Kayo Chingonyi is a fellow of the Complete Works programme for diversity and quality in British Poetry and the author of two pamphlets, Some Bright Elegance (Salt, 2012) and The Colour of James Brown’s Scream (Akashic, 2016). His first full-length collection, Kumukanda, was published in June 2017 by Chatto & Windus. As well as being widely published in journals and anthologies, Kayo has been invited to read from his work at venues and events across the UK and internationally. He was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and has completed residencies with Kingston University, Cove Park, First Story, The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and Royal Holloway University of London in partnership with Counterpoints Arts. He was Associate Poet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from Autumn 2015 to Spring 2016 and co-edited issue 62 of Magma Poetry and the Autumn 2016 edition of The Poetry Review. He is now poetry editor for The White Review. Kayo is also an emcee, producer, and DJ and regularly collaborates with musicians and composers both as a poet and a lyricist. He holds down a fortnightly show on Netil Radio called Keep It 100 which is a celebration of groove and feeling in music spanning from rockabilly ditties to afrobeats (with regular forays into R&B, Hip Hop, and House).
Kayo Chingonyi is part of a generation of BAME poets (British. Black, Asian and minority ethnic) who have re-energised the British poetry scene. Donald Futers, Penguin’s editor for poetry, has credited the growing presence of BAME poets as an “important” cultural current behind poetry’s growing audience. "Diversification, experimentation, radicality, craft, and concomitant buzz” are a handful of the factors contributing to the uplift, he said. Chingonyi is a fellow of the Complete Works programme for diversity and quality in British poetry, alongside poets including Karen McCarthy Woolf and Mona Arshi. According to Sasha Dugdale editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, “This project has brought a number of poets to the attention of publishers and prize juries and has made some small beginning at the adjusting the balance of published work...the project has simply made us more aware of all the different and compelling voices around us.” Dr. Nathalie Teitler who was involved in this dynamic initiative writes, "On the surface Kayo Chingonyi’s poetry is beautifully structured, almost traditional work which fits well into the traditional British Canon. Closer reading, however, reveals a complex and sometimes subversive approach. The work references African cultures to address areas of youth, race, urban life and loss. This is the work of a strong and passionate new voice in UK poetry, made even stronger by the contrast with the ‘bright elegance’ of the style."
As an associate of the ICA, Kayo Chingonyi programmed an event called Poetry and Sound which featured poets who use the sounds of words and their textures, as well as their meaning, to inform the composition and performance of their work. He says, "When I read something I hear a voice in my head reading the words aloud, so it's all auditory for me...some poets think of print as the best mode of reception for poems. I'm inclined to disagree since I have always been most moved by poems at the level of sound first before looking at their propositional content. If a poem has a brilliant sense of narrative but it sounds bland, I am never going to enjoy it as much as a poem written by someone who has thought about how the thing sounds as a way of telling a story. So, yes, this interplay between speaking and writing is at the heart of what I do."
Chingonyi's performances have a calm and measured quality, which conveys a deep sense of music in the words. There is an intensity that seems to build imperceptibly as he speaks, drawing the listener in. There is an utter confidence and a supreme sense of rhythm, as Judi Sutherland describes, ‘When Chingonyi speaks his poems; he has them all by heart, a relatively rare skill which allows the poet to connect more completely with his audience. The same vibrant personality comes through on the page with language full of internal rhyme and complex rhythms. But it is the subject matter that most enthrals; I’ve heard several poetry grandees bewail the reluctance of British poets to tackle the ‘big issues’, but these poems do exactly that; issues of life, death, race, faith, family and authenticity are raised and meditated on here." Chingonyi performed his poem Some Bright Elegance at The Southbank Centre in London with a dancer and choreographer Sean Graham - the movement and the words were completely interwoven and the resounding audience applause at the end spoke for itself.
/ The Colour of James Brown’s Scream
I have known you by many names
but today, you are Larry Levan,
your hand on the platter, in the smoky
room of a Garage regular’s memory.
You are keeping WhenDove’s Cry
in time, as you swing your hips,
and sweat drips from your hair
the colour of James Brown’s scream.
King of King Street, we are still moving
to the same sound, though some
of us don’t know it is your grave
we dance on, cutting shapes
machismo lost to the beat
—every road man is a sweetboy
if the DJ plays Heartbroken
at just the right time for these jaded feet.
