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.