A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi

A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi

Kayo Chingonyi is a Zambian-British poet, editor, academic, MC, producer and DJ. His poetry explores many facets of identity and belonging, possession and dispossession. It is infused with a bitter-sweet longing for lost things—places, people, selves—for a past which feels at once painfully close and impossibly far gone. His first full-length collection, Kumukanda, was a love song and an elegy to ‘the arctic north of boyhood’. It was published to widespread critical acclaim in 2017, winning the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Somerset Maugham Prize, and shortlisted for many more.

In person, Kayo is a thoughtful, watchful presence, softly spoken and precise. Five Dials caught up with him over Zoom, in the dog days of the UK’s 2021 winter lockdown, to hear about his new collection, A Blood Condition.

Five Dials

So I wanted to start if we can with titles. The title of your first collection, Kumukanda, refers to a coming-of-age initiation, and then more broadly to various kinds of passage into adulthood and catalysts for that transformation. A Blood Condition returns to lots of the themes of your first collection, inheritance being one of them. Among other things, the title evokes an idea of prophecy, the flipside of inheritance: looking forward at what will or must happen, instead of looking back at what has come to pass.

Kayo Chingonyi

Yes, I think it’s a renegotiation of the same themes. But maybe, as you say, there was a move away from the nostalgia of the first collection and towards a way of being in light of all of those things that are explored in both books. I think of A Blood Condition as a book about letting go—of the past, mostly.And there’s a lot more of the future in the book, certainly. It’s more hopeful in that sense. I’m thinking about it as a kind of letting go of certain things, both thematically and in terms of form, which maybe I won’t return to in poetry again. But yes, it’s very closely aligned with Kumukanda.

Five Dials

Could you say a bit more about the forms you’re leaving behind?

Kayo

I really like using variations of the sonnet form. I like rime-royal sonnets a lot. I use those a lot in Kumukanda and have come back to them in this book. I find it interesting to use forms without necessarily telegraphing or broadcasting it (although I guess I’m doing that now). I like the rhythms and resonances that arise out of certain closed, received forms, but I’m also getting into free verse again, which was my main mode for a long time before I wrote Kumukanda. Some of the poems in A Blood Condition really explore that free-verse prosody, and break out from ‘traditional’ form, for want of a better word. I think that’s something I’ll be exploring more in subsequent collections and subsequent writing: the possibilities of a more improvisational or experimental form.

Five Dials

It puts me in mind of the way that music, and specifically rap, has inspired and informed your writing, which is something you’re spoken about before. Rap lyrics are one example of that more free-form approach to literature.

Kayo

Yeah. There is some rap prosody in A Blood Condition. ‘16 Bars for the Bits’, for example — a 16 bar is a rap verse form. I’m thinking about that a lot more in my writing now: the form of rap is a little bit looser, more conversational and more direct, maybe. And I’m interested in that. Interested in seeing what arises out of the relationship I have to different traditions in poetry.

‘I’m very taken with the subjunctive in all things historical. What are the other possibilities and tributaries that branch off from what happened?’

Five Dials

I want to ask you about the ‘Origin Myth’ sequence, which comes very early on in the collection, and also speaks to its title. Each poem in that sequence starts with the final line of the previous poem, which feels like another reference to this idea of inheritance, but also, of course, to infection, each piece a link in that chain. It’s a sequence about the HIV epidemic. Could you talk about how you came to write about that?

Kayo

For me, the virus has a very personal resonance. I was born in Zambia, I’m from Zambia, and some parts of Zambia have an adult infection rate close to 25 per cent. So it’s part of the legacy of the place, really, this virus. When I was thinking about the idea of a blood condition, that’s one of the things I was thinking about. It’s a source of national grief in Zambia because there’s no family untouched by the virus. And my family is no different. So I suppose I was always going to write about it if I was going to delve into inheritance and talk more directly about my Zambian-ness. You know, the book opens with a very Zambian poem. So yeah, there’s a very personal connection to HIV and also the politics of its spread. Writing about it was a way of tapping into that personal and more widespread resonance.

Five Dials

Zambia’s presence in the collection is very striking. Sometimes you’re writing about your direct experience of the country, but there are also pieces set before you were born, imagining versions of the country that you have never lived through. It’s almost a nostalgia for a prelapsarian version of the place. In the very first poem [‘Nyaminyami’], for example, you show us the river people and the river god, and of course it’s not a totally utopian vision but it does have this mythic pre-Fall quality to it. It feels very folkloric, that first piece.

