“A poem is an audacious thing”

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“ Poetry is almost the currency of feeling in language,” ponders Kayo Chingonyi, Durham University’s very own English lecturer and Dylan Thomas prizewinning poet. “The poem is an event, a happening. A poem is an audacious thing, it demands to be read with the same weight as a thousand-page novel.”

In a corner of Café Capriccio, Chingonyi reflects on being back in the North East; a place he is all too familiar with after a childhood spent around Newcastle, County Durham and Teeside. “The North East is an imaginatively rich place; having the opportunity to interact with it regularly as a teacher is really important to me and quite special. I’ve been really moved by some of the conversations I’ve been able to have with students, about a specific North East identity and how to capture that in poetry.”

In his year spent with the English department, Chingonyi has taught the undergraduate Creative Writing Poetry module and is currently leading the English Literature MA poetry module, in which he is specializing in the African American canon.

“We become too blinkered in our own discipline,” Chingonyi says, moving onto the importance of inter-disciplinary study in English and his plans to weave the humanities and arts into his teachings.

The North East is an imaginatively rich place

After this, it doesn’t take long before the conversation moves to music and poetry. “A poetry collection is very similar to a DJ set,” Chingonyi comments, “it is composed of discrete parts which eventually form a whole.”

Music has been a profound influence on Chingonyi, both in recorded form and as a live experience, ranging from Lynnée Denise to Kendrick Lamar to Jean Grae. As a DJ, Hip Hop emcee, and essayist, his influences are incredibly diverse and inform his poetics as well as his personhood. This extends to the poetry world; his biggest influences have come from writers who have an appreciation of poetry as a narrative and as a “sonically engaging form.” These include his mentors such as Malika Booker, Roger Robinson and Jacob Sam-La-Rose – the list could go on.

He talks a lot about the power of the live experience and how it has parallels with poetry collections. “I’ve listened a lot to the Floating Points and Four Tet closing set at Plastic People in London. They played something like a five-hour set and they travel in that set between a kind of collective mourning for this shared space that no longer exists, and a joy and exuberance and celebration of the nightclub as a space of communion. I think that set is very special in that regard because in those five hours you’re taken in all sorts of different directions.” For Chingonyi, a collection should aim to achieve the same emotional range which can be experienced both collectively and individually a testament to the musicality of his work.

We become too blinkered in our own discipline

When discussing his debut collection: Kumukanda, Chingonyi remembers how much the book developed organically from its original intention. What was meant to be a study in received notions of black masculinity and British identity became much broader as the project matured and incorporated several other themes which pillared the collection. “It was a history of musical culture and in some ways became a celebration of the poetics of place”; Celebration is an apt choice of words.

Something that often features heavily in his work has been the elegy – celebrating life – and how these experiences of joy come from places of intense conflict and hardship. “There’s a pressure on writers who are immigrants to a place to represent a monolithic experience, often in the popular imagination these experiences are skewed towards negativity. The difficulties of assimilation, the difficulty of the crossing, the legal wrangling.” While Chingonyi acknowledges that these narratives are valid, Kumukanda explores the stamina of hardship and the creativity and joy which comes out of these experiences; “Creativity, humour: these are the technologies of survival.”

Another unique facet about Chingonyi’s work is his ability to capture those moments that exist outside the text, sounds which cannot be described or musical notations which cannot be scored.

“Why the colour of James Brown’s Scream?” A silence passes that could easily have been filled by Soul Brother No. 1’s iconic outburst. “It captures that extra textual moment, it’s a riff, an adlib; someone could not accurately re-create that sound. [It is] a gesture to what is outside language.” When asked if this can elicit a physical response in the reader, Chingonyi answers, “There is a ceremonial quality to poetry, it is incantatory.” He gathers himself, “Anything which pushes the listener to suspend their disbelief and create worlds in their mind is trafficking in magic, it is the connecting medium between various art forms, it is the means by which we can create and inspire.”

Space and time is collapsed in poetry

We take it back to the beginning. When discussing his early career, Chingonyi explains what it was about poetry that drew him in and inspired him to experiment with its form and music. “Space and time is collapsed in poetry, there’s an urgency. Other mediums refer to an event, the poem is an event.”

It was a deep admiration of the narrative element of poetry which pushed him to explore it as a career alongside his childhood passion for music. Chingonyi explains that ultimately poetry can be seen in terms of literary sampling, perhaps best summed up by an Oddisee quote cited in Kumukanda:

“When you sample you’re not only picking up that sound, you’re picking up the room it was recorded in.”

“My writing is a celebration of reading, the weirder the two elements are in relation to each other the more unique the thing that’s created. If I’m listening to the Smiths, DJ Shadow and free jazz, then something different is created.” Poetry is not solely about the text, it is about, “the atmosphere that you conjure in your poems” which can be heavily influenced by what you reference.

“What I aspire to be is to be half as good as the people whose work I like.” There’s more than humility in that sentence. There is a drive and fascination to keep evolving as a writer which comes with complete devotion and appreciation of the craft. His most important piece of advice for young writers is to “remember what you found joyful” in the act of creating; to give your ideas the time and space to develop, because the career side of things is often smoke and mirrors. The industry is often more focused on product than process and marketing is valued more than artistic development – something that a number of prominent poets have vocalized recently.

The means by which we can create and inspire

His message to writers is to have a rationale when it comes to your career. Always question yourself. Be specific and intentional.

Images via Kayo Chingonyi

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