‘The poetics of skin’: Kayo Chingonyi’s Introduction to ‘More Fiya’
Twenty-four years after the publication of The Fire People – the 1998 seminal collection curated by Lemn Sissay – comes More Fiya, an anthology of Black British poetry curated by poet and scholar Kayo Chingonyi.
In the following exclusive extract, taken from Chingonyi’s introduction to More Fiya, he writes on the value of Black poetry in the British literary landscape, the challenges that Black poets face in carving out space for themselves, and the joy in finding and curating work that celebrates and normalises the Black British experience.
When I was seventeen, I joined a workshop group run by the writer development agency Spread the Word and the live literature production company Apples and Snakes. The purpose of these fortnightly workshops was to foment poetic practice and encourage kinship between writers. There was the sense of an open syllabus inclusive not just of the practices of versification but also the matter of being in the world and flourishing in a context unfit for black people to flourish (as human beings let alone literary artists). Community (one’s commitment to and indivisibility from it) was the guiding ethos.
This sat in stark contrast to the machinations of the literary establishment at that time which I can best illustrate with an anecdote. At this early stage of my public writing life, I met the editor of a venerated poetry journal who made it clear, without having seen anything I’d written, that mine was not the kind of work they published in the pages of their magazine. I didn’t send poems to that magazine until a guest editor, a Black British guest editor, invited me to do so more than ten years later. There were clear divisions in the poetry ecosystem across boundaries of race, class, and most definitely gender. The brightest stars in that literary firmament were a crop of mostly straight, mostly white, men writing in a mainstream post-war lyric tradition which foregrounded a certain kind of poetic excellence over and above others. To flourish in this world, so the received wisdom ran, meant adopting, and adapting to, a poetic voice which might best be classified by the word ‘craft’; the operative word in a recent essay by Rebecca Watts which indulges essentialist terms for measuring literary excellence. The arguments put forth in the piece, which I won’t rehash here at length, rang with an implicit call to simpler times in which ‘poetry was an artform’.1 Part of this ossified idea of poetic craft – work showing the expenditure of skill and expertise – hinges on a stable image of the poet as professional; another word freighted with unspoken value. The problem with this is that it is a model of writing practice based on exclusivity, reinscribing ideas of scarcity. If we read poetry in this light, then there are finite resources of excellence open only to those poets who work hardest. But on whose terms is this hard work quantified?
The community into which I was allowed to step as a beginning poet existed mostly in the live performance arena, rather than in print publication. So, my early practice as a poet involved getting together enough poems to form a set that I might perform live at an open mic night with a view to being booked to perform a longer set at an established event series. The publication, the making public, I was working towards was a site-specific form of publication, a communal form. This is an origin story so ubiquitous among Black British Poets as to seem contrived. And it was. If you overwhelmingly consign Black British Poets to the live arena, as indeed was the norm between the 70s and late 90s in the UK, then it becomes possible to say that there is an essential difference between these poets and those who seemed to occupy the prime real estate in poetry, the avenues of prestige. Indeed, this is exactly what the mostly white, mostly male editorati said to defend themselves from charges of institutional unconscious bias against Black British Poets. These poets were simply not good enough to be publishable, or their writing worked best in the live context, there was no audience for this kind of poetry. In short, the message was the same as that which I received from the venerated editor at seventeen: though we will not look at them, your poems do not interest us. The fault was always said to be the poets’. We black poets have, for a long time, known otherwise. Anyone who hasn’t been licking the underside of a rock buried in the sand will grasp the importance of Black British aesthetics to the continued life and dynamism of British Poetry as a whole. For my part, though I’m known for my published work, relationships fostered on the live scene are the foundational interrogative and aesthetic relations my work inhabits to this day, and if they have enlivened my poetics, I wonder what they have done for the countless poets who share a trajectory like mine.
For such poets, visibility in the world of publication was the stuff of speculative fiction. Before we had the abundance of poetry collections by Black British Poets that seems now, at long last, to be in the offing, the poetry anthology was our principal space of possibility as published poets. I am thinking here of such anthologies as Bittersweet, Kin, IC3, A Storm Between Fingers, and, of course, The Fire People. I first read The Fire People when I was nineteen or twenty. The poems that were being held up as exemplary (in the syllabus of my university degree and in the pages of poetry magazines) did not speak, or look, like me. Here at last was a poetics of skin; of the barbershop; nightclub; the corner; the family dinner table; church; the foci of my life outside white institutions. These were poems in which my life had value because it could stand in for the lives of others. Such anthologies saved me, in several senses of the word, beginning a restlessness and indignation that is the essential thread of my work as a writer, editor, and scholar alike.
