To celebrate the launch of our new website, The Cadaverine will publish a series of monthly interviews with contemporary writers, editors and creative arts facilitators. Over the course of the series we hope the interviews will become a readily available resource; a body of informative and inspirational perspectives from experienced practitioners. There is no substitute for sound advice and in this series we will ask the questions most relevant to developing and emerging writers. We welcome comments and further questions from readers and sincerely hope you find the series beneficial.
Kayo Chingonyi was born in Zambia in 1987, moving to the UK in 1993. He holds a BA in English Literature from The University of Sheffield and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London and works as a writer, events producer, and creative writing tutor. His poems have been published in a range of magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Magma, Wasafiri, The Best British Poetry 2011 and 2013 (Salt Publishing, 2011 and 2013), The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt Publishing, 2011), Out Of Bounds (Bloodaxe, 2012),The World Record (Bloodaxe, 2012), and in a debut pamphlet entitled Some Bright Elegance (Salt Publishing, 2012). Kayo has also been invited to read from his work at venues and events across the UK and internationally. In 2012 he represented Zambia at Poetry Parnassus, a festival of world poets staged by The Southbank Centre as part of the London 2012 Festival. He was recently awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and shortlisted for the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize.
You represented Zambia in the Poetry Parnassus last year which must have been awesome! Can you tell us a bit about that experience and also how moving to the UK at such a young age informs you as a poet and as a British Zambian?
I was a little daunted by the idea of representing Zambia but I felt honoured to be asked and the process also prompted me to seek out the work of Zambian poets I hadn’t come across before as well as to explore the initiation rites that give my new manuscript its title (Kumukanda). The festival itself was one of the best weeks of my life. I was listening to exceptional work from all over the world and I felt part, in some small way, of a larger community of poets than I have access to in the UK alone. Poetry Parnassus made me want to travel more and also to push my sense of what poems are for. The highlight for me, aside from the numerous brilliant readings, was the party on the last night at which poets from all over the world danced together. As to your question about migration, I'd say that moving to the UK at such a formative time has been invaluable as far as my writing is concerned. If I had stayed in Zambia I don't think I would be pursuing writing in quite the same way. Moving at the age of six also meant I grew up fascinated by the English Language and that I now have the double consciousness of one who is both inside and outside of the dominant language. This has proved a fruitful position in terms of exploring what language can do and continues to inform my writing.
This has been a really positive year for you with some well-deserved recognition, I’m referring in particular to the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and the Brunel University African Poetry Prize shortlist. How does this motivate you as a writer?
Thank you. Yes, it has been a year in which things seem to be coming together in terms of the work getting some attention. Prizes, in and of themselves, don't motivate me, but it's lovely to receive that validation. I keep writing to satisfy the critical part of me that always wants to be better and is never satisfied with my previous work. Every now and then I look at something I've written and feel that it has lived up to the potential of its gestation; that is the kind of prize that motivates me. I do think about entering my work into competitions (and have entered a few in the past) but, in the main, I focus on writing stuff that I can stand by. I suppose, and perhaps I'm naive in this, I believe that true recognition comes after putting in the hard work and time that it takes to make something great. I'm not there yet.
We've just interviewed Nathalie Teitler, who is the director of the Complete Works II in which you are one of the mentored poets. Tell us a bit about the experience of the mentoring programme so far and how it has developed you as a poet?
I'm very grateful to be part of The Complete Works II. The thing I like most, besides challenging my previous work and creating the space for new modes in my repertoire, is the focus of the process on defining or perhaps refining what it is I do as a poet. The retreat at Arvon and the regular seminars helped me to ask difficult questions of my existing work. Working with Anthony Joseph is good for me because our respective approaches to poetry are quite different.
At the Cadaverine, we’re always interested to learn of writers’ experiences in education, be that at the formal institutional level or through organisations such as the Arvon Trust and Poetry School. Do you feel studying English at undergraduate and pursuing an MA in Creative Writing has improved your writing? I suppose the question we’re interested in is could you have written Some Bright Elegance without it?
