Prof. Kwame Dawes wins 2021 PEN America Literary Awards

Prof. Kwame Dawes wins 2021 PEN America Literary Awards

Kwame Dawes, an internationally acclaimed poet and professor of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has been awarded the biennial PEN/Nora Magid Award for his editorship of the Prairie Schooner.

The award was announced on March 23. Dawes and the other four honorees will be recognized during the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony, online at 6 p.m. CDT on April 8.

Dawes has served as Glenna Luschei Editor of the Nebraska literary journal since his arrival at the university in 2011.

He and the Prairie Schooner editorial staff have been working quietly over the past 10 years to revolutionize the 90-year-old journal — integrating technology into its processes, giving voice to a more diverse array of poets and authors, and establishing the journal as an international presence.

It’s gratifying to have those efforts be recognized by an organization as internationally esteemed as PEN, Dawes said. This is not an award one applies for, he added.

“National editorial prizes are very few and far between; a prize for editorship of a journal is a very unique honour,” he said. “I didn’t know until I was notified of the prize that I had been under consideration for it. It is gratifying that people recognize the work we’re doing for the Prairie Schooner. The Prairie Schooner has been around for 90 years, and journals like ours can be taken for granted.”

Founded in 1922 and headquartered in New York City, PEN America is a nonprofit organization that works to defend and celebrate free expression in the United States and worldwide through the advancement of literature and human rights.

The biennial PEN/Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing recognizes an editor whose high literary standards and tastes have contributed to the excellence of the publication they edit. Judges described Dawes as a “bold and visionary editor” who has “proved the ongoing validity of the literary journal and taken it to new places.”

“For a decade, (the Prairie Schooner) has consistently published work that is rigorous, aesthetically diverse and compelling,” the judges wrote. “At a time when we constantly hear laments for the death of reading at the hands of technology, Dawes’ work suggests that with enough energy and imagination, the landscape can be rearranged.”

Dawes said the PEN award is particularly meaningful for him.

PEN is a lifeline for many writers around the world, supporting those who brave censorship, detention, incarceration for their work,” Dawes said. “To be associated with an organization with that at its core, I value that a great deal.”

Dawes was one of five literary luminaries recognized in the March 23 PEN announcement. Other honorees were director, playwright and producer George C. Wolfe, PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award; Canadian poet, essayist and translator Anne Carson, PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature; multidisciplinary artist and playwright Daniel Alexander Jones, PEN/Laura Pells International Foundation for Theater Award; translator Pierre Joris, PEN/Manheim Award for Translation.

Dawes was born in Ghana and his family moved to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1971, where his father became deputy director of the Institute of Jamaica. He holds a doctoral degree in English from the University of New Brunswick and previously taught at the University of South Carolina, where he was Distinguished Poet in Residence and Director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, among other roles. He is the founding editor of the African Poetry Book Fund, an initiative created in 2014 to bring more attention to the work of African poets.

He has won many prizes over his career, including an Emmy in 2009 for his project documenting HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, a Pushcart Prize for poetry in 2001 and a Windham-Campbell Literature Prize in Poetry in 2019. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2018.

He recently assumed the editorship of the American Life in Poetry newspaper column established by Nebraska poet Ted Kooser in 2005 as U.S. Poet Laureate.

Some of the changes Dawes shepherded for the Prairie Schooner included embracing technology in ways that are useful and valuable to the dissemination of literature, as well as a conscious effort to internationalize the journal while honouring its Nebraska roots. He credits the leadership of longtime editor Hilda Raz and poet Glenna Luschei, who provided an endowment to cover the journal’s cost of production.

“That created a latitude and freedom and stability for the journal,” he said. “I inherited that and I’m grateful to be a steward and custodian of that.”

By using a technology called Submittable, the journal receives submissions from writers all around the world. It’s not surprising for an issue to contain a poem about soy sauce in Guam along with a short story about a failed marijuana grower set in Michigan.

“It’s a journal from Nebraska, from the Midwest, from the U.S. — but it’s valued in the world,” he said. “The regionalism of the Prairie Schooner is a reality, but it’s a conversation that’s influenced by those who have their own narratives, back and forth over miles, over cultures, over regions.”

“Our editors pay attention to regions, to voices, to all the ways people think of themselves. It’s not a ‘best of.’ I’m curating a good read, once a quarter, with a range of voices, wonderful literature, well done and varied. That’s my goal.”