A Kind of Masquerade: Kayo Chingonyi talks to Emily Hasler

EH: I thought I’d start by asking you about your work since Kumukanda appeared and how you see it in relation to the collection?

KC: There are several poems that, for various reasons, I didn’t finish in time to put in to Kumukanda; those are approaching completion now in a way that is reassuring. There are also poems that have come out of a new energy. I’ve noticed that those poems are a little bit looser in terms of their formal shape. The new poems are also more direct than some of the poems in Kumukanda.

EH: You’ve raised several things I wanted to ask you about there, but let’s start with the idea of directness. The author’s note to your collection explains that ‘kumukanda’ is an initiation ritual and comments that ‘masks represent communion with the spirits and teach important lessons about the history of the tribe’. This got me thinking about the way that masks operate within the collection, since there are poems here that are dramatic monologues (such as ‘Casting’ and others in the sequence ‘calling a spade a spade’) and those that play with the idea of an alternative identity (‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’) – in fact there are a lot of ‘alternates’.

KC: Thank you for picking up on this. I think poetic form and poetic practice is a kind of masquerade wherein the poet hides or hints at what they want to say. I think, in this way, writing mirrors other kinds of communication. So much of what people say to each other seems to mask what they mean to say or cannot say. I think the difficult part of writing poems that will be seen by other people is knowing how much to give away and how much to hold back. I think the poems in Kumukanda are responding to this balancing impulse. The mask, then, is one of the threads in the book. In the book I’m exploring the extent to which identity is a kind of masquerade and how poetry, being a masquerade itself, can reflect on that. That’s part of the reason the book is named after that ritual.

EH: I loved how the collection made me reassess the idea of identity as some sort of ongoing negotiation between what is shown and hidden, other and own, shared and unique. When you say that the newer poems are both more direct and looser in form, is that a conscious decision to take a new approach? Does it have to do with a change in subject matter(s)?

KC: I’m not convinced my subject matter ever changes all that much. I suspect I am obsessed with a few things that I keep circling round, coming to no final conclusion. That said, writing one book gave me a perspective on the sorts of things I don’t give enough space to in the work. Certainly some of my writing is more indirect than it needs to be and that approach simply isn’t one I can use in every poem. I am attempting to push myself outside of certain comfort zones of taste or technique that, when putting together Kumukanda, seemed more important to me than they do now. I find it really difficult to write well and be formally ‘messy’, and I mean that in the multifarious way Douglas Kearney means it in his book on mess and poetics. I want to explore why that is in my new work.

EH: I think it is important to admit I had to take some time to briefly introduce myself to Kearney’s work, although I certainly intend to get to know it better based on what I’ve found. I can instantly see the links between those perpetual subject matters you mention, in particular music and dance. These seem to me to be central to your thinking, and to exploring the experience of black bodies, especially young male black bodies – again, like Kearney. Can you articulate what it is about music and dance that seems both to generate so much in your poetry and to act as a site for thinking about other issues?

KC: Music is the first art form that moved me as a small child. My parents loved music of various styles and so my early life was full of it. A consequence of that is that music soothes me when other things cannot so it is a frequent source of joy for me. When I think about the impulse behind the poems I write, song is the thread that connects the poems I used to write to the poems I’m writing now because music has been a constant for me. I can’t help but think through the world using music and the poems are a record of that fixation. As an extension of this, dance means a lot to me because it is about exploring the body’s musicality: when the song and the dancer’s body exist as a unity that moves me in a bodily way. I also love to dance. So there is something wonderful about seeing it done exceptionally well. Then there’s the sense in which a poem is a dance of different forms of intellect…

EH: When you say different forms of intellect… do you mean more traditional forms of learned knowledge as opposed to instinctive, emotional intelligence?

KC: Yes, I’m talking about the kind of learning possible in educational institutions versus that which is learned socially or independently. Both modes of learning have been important to me but I think poetry, or at least the poetry I’ve been exposed to, places too much emphasis on learnedness in the traditional mode.

EH: That’s really interesting to me. I think especially as the route a lot of poets are finding now takes them into, or through, academia, I wonder what the relationship is – whether the balance is tipping further. But perhaps poetry can bring a focus on other forms of knowledge alongside the traditional modes.

