Article published on June 1, 2017.
Translating as ‘initiation’, kumukanda is the name given to the rites a young boy from the Luvale tribe must pass through before he is considered a man. The poems of Kayo Chingonyi’s remarkable debut explore this passage: between two worlds, ancestral and contemporary; between the living and the dead; between the gulf of who he is and how he is perceived.
Underpinned by a love of music, language and literature, here is a powerful exploration of race, identity and masculinity, celebrating what it means to be British and not British, all at once.
As a poetry fan Jade Craddock pounced on our review copy of Kumukunda and had some questions, to which Kayo Chingonyi graciously replied…
Jade Craddock: Congratulations on your debut poetry collection, Kumukanda, how does it feel to have the finished collection finally in print and going out into the world?
Kayo Chingonyi: Thank you. I’m proud of Kumukanda. It took a while for me to feel that the poems I had written and brought together were a book but now I can hold the thing in my hands. Alan Moore thinks of writers as magicians in that they can take an idea and make it into something tangible and when I have the book in my hands I feel connected to that lineage of literary magicians.
JC: What does poetry mean to you?
KC: Poetry, at its best, is a way of exploring and extending the possibilities of language. In a sense, language cannot do what the poem wants it to do but the best poems can make a reader or listener forget that.
JC: Kumukanda refers to the passing of boys into adulthood, a rite of passage, does the collection symbolise for you a rite of poetic passage of sorts?
KC: The collection is a repository for several formative moments so its being in the world represents a threshold, yes. That’s not to say it is a memoir-in-verse but it does mark a formative time in my life and creativity.
JC: Were the poems written specifically with this collection in mind or have you included poems previously written? And is there an element of having to select the poems that make the cut?
KC: There are poems in the book from two pamphlets published in 2012 and 2016 as well as work which has never been published anywhere else. In a sense my writing from around 2010 onwards has been with a collection in mind but it was in 2013 that I started writing work for this collection specifically; that is when I decided on the title and the atmosphere. As to selecting poems, my editor Parisa Ebrahimi and I had many conversations about the kinships that poems in the collection have with each other. We went back and forth until only those poems that worked together remained. That is the very best way to edit a book of poems, to my mind.
JC: And in terms of creating a collection, are you conscious, when writing, of building a body of work that sits together around a common theme or mood, or does the mood/theme develop from what is written?
KC: Yes, I am. I want to write cohesive bodies of work.
JC: Your verse blends music and poetry both in terms of theme and style, but are there any specific musical/poetic influences that have been particularly important to you?
KC: The song NY State of Mind Pt.2 by Nas and the poem ‘In the Small Hotel’ by Douglas Dunn
JC: You’ve been cited as one of the most important new voices in British poetry, particularly in terms of those who find themselves outside of (what might be perceived as) the ‘dominant poetic culture’, how do you feel about this, do you feel a responsibility to pave the way for other poets?
KC: I feel my only responsibility is to make the best work I can make. I would argue that rap is the dominant poetic culture and I am, therefore, outside nothing since I can write a 16 bar and a sonnet with equal proficiency.
JC: Your poems explore some of the challenges and obstacles of being a black male poet, do you feel as if there’s any progress being made in terms of opening up opportunities for poets from groups traditionally excluded from this ‘dominant culture’ and making poetry both more diverse and accessible for these groups?
KC: Again, what do you mean by ‘dominant culture’ here? If you mean is the white literary establishment finally beginning to pay attention to the world outside itself then, yes. Thankfully there are some ways to be heard without that establishment now and I hope that we will create more dismantling that establishment altogether.
JC: In ‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’, the poem concludes with lines about how your race acts as a barrier to you being perceived or accepted as a poet, is that still the case and what changes would you like to see?
