A bit of talk – with Kayo Chingonyi

On the run up to launching my first record Talk in a bit’ I am sharing some bits of talking with poets I’ve been doing over the last few years  for a new archive at the British Library ‘Black British Poets in Performance’.  The archive is not yet launched (and might take a bit longer due to British Library website shenanigans). In the meantime I am going to post bits of the interviews….  Yesterday I posted a bit of talk with Karen McCarthy Woolf. Today it’s Kayo Chingonyi.  Kayo was on the 2nd Complete Works programme and the anthology ‘Ten: The New Wave’ was edited by Karen. Kayo has also had massive success with his 1st collection: Kumukanda has been shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Prize, The Dylan Thomas Prize and The Ted Hughes Award… to name a few…

Performance has always been a part of my notion of what it is to be creative. In performance you can be extrovert and introvert at the same time […] Because it’s very neat particularly in a traditional theatrical setting. The audience sit there and experience this spectacle. It’s very dissimilar to normal life where you have to talk to people and work out what they mean through their gestures and so on and so forth. For me I find it a great deal easier to relate to people through performance than through conversation. – Kayo Chingonyi

Kayo Chingonyi discusses his interest in hip hop models of music sampling and how this technique might impact the ways we might think about copyright and ways of writing. Chingonyi comments that J-Zone used to leave a VCR tape running ‘while he went to sleep and then in the morning he’d play back what he had and then record the interesting stuff on audio cassette’. Sampling has an impact on the ways ‘we think about intellectual property and creativity in general’. He says ‘we want language to be useful, a utensil’; he suggests we can ‘build’ with words as ‘clumps of sound’:

words can also just be seen as sounds, as little clumps of sound that we’ve organised, in the same way that we’ve organised clumps of sound and called them ‘music’.

Chingonyi talks about his frustrations with ‘the whole situation of dualism’ and the ways of thinking about poetry that make a division between the ‘bodily’ performance and ‘cerebral’ page. He comments that there is a mistrust of any kind of performance that is seen as being about ‘show’, and ‘artifice’ and ‘likened to “theatre” or “acting”’:

there’s a kind of looking down on things which are bodily which are about movement, which are about performance, because performance connects us too much to having bodies. Then poetry is seen as this kind of cerebral thing, which is about thinking and being intelligent and dancing that intellect on the page.

On labels:

what complicates it further in this country is a kind of racialised aspect to the notions of what ‘performance poetry’ and what ‘spoken word’ is. I think for a long time the assumption was that if Black British or Asian writers were writing poetry and were good performers as well, they were immediately performance poets, and that meant they weren’t as good at writing or at craft. So I have a real problem with the terms still, because when someone uses them, I don’t know whether they mean somebody who writes poetry who’s also good at performing it, or somebody who writes poetry who isn’t as good on a literary level as someone who publishes but who is a good performer and the performance kind of carries what they do. Things become really muddled when we use these different terms because it becomes hard to know what people mean by them.

He concludes:

Ultimately I’d like to see it all under the umbrella of poetry and just for the idea of poetry to expand.

Chingonyi talks about being ‘ambivalent’ about the category ‘black British’ before being a part of the Complete Works scheme, but changing his mind after hearing Kei Miller talk about the need to emphasise that being black and being British are congruous and deciding that he will accept the label ‘so long as what I’m doing in accepting it is changing the notion of what Britishness is’.

He describes how doing a Masters degree increased his confidence as a writer, but that the most important  for his development was an online community ‘The Vineyard’ started by Jacob Sam-La Rose:

He was the first poet I read who reflected me in a way that was very direct. I felt part of the work. Jacob has written about his influences growing up in the nineties around the time of Jungle music and I guess I come from a later generation – UK Garage which is itself a mutation of Jungle or House so we’re kind of related in that way. We have a literary relations but we’re also related in terms of our influences. There’s a frame of reference that I get, it reflects me in a way that maybe reading Robert Lowell doesn’t and never will really, no matter how many educational institutions I go through or however much I become part of the “establishment”.


Talk in a bit tour dates

Next up on ‘A bit of talk with…’ will be Jacob Sam-La Rose

Author photo: Naomi Woddis
Kayo Chingonyi. Photo by Naomi Woddis