Studying English Literature has been very helpful in terms of giving me a broad sense of what has been done and what spaces remain relatively unexplored. At the time of studying, when I was in my late teens/early twenties, I found the process of placing my own work beside the work on the syllabus very difficult, but after the course I realized how this difficulty allowed me to work through a range of different ways of writing and perspectives on what writing is for. I don't really think the MA ‘improved’ my writing (though going back to Literary Theory was good for the critical side of my writing life). I studied for an MA at a time when I had been writing for a while. The MA gave me confidence in what I was doing as well as the kind of uninterrupted thinking time, and by extension space, necessary to finish Some Bright Elegance. Would the book be the same without this process? Probably not. I'm certain I would have written it anyway, but it might have taken longer than it did without the discipline that literary study, eventually, instilled in me.
Let’s move onto Some Bright Elegance: tell us a bit about the process, working with Salt, how long the pamphlet was in the making, and how you made critical editorial choices such as which poems to pick/omit and general typesetting, ordering choices?
The process of the pamphlet from its first inkling to publication was long in one sense (the idea of my working on a pamphlet with Roddy Lumsden as editor was suggested around 2008 when he was still editing the Pilot pamphlet series for Tall Lighthouse). In this time I developed earlier poems and worked on new ones. The manuscript that became Some Bright Elegance took about a year to come together. A few of the poems were written in my late teens and some were written in the two to four years preceding the publication of the pamphlet. The best way to explain the ordering of the pamphlet is that I spent a lot of time making mixtapes as a teenager and I decided on the order using a similar sensibility: how does one poem speak to the one after it? What is the thread holding everything together? These questions were always in my mind as publication drew closer and closer. As to typesetting, the prose poems took some adjustment until they looked right. The other poems were pretty comfortable in their forms by the time it came to proofs.
Throughout Some Bright Elegance, what sticks out is the marriage between contemporary parlance and form and the ease with which you traverse the, perhaps artificial, boundaries of ‘high’ and pop culture. I think what SBE accomplishes, and accomplishes convincingly, is to challenge the old emphasis on ‘developing a voice’ by suggesting the narrowness of such a demand. There are distinct voices that at the same time share the same identity while individually shaping it. Do you think the breadth of your poetry reflects the extensions to identity that are part of the diaspora poet?
I've always been puzzled by the idea of a single authorial voice (as puzzled as I am by the idea of a stable identity). If I think about how much of what I think I know is a borrowing or approximation of what others have said or things I've misheard or misunderstood it becomes difficult to think of the physical voice I speak with, and the words I speak, as being 'mine' in that simplistic formulation. Thinking about these things calls to mind one of my favourite writerly maxims from Yusef Komunyakaa: 'Don't write what you know; write what you are willing to discover'. For me that dictum is about being open as a human being, having the capacity for empathy, and following that through in our writing so that it is not one voice we speak with but as many voices as we can imagine.
There is a musicality to your work which heightens the scholarship, and maybe even grounds it? How important is music to your work?
I got into poetry after I had been steeped for some time in Hip Hop culture. I wrote raps and freestyled almost every day. I listened over and over to the same few CDs (much to the chagrin of my family). As a result, there are a lot of song lyrics in my head. When it comes to writing in other forms it's natural that this way of ordering words in terms of sonic patterning should show itself. I don't employ musical references in a conscious way; it's just that I can't go very long without mentioning music. In terms of your question as to whether music grounds the work: I do like the way a well-timed allusion to song can invoke in a manner that is more visceral than mere description. That isn't to say exceptional description is not visceral (Junot Diaz’s work says otherwise as does Alice Oswald’s; her descriptive élan in Memorial is a great source of envy for me).
What advice do you have for our readership, particularly our emerging and developing young writers?
If you take something like writing seriously, especially in the UK where self deprecation is a national pastime, people will try to discourage you (either through concern that you are putting your energy into something that carries a risk of 'failure' or jealousy that they do not have your conviction). If you are serious about writing don't let small things get in the way of that. It is, of course, for you to decide what constitutes a small thing (and, for that matter, what serious means).
Who/what are you reading now?
Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by Adam Bradley. I hope to write a review essay in response at some point.