KC: The question that follows this question is: perceived by whom as a poet? Those lines riff on something Seamus Heaney said about Eminem. Considering those comments and ones like them it seems Eminem can be a poet and those who created the culture are not seen as properly literary in the same way although there are so many rappers, who at the level of literary merit and linguistic flair, are better than Eminem (such as Nas, Gift of the Gab, Jean Grae, Black Thought, Yasin Bey, Biggie, Pharoae Monch, Freestyle Fellowship, MF Doom to name just a few). Eminem is good but he is not the best. His whiteness elevates him to that status in certain minds. The same thing happened with Elvis, Chet Baker, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd. All of them owe a massive debt to black creativity but are hailed as innovators or geniuses within a culture that centres whiteness. So, those lines in ‘Self-Portrait…’ are not simply a gripe about how I can’t belong to the club, they are about the foundations of the club.
JC: A number of your poems deal with discrimination, injustice, inequality and I wondered whether you found it difficult to write these poems, to see the prejudices staring back at you on paper, or whether writing them was an act of purging?
KC: I find it difficult to live in a body that some people consider problematic for no good reason. I’m so tired of it, at this point. I never write as an act of purging. As an act of resistance, yes, but not purging.
JC: It’s easy to see the finished poem on the page and think it’s emerged fully formed in a poet’s mind, but how much work goes into shaping and editing a poem and at what point do you know a poem is ready?
KC: The idea of a poem ‘emerging fully formed’ sounds lovely but the practicalities are far more mundane. Most of my poems come together as a function of reading, writing, and redrafting sometimes over a matter of days, sometimes weeks or months, sometimes years. If you take it seriously writing is difficult.
JC: Do you believe poetry is something that can be taught or is it innate?
KC: There are skills that can be nurtured that come in handy if you want to write poetry (it helps if you learn to read the stuff critically, for example). The only thing that can make you a better poet, though, is reading and writing a lot of it. Whether you have a formal education or not you still have to do the work. There is no shortcut and a degree in Classics or English or Creative Writing won’t necessarily help someone who has no interest in the nuances of language to become a great poet.
JC: As a young man engaging with poetry for the first time what were your impressions of the genre and how have they changed?
KC: I’ve always been conscious poetry is broad and in recent years it seems that the literary establishment is beginning to open out and let poetry be as expansive as it’s always been. There are still people editing anthologies full of older white men but they don’t take up all the air in the room anymore.
JC: What inspired you to become a poet and what inspires you as a poet?
KC: My inspiration is the way words sound in combination with each other and how manipulating those combinations can produce a range of effects.
JC: I understand you were born in Zambia and moved to the UK at the age of six, how important are these two different identities to your poetry and how has each formed you and your relationship to poetry?
KC: That is a question I cannot hope to answer in the space afforded me here. My best attempt at an answer is my work.
JC: Some female poets have spoken of the difficulty of using the sonnet form because of its historic association with a white male poetic tradition. You use the form in your poem, 24th October, 1964, which deals with Zambia’s independence, and I wondered how your choice of the sonnet here fed into the poem’s theme and how accessible traditional forms like the sonnet feel for you as a poet?
KC: The sonnet belongs to no single tradition if you look at it as a box shaped minute-long form that incorporates a sense of argument and a turn. This form exists across the world. The use of the sonnet form here and elsewhere in the book is not something I found difficult. If the poem demands a certain form, I’ll use it.
JC: Even today poetry still isn’t as visible or prominent as other types of literature, do you feel enough is done to celebrate and develop poetry? What changes would you like to see to help ensure poetry’s future is bright?
KC: Poetry is hard to commodify. Maybe that’s one of its key strengths. Will it ever make lots of money (which is what ‘prominence’ seems to stand in for in a capitalist society)? Maybe not. Will people ever stop reading, writing, or reciting poetry? No.
JC: Where do you hope your poetry and the poetry world in general will be in ten years’ time?
KC: I hope to be part of a thriving and expansive literary landscape.
JC: What one thing do you hope readers take from Kumukanda?
KC: An appreciation for the transformative qualities of 2step
Many thanks to both Kayo and Jade for their time.
Kumukunda by Kayo Chingonyi, published on 1 June, 2017 by Chatto & Windus, in paperback