Poet Erica Dawson is aware of how her chosen form is viewed in the world at large.
“When a writer mentions they have written a novel, people ask where they can find the book,” Dawson says. “You tell someone you’re a poet, and they start to back away from you.”
Of course, for many readers, poetry has meant the school-required recitations of rhymed verse from dead white guys. In Dawson’s latest book, “When Rap Spoke Straight to God,” there are references to Lil’ Kim lyrics and tributes to Eve and other under-represented women in the Bible as well as recollections from Dawson’s own childhood.
Dawson was raised a Seventh-day Adventist, and there was “a lot of church a lot of the time,” she says.
The daughter of a cop and a government worker, the Howard County native also learned an appreciation for literature.
“We had way more reading time than TV time,” she says. This was encouraged by the young bibliophile’s mother, who introduced Dawson to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe (“Every Maryland kid gets to know ‘The Raven’ very well”) and other poets. For her, the musicality of the form stuck — even though the poems themselves were from different times and writers who looked nothing like her.
Now the director of the University of Tampa’s Low-Residency M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Dawson began her literary career as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University and later earned an M.F.A. from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. She started her studies with the hopes of becoming a novelist but found herself once again riveted by the “crystalized moments of poetry,” she says.
“I like the fact that you have to do a lot in a small amount of space,” she says. “You have to get in and get out quickly.”
But writing her current book was hardly a quick turnaround. Dawson, who likes to constantly one up her last effort, thought she would try something longer than the works included in her two previous books of poetry. Then another writer dared her to write a book-length poem.
“Once someone dares me, I’m going to do it,” she says.
(For the record, “book-length” means 52 pages, including “Acknowledgements.”)
She began the poem several years ago, but the 2016 elections and the racial and class divisions that became “palpable” in her current hometown of Tampa, Florida, “really started to fuel the project.” The book, in fact, is Dawson’s response. She admits the divisiveness started making her wonder, “Isn’t there supposed to be an ultimate creator who is protecting us?”
As current events inspire her writing, so do the current group of poets whose work is finding its way to book pages. Like Dawson, many of them are African-American, including our national poet laureate Tracy K. Smith and accolade-earning contemporaries such as Morgan Parker (“There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé”) and Ross Gay (“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” a 2015 finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry).
“It absolutely feels like a moment, and it feels like a necessary moment,” Dawson says. “Not that there hasn’t been a space, but now it’s important to put minority voices out there and hear from all kinds of people in all kinds of places. … It’s time for us to make sure we are being heard. We have things to say. … I feel lucky to be a small part of it.”
Dawson also admits to feeling optimistic about poetry and technology, despite being an “old school” writer who pens her initial drafts on legal pads and is someone who does not own an electronic reader. She is inspired by the fact that her students can find poetry online — and from a diverse mix of poets, too. This will help to break down the barriers between readers and poets, and help poetry lose its exclusive reputation, she says.
“It makes me happy that there is such an internet presence for poetry,” she says.
What’s next for the writer? A break. After Dawson wrote her first book, she immediately started her second. That approach didn’t work for her.
“I was in a hurry. I was like, ‘OK, I’ve done this once, I’ve got to do it again,’” she says. “That got me nowhere.”
Now that her third book is on shelves, Dawson says want to “let my brain relax for a bit” and experience life before she tackles another writing project.
After all, she says, “that’s what grows a poem.”
3 to Read:
- “Wade in the Water,” Tracy K. Smith – The most recent book from our nation’s poet laureate is “mind blowing,” Dawson says. “It’s one of those things where you don’t understand how that kind of art can rise up out of a person.”
- “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” Terrance Hayes – This poet is “magical all the time,” Dawson says.
- “Junk,” Tommy Pico – What Dawson describes as a “wild ride” is the third book from this Native American poet and one of NPR’s most anticipated books of 2018.