We live in a cultural landscape that regards visibility alone as a sign of change. If more black poets are getting published, receiving institutional largesse, editing, performing and otherwise taking up space, this must mean the work is almost done. I contend that the work these landmark volumes set out is merely in its infancy. The radicalism in these volumes was to show black life as normal rather than as a deviation from the norm of whiteness. These anthologies, in other words, complicate the idea of a stable audience for poetry by extending the poetic notion of what it’s like to be in the world and, as well, what it is like to be in the world in a black skin. While our poetry has been denigrated as revelling in identity politics, we know this critique for the dog-whistle it is. Our lives can stand in for the lives of others because our lives are equally valuable. I’m reminded, here, of Michael Che’s stand-up show Matters which, among other things, serves as an extended close reading of the impact of the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the edifices of structural whiteness. How dare we say that? And yet, in our poems, in the careful weaving of our cultural praxis, we have been saying it in defiant, quiet, soulful, pained, and opaque ways for decades. It’s just that lately swathes of people outside our circle seem to be listening. The abundance we now witness, evidenced by the clarity, scope and ambition of the poems collected in these pages (and the many more that you won’t find here but must seek out) are not the product of some overnight sensation. They are the product of community, ingenuity and persistence in the face of overwhelming pressures to the contrary.
Speaking of having to seek things out, my approach in assembling this anthology owes much to my background as a record collector and DJ. The sound artist Ain Bailey expressed the artistry of the DJ particularly well in thinking about the form of the record box; a finite space into which a DJ must place those records that might best mash up the dance, rebuild it, and mash it up again. The box can only hold so many records and, so, preparing for a DJ set is a matter not just of playing what is known but finding new kinships and resonances between tracks someone hasn’t thought to play together. In the end, when you turn up to the venue and stand in front of the decks you respond in the moment, you find the right tune for an always evolving present. The limitations of the form dictate that you can’t have your entire collection with you, there will be gaps for the dancers to fill with implication; finding, in the unfamiliar, the ripples of a groove they know.
As it is with the DJ, so it is with the anthologist. One person could never hope to cover the breadth of Black British Poetry. I have not tried to do so. Instead, I present here a selection of poems which vibrate across a spectrum of Black British aesthetics broadly conceived. In these pages you’ll find chimerical re-makings of the Caribbean, the wisdom of diasporic philosophy, the cold and rain of Blighty, the sky viewed from the African continent, and the rhythms of language shifting before your eyes and in your ears. These are poems connected by the thread of variety; narrative jostling with sonic and spatially engaged units of poetic sense to break open language’s capacity to mean and re-sound. These are, to borrow the words of Paul Gilroy, ‘Black Atlantic’ poems. It strikes me that Gilroy’s words might constitute a durable set of organising principles for Black British Poetry. According to Gilroy the Black Atlantic is a name for:
The stereophonic, bilingual, or bifocal cultural forms
originated by, but no longer the exclusive property
of, blacks dispersed within the structures of feeling,
producing, communicating and remembering.2
I want here, briefly, to celebrate the work of those who came before. While this can only ever be a partial genealogy, let the gaps be filled in your mind as you read this, and as you embark on your own quest to plant afresh the cuttings from the vast and assiduously tended garden that is Black British Poetry. Hail up: the Afro Style School, Urban Poets Society, Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, Mannafest, Apricot Jam, Commonword, flipped eye, the George Padmore Institute, Bogle-L’Ouverture, Payback Press, The Complete Works, Obsidian Foundation and all those flashpoints of communality connecting Black British Poets to their poetic heritage in the absence of a proper chronicle.
1 Rebecca Watts, ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’, in PN Review 239
2 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness
Taken from the introduction to More Fiya: A New Collection of Black British Poetry edited by Kayo Chingonyi, published by Canongate on 19th May, 2022.
Kayo Chingonyi was born in Zambia in 1987, and moved to the UK at the age of six. He is the author of two pamphlets, and a fellow of the Complete Works programme for diversity and quality in British Poetry. In 2012, he was awarded a Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, and was Associate Poet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 2015. His first full-length collection, Kumukanda, won the Dylan Thomas Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award. Kayo was a Burgess Fellow at the Centre for New Writing, University of Manchester before joining Durham University as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing. He is a writer and presenter for the music and culture podcast Decode on Spotify, poetry editor at Bloomsbury, and his most recent collection A Blood Condition was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Costa Poetry Award.
Cover photo and author photo via Canongate.
If you liked this piece, read Kayo Chingonyi’s essay ‘Whitely‘ in Wasafiri 103: Writing Whiteness, Caleb Femi’s ‘Fisher of Men’, shortlisted for the 2017 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, and fellow contributor (and Wasafiri Associate Editor) Nick Mohaka’s ‘Three Poems’.