A Conversation With Kayo Chingonyi

Paying Attention:
a Conversation with David Hayden

David Hayden is an Irish writer, born in Dublin, now living and working in Norwich. He’s best known for his disorientating short stories which have appeared in Granta, A Public Space, and A Stinging Fly, as well as his debut collection, Darker With the Lights On.

We sat down for a chat about Chekhov, writing real places, and the ubiquity of storytelling.

Interview by Nathan Sharp

How did you arrive at the short story as your chosen form?

I suppose there’s two answers to that. One is that, as a reader, I’ve always liked short stories. When I started to read seriously as a mid-teen, a lot of the things that seemed to be close to hand were short stories. I’d read Edgar Allen Poe, and then I started to read Kafka, particularly ‘Metamorphosis,’ ‘In the Penal Colony,’ and the ‘Great Wall of China.’ They had a huge impact on me. Also Dubliners, and a collection of short stories by Virginia Woolf called A Haunted House. Coming across those gave me a sense of the power, and range, and possibility of the short story.

The other aspect is the storytelling tradition which is part of my Irish heritage. My mum especially would tell me stories about growing up in the country in west Cork, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I’ve always been compelled by people who can just shape a story on their feet. And stories are ubiquitous, you can tap into them everywhere. So, someone says, ‘How was your day today?’, and you say, ‘Well this funny thing happened to me,’ and you start to tell the story. With anybody, regardless of what they’ve read, there’ll be some shaping of that story, not just in the story that they tell, but how they tell it. And that’s fascinating.

I have to admit, I’m an eavesdropper, and one of the things I’ve missed about the pandemic era is being able to sit there and listen to little pieces of what people are saying, and how they’re saying it. Some of that is really difficult to get across in writing, things like diction and emphasis. You can’t do musical notation of a conversation. I don’t really like the idea that there is a form called the short story, because when you read widely across it, and you also include the oral tradition in your own life – stories that you hear in the pub or the café or whatever – then you see that things are not always shaped in that conventional way.

People also talk about the ‘classic’ short story, and the Chekhovian short story, but when you actually go back to Chekhov, they aren’t as Chekhovian as you think they are. He’s got certain aesthetic interests which he laid out very clearly in his own writing, but they are enormously original every time. They are not cut from a pattern book. He’s taking the material and working with it, with enormous insight, clarity, and just a general literary ability. And then after the event, as a bit of a second order construct, you could talk about it as the Chekhovian short story, but it doesn’t really help you as a writer, to say, ‘Well, these are the things that one needs to do.’

Because the thing you’d need to do is be Chekhov...

Well, in your own way, in your own life, in the limitations of your own talent. And you need to be able to inhabit what you see, and hear, and think, and what you overhear, and what you mishear, and to shape them in ways that work for you as a writer, whether you’re thinking about a specific audience or no audience at all. And you can do that in an almost limitless number of ways. I don’t much like the expression ‘flash fiction’, but some stories can be incredibly short. Lydia Davis, for instance: one of her stories might take up very little space, but as with many short stories, though they might be brief, they’re incredibly deep. So, there’s an odd temporal distortion that happens there. You read a Lydia Davis story, and it’s taken you 20 seconds to read it, but it completely occupies your mind for the entire rest of the day.

When you’re putting together a collection of short stories, are you writing with a theme in mind, or are you going through the stories you already have and choosing your favourites?

I’ve written another book of stories called Six Cities, which is not published yet, and they are all stories that are explicitly set in individual cities. I started out writing them and then I had an idea for how they might fit together thematically. The thematic space for the whole book suggested itself, then I wrote stories into that.

And are they real cities?

Yeah, it’s not like a Calvino thing with imagined cities. I love Calvino, but it’s cities that I’ve lived in. There’s a story set in Dublin, and there are a couple of stories set in London, also Chicago where I lived briefly. A story set in Sydney, a couple of stories set in Norwich where I live now. There is a risk of writing about a specific place, that you just point people towards their own rag bag of references. You set a story in Paris, and you make a couple of Parisian type gestures, and before you know it, you’re in a third-rate version of a Wes Anderson film. And so, what I try and do is to make you feel very much that you’re in that place, but described through specificities, not just by saying, ‘He was walking down Charing Cross Road’!

When I’m writing a story, I’m there, so I’m describing what I see. The story space that I’m in is incredibly rich, and I could describe all sorts of things, but I want to describe enough so that the reader can inhabit it. Some of the descriptions do have further meanings, but it’s not necessary for you to know what those might be, although they’re there if you want to think about them. It’s about paying attention. Pay attention if you want to write, perhaps before you do anything else.

David Hayden is the author of the short story collection, Darker With the Lights On, published in 2017. He has also written two forthcoming story collections: Six Cities, discussed above, and the tentatively titled Unstories, as well as a novel.