KC: I think poetry is a route to various forms of knowledge. Even in the space of one collection or one event a reader or listener can travel through time and space and experience story and song. I think even if I didn’t write poems would help me process the fact of being here. There are so many poems that have opened up an area of thinking for me in a way I never expected before reading the poem. I think the shame in how poetry is taught is that teachers are rarely encouraged to say ‘you might not get this because there might not be anything to get but you still might find it interesting’. I think the interpretation of meaning is only a small part of experiencing a poem and that coming to poetry outside of a structure of analysis is so valuable when it comes to fostering a genuine interest.

EH: Yes, it always makes me sad when my mum dutifully reads my poems and says she likes them ‘but doesn’t understand’. And yet, if I think back, she was the one who gave me the books of poems as a child that first drew me in – and those were mostly nonsense poems that resist or pervert understanding! How was your own interest in poetry first fostered?

KC: I can’t think of a specific moment when poetry took hold of my imagination. All that I know is that imagination has been an important part of my life. I am energized by my own company or the company of a book. I like to be with people, too, but there is something about having time with my thoughts that has always been restorative. Poetry, as well as being a technology of sonic and referential meaning, is a wonderful way for exploring thoughts… following them… unpicking their threads. I have been very fortunate to have wonderful teachers and the first person on that list, who really encouraged my writing, is a man called Jolyon Roberts. He noticed that I liked to write and nurtured that by letting me know at an early stage that it is a perfectly valid thing to do with your time. I have to add here that I am blessed to know some fabulous yarn spinners as well. To them I owe a great deal of what has given me joy of a simple but enduring kind.

EH: I also want to ask you specifically about the influence of Kearney and other US poets as they seem to be important to you, perhaps instrumental to your development. Do you think there is a difference between UK and US poetry, and between black poetry in the UK and US?

KC: I think because the poetry ecosystem in the States is bigger there is a greater range on offer to readers in terms of styles of poetry. Growing up I was reading poets who did not look like me, which is not as small a thing as it sounds. To see yourself reflected in what you consume, to feel that you also are worthy of consideration in art, is such a relief. There is a sense in which poetry in the UK as it has existed has been resistant to the representation of anything other than normatively white subjectivities (and what I mean by that is lives in which the implications of having or existing in a racialized identity are not explored; though of course they could be). Such a poetry is a poetry someone like me cannot write in this particular poetic community. So, I found kinship with poets who were in a similar boat.

I think our understanding of what constitutes ‘blackness’ is led too much by what is going on in the US and so too with poetry but I have been very influenced by the work of poets like Douglas Kearney, Harryette Mullen, Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson and so on. I think the principal difference between here and there is that such poets are writing into a more expansive black literary landscape than has existed in the UK.

EH: I seem to recall chatting to you a few years ago and you saying that you had been through this personal revelation that you needed to stop pretending race wasn’t an issue, or rather that you needed to move away from a poetry which pretended race wasn’t an issue. That’s almost certainly a flawed memory on my part. What I mean is it seems to me there was a personal development for you, as well as what seem to have been some wider changes in UK poetry and poetry publishing.

KC: You remembered well, I think. The writing I’ve been doing lately has been a return to the themes that made poetry interesting to me in the first place. Race was a subject in many of the first poems I wrote but my newer poems take a more nuanced approach or at least they try to. I think it’s a shame not to write about what you feel moved to write about on the basis of how that will be seen. I’m not interested in policing my work in such ways any longer.

EH: Do you feel policed externally still? Are there still ways in which you police – or feel you should police – yourself?

KC: I think there are things that because of taboos or social mores one doesn’t find, and by extension write, in poems. The poetics of sexuality for example are particularly policed. Then there is the feeling that one must or mustn’t write about a particular subject. For me race was that subject. I felt, at a certain point, indignant because race is something not everybody is expected to write about and yet everyone has some kind of racial identity which impacts the way they move through the world. In the time I’ve been writing poetry seriously this has shifted a bit and there does seem to be more space for poets to write what they are moved to write. Certainly there still is not enough space but I’m hopeful.

EH: What do you see coming up that makes you hopeful?

KC: Jay Bernard’s book will be fire. Will Harris’s pamphlet All This Is Implied, Momtaza Mehri and Victoria Adukwei-Bulley give me hope. Richard Scott is on to something. I’m looking forward to the new Terrance Hayes book and Sophie Robinson’s new collection.


Kayo Chingonyi’s collection Kumukanda (Chatto) was shortlisted for the Costa prize and the Ted Hughes Award. Emily Hasler’s collection The Built Environment was published earlier this year by Pavilion.