FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
KAYO CHINGONYI: What drew me in is a fascination with the sounds of words, the possibilities of putting them together. In that sense, poetry is as central to my imagination, as formative, as language itself. That’s not to say I started off writing good or interesting poems, mind you, or indeed that I always write them now…but it’s always been there. A certain word mania.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
KC: When I was ten my teacher, Jolyon Roberts (a charismatic almost mythical man), asked us to write poems and I wrote a terrible one about the winter. I still have it somewhere. Later, I was obsessed with writing lyrics and, to be honest, there are traces of the lyricist in all the things I write (though some of these allusions are submerged). Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen I shifted focus to poetry and that became the twin of my life as a lyricist. My brain is equal parts song lyrics and equal parts lines of poetry. As to when I first felt like a poet, I think it’s one of those things you accept about yourself somewhere between a habit, a vocation, a hobby, and a compulsion. I’ve tried giving it up, in moments when I was discouraged, and I’ve even thought poetry had left me, in moments when I badly needed its counsel, but it always comes back.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
KC: It’s gratifying to know that the kind of work that is my wheelhouse, which is sometimes considered quiet, subtle, understated can still resonate. I hope my shortlisting emboldens the wallflowers who are my kin to stick to their guns. There are as many kinds of poetry as kinds of people.
FP: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
KC: I started it the summer after my last collection, Kumukanda, came out. It was a kind of fallow period, so I didn’t expect much and then three, four, poems turned up in a week. For me that is an unusual rate of productivity. Naturally the next phase was another fallow period, but poems kept ticking away under the surface. I would get a commission and that would nudge me to write for the collection, I’d go to a reading and a phrase or scattered words would present themselves… I write slowly and I’ve made peace with that. I finished the book in 2020.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
KC: Valzhyna Mort is wonderful. I love the barbed quality of her work and its music, also. Mandelstam in Merwin and Brown’s translation (and, hopefully, the original if I commit myself to the study of Russian rather than listening to the same chapter of my teach yourself audiobook), Anthony Joseph for the grace, poise, and rhetorical power of his lyricism, Roger Robinson, Malika Booker, and Jacob Sam-La Rose for the permission their work gave me to be myself. I have several of Polarbear’s pieces by heart. Poetry in the UK would not be what it is without his artistry. I think Alice Oswald is brilliant, a unity of the arcane and the contemporary in poetry.
It’s a long list, to be honest.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
KC: A long-form thing for voice, drum machines, and tape. More on that story later (or perhaps, never).
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
KC: The love of the thing will be your only lasting reward for doing the thing, so try and enjoy doing the thing and if you don’t then stop for a bit. It’ll be there waiting for you when you get back. But do come back, we miss you.