David wears: Kennedy Overshirt, Kennedy Trouser and Ribbed Crew

Shop new season arrivals

Stillness, Openness, and Interruption:
A Conversation with Kayo Chingonyi

Kayo Chingonyi is a Zambian-British poet, musician, DJ, and broadcaster. With a deeply personal poetic voice and an unconventional approach to language, he has established a well-deserved reputation as one of the most interesting poets working today.

We sat down with Kayo to discuss the value of interruption, the influence of zen archery, and poets vs. MCs.

Interview by Nathan Sharp

How does a poem take shape? Are they rigorously planned or are they more organic?

I think the planning is happening at some subterranean level in the mind, a long time before the writing actually happens. It will begin with some kind of impulse, or connection to another art form, so I might go to the Photographer’s Gallery, say, and see something, and what that does to my perception opens up a space that a poem can enter. The planning is in that kind of subconscious part of my mind, and then I try to be more improvisational, maybe to try and honour that subconscious part which I can’t access completely. If I try to plan it too much in the moment of writing, then I feel like I lose some of that spirit.

When you actually sit down to write, is it a quick process, or do some poems drag on for years?

Some poems take a long time, but some feel like they kind of just turn up, like a relative knocking on your door. It feels as if they always existed, even those quick ones, and then [with] the ones that take longer, sometimes it’s hard to draw a line or to find where the poem ends, because it can conceivably carry on forever. You have to find a moment in which to let it go.

Is that the hardest part, to walk away from a poem and call it finished?

Yeah, because there’s always going to be a gap between what you were trying to do and what you do. Some people go back and make alterations, but I think for me it’s important to move forward, because it’s all just a record of the moment it was made in. Sometimes you miss what you were trying to do in a poem, and you find something else which is equally interesting or surprising, and I think that’s the part of it that I love, that kind of unexpected turn that you can have.

It might not be as rewarding if you got exactly what you expected out of it.

Yeah. I feel like I’d practice another form if I wanted to have exactly the results I was intending in my mind. It’s almost like working with a material, there’s something that the material gives back that you have to account for. So, like if you’re working with paint, there’s a process that you have to allow for whereby the paint does its own thing. And similarly, working with layers of paint you get another feel. It’s kind of like that, writing poems, because you’re dealing with all of these layers, and if you’re too focused on a particular outcome you lose that layered quality, which I think the artform is about.

Is there a particular frame of mind that lends itself to your writing, or is it just a kind of openness?

Yeah, I think an openness is a really good way to describe it. When I was studying for an MA, we got sent this book to read, which was called Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, who’s this guy who went and studied Japanese martial archery with an ancient teacher. What the book is about is a state of mindful presence, where you’re able to let influences and ideas wash over you. In the book, it’s finding the stillness in your body in order to work with the bow and the arrow, but it’s kind of like that in writing. Stillness, openness, but then there’s a sense of interruption, as well. I might be at an event where people are reading poems, or at the cinema, and as the thing is occurring in front of me, something starts occurring in the mind, and the interruption of the two things somehow creates a new thing. The poem that comes out of that isn’t about the play, or the film, or the song, or the poetry that was being read, it’s about something else, but that experience of watching this art opens it up. I wish I could crystallise that particular process, but I think it will always be a little bit mysterious to me, and it’s part of why I continue.

I wanted to ask you a bit about the Decode podcast as well. I was wondering, when you’re listening to those albums, is there a separation between your poet brain and your MC brain, or does it sort of blend together?

It starts to blend, actually. Especially when looking at lyricists like Dave and Skepta, because of their approaches to what you might call poetics. Dave’s approach is very sophisticated, complex, literary, for want of a better word. And Skepta operates in a more populist form of poetics, which is for everybody. But he’s also reflective, he has moments of sophistication and complexity in his work, and he intersperses them with references that the audience is going to readily appreciate. So, thinking as a poet about these works, I’m really attuned to the words, and then if I think about an MC’s perspective then I’m thinking about how music drives poetics.

From a poetic perspective, you start with the words and build music that fits them, but from an MC’s perspective you’re always working with the beat, and it has to be that the beat captures your imagination for you to even want to spit bars over it. I really like having the opportunity to talk about some of the sophisticated things that lyricists are doing, which we maybe don’t dwell on for very long when listening, because the beat is so infectious. Working on this show is a bringing together of all my different worlds, definitely.

Kayo Chingonyi is the author of two poetry collections, Kumukanda, published in 2017, and A Blood Condition, which came out in 2021. He also writes and hosts the Spotify podcast series, Decode, in which he offers track-by-track analysis on some of UK rap’s most treasured albums.

Kayo wears: Workwear T Shirt, Ribbed Crew and Orienteering Parka

Shop new season arrivals