscape Band as a featured artist.

Caitlin Edwards began studying the violin at the age of eight, through the Music Opportunity Program in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2018, she was awarded the Rising Star award from the Gateways Music Festival and helped lead the Nairobi Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, the first live ballet/orchestra production in Kenyan history. She played in movie score of Disney’s The Lion King, and has performed and recorded with artists such as Lauryn Hill, Common, PJ Morton, Yolanda Adams, and India Arie. A featured soloist in the 2020 PBS “Dreams of Hope” documentary, Caitlin is currently based in Chicago and enjoys performing regularly throughout the city.

Maritri Garrett is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and educator from Southern California. She spent twenty years in New York as a professional musician and bandleader. She attended Fisk University, where she was Jubilee Singer, and Howard University, and holds a BA in Biology, a BS in Composition and an MFA in Jazz Studies.

Flutist and composer Allison Loggins-Hull maintains an active career performing and creating music of multiple genres. Praised for being able “to redefine the instrument…” (The Wall Street Journal), she is the co-founder of the critically acclaimed ensemble, Flutronix. She has performed with an array of artists including Imani Winds and the International Contemporary Ensemble, and can be heard on the soundtrack to Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King. As a composer, she has been commissioned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alarm Will Sound and Carolina Performing Arts.

A native of South Carolina currently residing in Summerville, Celia Teasdel Johnson is pursuing a graduate degree in Performing Arts-Choral Conducting at the University of South Carolina. She also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Music Appreciation at the WL Bonner Bible College in Columbia, SC. She enjoys traveling, reading and spending quality time with her family, especially her husband and two children.

Valerie Johnson holds the Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Master of Music in Vocal Performance from Howard University. A soprano soloist specializing in the classical repertoire, Negro spirituals, American art song, and sacred music, she has championed newly commissioned works throughout the US, the UK, Japan, and the Caribbean at venues such as the Kennedy Center, Southbank Centre, Tono American Music Festival (Japan), and the National Black Theatre Festival. For 20 years she served as Professor of Voice and College Choir Director at Bennett College and is now Professor of Voice at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. In demand as a performer, clinician, motivational speaker and certified Life Design Catalyst, she released her book, Wow, I Needed to Know THAT! The Manual for Embracing a Powerful Life Without Limits, in 2019.

Juliette Jones is a multi-genre live and studio recording violinist. A BMI composer, she has scored, recorded and contracted for a number of live, television and multimedia events, including the Oscar-nominated film Mudbound (Dee Rees), NBC’s broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar, the world premiere of the Geva Theater-commissioned play, The Agitators (Mat Smart/Logan Vaughn), and Solange Knowles’ Hollywood Bowl and Radio City Music Hall performances of A Seat at the Table. As a performer, Juliette has worked with a veritable list of "who's who" in the music industry, including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Lizzo, Janelle Monáe, Hans Zimmer, John Legend, and One Republic. She is the founder of Rootstock Republic, a boutique, broad-based string production company specializing in consulting, contracting, music preparation, live performance and studio recording.

Commanding an uncanny ability to “write what she hears,” Nicole Neely is described as gifted in compositional musical realms. A graduate of the University of South Carolina, she earned a Bachelor of Music Education and a Masters of Education from Columbia College. At the beginning of her music career, she worked as a music educator, both on the K-12 and collegiate level, as well as a conductor, clinician, and arranger. She has successfully carved a path within the music industry as a composer, arranger, and live musician. She continues to grace world-renowned stages and platforms with her musical gifts, including the Hollywood Bowl as arranger and conductor for Lauryn Hill (2019), string arranger for Toni Braxton’s AMA performance (2019), Camilla Cabello’s feature on VH1 Storytellers (2019), along with a recent appearance on the 62th Grammy Awards with Lizzo (2020) on viola.

Kevin Simmonds is a writer and musician originally from New Orleans. His books include Mad for Meat and Bend to it, the anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, and the edited edition of poet Carrie Allen McCray’s Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof. His forthcoming book, The Monster I am Today, considers the life of famed opera singer Leontyne Price. His chamber works and choral compositions have been commissioned by the Creative Work Fund, Pulitzer Center and the University of Cincinnati, and been performed throughout the US, the UK and Japan.

Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Aaron Stokes made his musical start on a 20-dollar Fisher-Price keyboard, eventually leading him to the cello where he embarked on his journey through classical studies. His dedication to his instrument has led to notable performances at Carnegie Hall, The Grammys, The United Nations Headquarters, Lincoln Center, and Radio City Music Hall, performing alongside top artists such as Solange Knowles, Chris Martin and The Kronos Quartet, and alternating between pop and classical genres. He recently debuted as a cellist and pianist with the Collaborative Arts Ensemble at the Ubumuntu Arts Festival in Kigali, Rwanda.

The Intersection of Memory, Home, and Artistic Invention: Conversation and Readings with Chris Abani

Kwame Dawes in conversation with acclaimed novelist and poet Northwestern University Professor Chris Abani and a celebration premiere of Kwame Dawes' newest collection of poems, Nebraska, published by the University of Nebraska Press.


About Chris Abani

Chris Abani’s books of fiction include The Secret History of Las Vegas, Song For Night, The Virgin of Flames, Becoming Abigail, Graceland, and Masters of the Board. His poetry collections are Sanctificum, There Are No Names for Red, Feed Me The Sun: Collected Long Poems, Hands Washing Water, Dog Woman, Daphne’s Lot,, and Kalakuta Republic. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the PEN Beyond the Margins Award, the Hurston Wright Award, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, among many honors. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Romanian, Hebrew, Macedonian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Dutch, Bosnian, and Serbian.

More Information

Chris Abani
Cover of NEBRASKA by Kwame Dawes

About Nebraska

In Nebraska, this beautiful and evocative collection of poems, Dawes explores a theme constant in his work—the intersection of memory, home, and artistic invention. The poems, set against the backdrop of Nebraska’s discrete cycle of seasons, are meditative even as they search for a sense of place in a new landscape. While he shovels snow or walks in the bitter cold to his car, he is engulfed with memories of Kingston, yet when he travels, he finds himself longing for the open space of the plains and the first snowfall. With a strong sense of place and haunting memories, Dawes grapples with life in Nebraska as a transplant.

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Exhibition and Celebration of the Collaborations and Works of Kwame Dawes

A culmination of week-long art exhibition inspired by Kwame Dawes' book Punta del Burro with artist Jon Gregg. This event celebration will feature the collaborative works of Kwame Dawes, including his work as editor of the renowned Prairie Schooner, his directorship of the African Poetry Book Fund, and the collaboration with the University of Nebraska Press, and his many projects as editor and literary activist.


Page from PUNTA DEL BURRO with artwork and handwritten poem
Artwork and handwritten poems from Punta del Burro
Copy of PUNTA DEL BURRO on display
Punta del Burro
With drawings by Jon Gregg
Poems by Kwame Dawes
Newark, Vermont: Janus Press, 2018.

In 2012, when at the Vermont Studio Center, Kwame Dawes saw a set of twenty-four Vallarta Drawings VSC Founder Jon Gregg had made in the town of Punta del Burro, outside of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He requested and received a set of the photocopies and Dr. Dawes subsequently wrote poems around the drawings directly on the 11 x 17" sheets.

Jon Gregg is well-known as the founder and president of the Vermont Studio Center, the largest artist retreat in the United States located in Johnson, VT. In the 33 years Gregg ran VSC he was also actively painting in his studio of the retreat. His paintings utilize Buddhist principles, treating the act of painting as a meditative practice, each resulting piece free of attachment and permanence.