Prof. Dawes

Professor Kwame Dawes poses for a portrait in his office in Andrews Hall on April 18, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor’s professor of English Kwame Dawes has had a comprehensive career as an author, poet, playwright and Emmy Award-winning documentarian. As of September of 2020, the literary maestro has another title on his lengthy resume: editor of the acclaimed newspaper column “American Life in Poetry.” 

The column was originally founded by Ted Kooser, Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. After his 805th column, Kooser stepped down, naming Kwame Dawes editor.

“I am enthusiastic about how much good work has been done with the Poetry Foundation and the next stage of this remarkable project, and I think people will find it a splendid opportunity to encounter poetry in the way that Ted Kooser imagined it,” Dawes said in an email. 

According to The Poetry Foundation, Kooser originally set out in 2005 with “American Life in Poetry” to expand poetry to general readership in newspapers. Dawes said he has every intention of maintaining this atmosphere with his undertaking of the column.

“My goal is to keep [the column] going every week, and if I manage that, it will mean that a whole new cadre of poets will be introduced to new readers,” Dawes said. “I hope we can add more newspapers and publishing entities to our list of subscribers and users of the syndication. And I hope we can add more everyday subscribers to our weekly newsletter.”

Dawes has been named “the busiest man in literature” by the Lincoln Journal Star, based on a myriad of published works that include poetry, fictional stories and even a few plays. 

“Obviously, that title is an absurd line, and should be taken in with humor. I am busy, I am not sure balance is what I am seeking. I try to get things done, I make lists, I make more lists and I work to shorten the lists,” Dawes said. “I learned a long time ago to make my passions my work.  Not all of us can do that. I have been fortunate enough to see that formula work in much of what I do.”

According to Marco Abel, a decade-long colleague of Dawes and English department chair at UNL, the original integrity of colloquial tonation that defined “American Life in Poetry” will certainly be maintained with Dawes. However, Abel hopes Dawes will expand the readership and artistry within “American Life in Poetry” to a more diverse audience. 

“The way I imagine that Professor Dawes will change American life and poetry is that he will transform the readership a little bit by putting greater emphasis on questions of diversity of poetic voices,” Abel said. “After all, the column is called ‘American Life in Poetry,’ and that begs the question What is America? Who is American? In that regard, it is absolutely imperative that a greater diversity of voices is being recognized and published in this space.”

Along with a greater emphasis on diversity, Abel said Dawes will also aid in expanding print media and poetry to a more interactive digital platform in order to maintain and gain readership.

“Within the context of American life and poetry, one of the things that will work well, that we will see in the near future, is a much greater emphasis in a more strategic deployment of digital spaces,” Abel said.

According to Abel, Professor Dawes and the Poetry Foundation have been working hard to redesign the web platform for “American Life in Poetry” in order to make it more accessible and interactive for future readers. 

Both Dawes and Abel said they look forward to the future of poetry juxtaposed with print media. Despite the growing number of newspapers going digital or out of business, Abel and Dawes have high hopes in print media’s ability to utilize poetry to reach audiences. 

Regardless of technological advances and changes in leadership, Dawes said he will ensure the legacy of “American Life in Poetry” maintains its integrity throughout the years. 

“Poetry has been with us for as long as we know. When paper was invented, we found a way to use that technology. When the pen was invented, we found a way to use that technology,” Dawes said. “I think the new technologies will ensure that we see the best and most creative uses of these technologies to celebrate poetry.”