Teach us to shape-shift, Legba,
you must know I’d know your customary
shuffle, that phantom limp, anywhere;
that I see your hand in the abandon
of a couple, middle of the floor,
sliding quick and slick as a skin- fade
by the hand of a Puerto Rican clipper-man
who wields a cutthroat like a paintbrush.
Let us become like them, a moving ode
to sweat, ordering beer in a corporeal
language from a barman who replies
by sweeping his arms in an arc,
Willy Ninja style, to fix a drink our lips
will yearn for, a taste we’ve been
trying to recreate ever since.
In light of what my aunt calls
the Arabic texture of my hair,
I’m Abdi outside the only shop
selling tamarind balls, Irish Moss,
Supermalt in decent quantities.
It is not enough to say I miss
the smell of cassava roasted
over open coals, expeditions
in want of Tilapia, Capenta,
assorted meats of questionable
provenance. How much, auntie?
Barter and bluff and rough hands
of stallholders glazed to a deep
blue shameless blackness that is
consigned, now, to another life
before this one of middle class
white boys in reggae bands, who
love roots and culture as if their
love is enough to know the code
that some of us live and die by.
At least these boys who call me
Abdi seem to be fond of Abdi.
They ask why I don't come
round no more, what it's like
in Leeds and maybe, today,
I can be Abdi and this shop
can be all the home I need.
/ Fisherman's Song
What sadness for a fisherman
to navigate the blue
and find among receding nets
strange, underwater blooms
that look, at first, like bladderwrack
but from a closer view
are clumps of matted human hair
atop an acrid soup.
And what song shall this fisherman
who loves a jaunty tune
sing to lullaby his children
when dark shapes in their room
make the night a snarling monster
only father’s voice can soothe
and who will soothe the fisherman
who navigates the blue?
/ 25th October, 1964
We danced like Celts the day the news of it
kicked the District Commissioner’s fat rump.
Teachers who beat us till we couldn’t sit,
over little things, were, by lunch, so drunk
Mr Chishala shut the school and followed
his staff to a bar where ten shilling notes
came back as loose change, baked groundnuts, hallowed
pitchers of the local brew (a throat song
known as Mosi). They drank to the freedom
our children would inherit, then raised a glass
to Leyland’s Hippo-shaped buses, heaving
with the copper belt’s weary underclass
who, in spite of a new nation, were still dressed
in hunched shoulders, the shame of un-puffed chests.
and, at last, you have come upon
the jewel in the crown of our collection
here at the Royal Museum for Central Africa:
a magnifying glass used by one
of the King’s functionaries
who, by Royal decree, remained
unsung among the sons of Europe
until recently. Note the engraving
on the ivory handle that tells us
this glass was used in the Kasai.
Since the official report was redacted
some of you might be unaware
of this particular brand of magic:
the ‘trick was to use a magnifying
glass to light a cigar, “after which
the white man explained his intimate
relation to the sun, and declared
that if he were to request [the sun]
to burn up his black brother’s
village it would be done”’*
and so it was the land changed hands
as a cigar, given light, becomes a stub
and its smoke that stays with you
is the smoke from a burning village.
* George Washington Williams as quoted in King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
What became of the boy who called himself Grief?
The boy who, the story ran, harboured a gun
through the back-roads and alleyways of his teens
the boy who turned up as a footnote the night
we played my ends are rougher than your ends
in a flat overlooking London Road — frontline
of a post-code war from which we were
so far removed we chuckled when someone said
kebabs from the shop that wore a fresh batch
of memorial flowers were ‘to die for’.
Grief was grit to lend the fable texture.
We never knew the name his mum called him
or what reduced him to plying the night trade
so white kids could say they bun high grade.
He is like those boys caught between commas
in news reports about youth crime, an image
fixed in place by someone else’s language.
/ For those orphaned late in life
What if the wind blowing through
the french doors of your childhood
is the house’s way of saying goodbye
and when you call out, answering
yourself, greeting the gone out of habit
you hear, for the first time, the timbre
of your voice how someone else might?
/ Alternate Take
When they laid our father out, mwaice wandi,
I want to say, I’m meant to say, soft light
played the skin of his spent face and the sobs
were, of course, a jangling kind of song.
If I could take you where the sandy earth
meets his final stone, tiled and off-white,
we might have learned to worship better gods.
He was known, in the shebeens, as long John.
At the wake relatives tried variations
on the words of the day: I am sorry
for your grieving/your trouble/your loss.
I’ve been weighing these apologies for years
that pass and retreat like disused stations.
I think of his walk becoming your quarry,
his knack for beguiling women, your cross.
It’s enough to bring me here, past tears
to where his face simplifies to a picture:
the shrine in Nagoya, him stood, Sequoia
among lesser trees, looking good in denim;
every inch the charismatic spectre.
In his memory my voice bears his tincture—
saxophone played low slash boy raised on soya
porridge, chloroquine, a promise of heaven.
There are days I think I’m only a spectre
carrying him slowly to my own graveyard
and, standing at the lectern, rather than my son,
will be another copy: the same sharp
edge to the chin, that basso profundo hum.
Kid brother, we breathers have made an art
of negation, see how a buckled drum
is made from a man’s beating heart
and a fixed gaze is a loaded weapon.
/ A Proud Blemish
The year I graduate from size eights,
learn to walk in the grown man’s shoes
contradicting the diminutive frame
I parade across the Arndale estate:
2step is an airborne sickness, infecting
every discerning cassette deck,
after-hours wine bar, joy rider's car.
Most weekends I try to fool a woman
accustomed to the lies of men, sneak home
an hour shy of her footfall in the hallway,
to rehearse my lines: I was home…I just
…didn’t hear the phone, the beep
of the answering machine, her repeating
my name till it’s a prayer, voice two parts
ire, one despair, that her days are riven
between shift patterns and her only son.
By the time I graduate size nines, understand
Caesarean, when she answers my question:
did it hurt? shows me the dark groove hidden
under her work shirt, a proud blemish in skin
rippled with ridges from weight loss, she knows
it’s not stress. Still we sit, lumps in throats,
wait on tests. They don't know what’s wrong
she says, next day she’s back to underground
tunnels, thousands riding the same choppy waves.
Soon she’s too weak to walk or wash herself.
The bones of her skull vitiate a face that once
stunned grown men into mumbling stupors.
On a grey ward, two months in to size elevens,
she speaks in my mother tongue, begs me trace
the steps of its music, but the discord of two
languages keeps me from the truth I won’t hear.
She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum
become: a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.
/ Martins Corner
Meat wagons sing an ode in sardonics
passing a bus held briefly to regulate
the service. Jesus loves you, if you
believe in signage. High heels clack,
are slung off, taken in hand. A shawl
flicked around our lady’s shoulders
flutters. She speeds up by Londis
past friends pressed against shutters
huddled, from the cold, round a zoot
twosed then snuffed by a scuffed shoe.
This is the hour when a silver glimpse,
likely a phone, is a blade and a patch
of shade must be an assailant. A couple
on their second date claim a requisite
slow-dance in the space where restraint
cuts its eye at recklessness, their arms
charm necklaces warding off the thought
of these limbs round some other neck;
the night, years hence, when they’ll forget
how to want and need in the same breath.
/ Andrews Corner
Where an old man comes, to practise
standing still, tutting
that the street he fought to keep is gone
and, sixty years on, he doesn’t belong
to this world of bass, blasting out of
passing cars, and earshot, at the speed
of an age when pubs close down
overnight; are mounds of rubble in a week.
Where flowers moulder in memory of Tash,
fifteen, her twenty-something boyfriend
too drunk to swerve and miss the tree,
girls own their grown woman outfits,
smile at boys who smell of weed and too much
CK One. Pel, who can get served, stands in line.
Outside his friends play the transatlantic
dozens; the correct answer is always your mum.
Where alleys wake to condom wrappers,
kebab meat, a ballet pump, last week
a van pulled up and it was blood. Today:
joggers dodge a dead pigeon, offer wordless
greeting to the night bus’s army of sanguine-
eyed ravers, nursing bad skin and tinnitus.
Goaded by the light, past the same house on repeat,
they think of taking off their shoes; inviolable sleep.
/ How to Build Cathedrals
After Cildo Meireles
To think, when the Cessna’s wheels bumped the makeshift runway, women-folk walked uncovered and the men knew nothing of their godly duties. I started them on The Gospels. Marianne instilled the finer points of feminine deportment. Before long they knew the principal scriptures by heart and could recite the Hail Maryin the perfect broken English hour predecessors bequeathed them. We’ve had a number of successes:children wake afraid of God’s wrath, ladies wear brassieres and the gents cease gambling on the Sabbath day. In the last sermon before hurricane season I say, tapping my breast, this is a church.