Kayo

Yeah, I’m very taken with the subjunctive in all things historical. What are the other possibilities and tributaries that branch off from what happened? And I think, for Zambia, and also for Africa generally, I’m always struck by the wealth: in terms of knowledge and talent and creativity but also natural resources that can be taken and used for all sorts of things. There’s such wealth there. But the proceeds of that wealth weren’t redistributed. And the thing that happens is there’s a kind of generational lack, almost, an inequality that arises from that.

So I was thinking about the alternate possibilities for such a place. Alternate possibilities, to be honest, is one of my perennial themes. There are lots of alternate versions of people and ghosts and attempts to describe a situation from another perspective [in my work]. It’s something that interests me a lot: what might have happened, had things been different.

I think that’s part of the reason we get drawn to nostalgia: this overwhelming sense that we can’t go back to a particular place but we’re still called back to it and it still has a hold on us. For me, Zambia is like that. The place that I left when I was a kid doesn’t exist any more. And the place that existed before I was born doesn’t exist any more .And so I’m piecing it together. There’s a sense in which it can never be real for me in the way that it once was. These poems are a way of connecting to a lived reality that I once experienced but which I can’t any more. I would have to stay there for a long time for it to become my lived reality again. For me to really know it.

Five Dials

I think alongside that sense of possible alternate versions of history there’s also a real sense of possible selves or other selves in the collection. A lot of those selves come out of place, not just Zambia, but when you’re talking about different areas of London, of the north of England, it feels like there’s a slightly different self that emerges from each of those places. And maybe you’re trying to create enough space for each of them to exist or to work out how they can coexist.

Kayo

Place is something that I always come back to, just because I’ve moved around quite so much. I’ve always been fascinated by how different ways of shaping language, as you say, allow us to inhabit different parts of our psyches. There’s something very particular about the Mancunian sense of confidence in the north, for example. Part of that is the way that Mancunian speech works: it’s very present and foregrounded, you know. And then there are softer inflections that you find, and you can kind of romanticize that and say it means that the people of that place are more softly spoken.

I’m just fascinated by what happens to people in different places, how their perspective shifts. Since I’ve had the opportunity to travel to and live in many places, I’ve had the chance to be influenced by so many different things. And I feel compelled to write about that in order to complicate the idea of a stable self.

Five Dials

There’s a tangible ambivalence, particularly in poems like ‘16 Bars for the Bits’ or ‘Postcard from the Sholebrokes’, which hold a specific tension between the problems experienced by those urban communities and making a case for their beauty. People are struggling to pay their rents, knife crime is rising, there is danger and instability, but the intimacy of your gaze on those places is powerfully affirmative. There is a deep sense of claiming those spaces, knowing them and feeling yourself to be of them.

Kayo

I’m always trying to get past that kind of superficial reading of a place as being one thing or another. Trying to get into what complicates a place, what makes people stay there, what makes people think of a place as home even as it might be difficult to live there.

I’ve travelled to a few places that people warned me were dangerous, or whatever else, around the world. And the thing that brings me peace when I travel to those places is that it’s home for lots of people. By and large, that’s what the place is. It’s somebody’s home. It’s somebody’s space of connection and belonging. Being respectful of that is really important.

So that’s what I try and do in writing about places that I didn’t necessarily grow up in but which I inhabit. Trying to find that respectful way of talking about their difficulties, but also just what it’s like to walk through the area and notice its beauty, complicated or qualified though it might be.

Five Dials

One of the words that I wrote down in my notes is reverence, which is kind of what you’re talking about with respect, right? Your work has a deep capacity for reverence, in response to those places, for seeing the numinous quality of everyday spaces and what they actually mean to a person who occupies them.

Kayo

Yeah, I think so. And also willingness to find out new things. To have your preconceptions but be open enough to learn about the history, the stories, the resonances that you might not see as readily on the surface. When you start to talk to someone who’s really connected to a place, you start to capture its magic. In writing about place often I’m trying to do that, trying to speak about how a place can haunt you or captivate you.

Five Dials

Haunting puts me in mind of the pieces about your mother. There’s a more palpable yearning there, for the places that remind you of her and the memories embedded in the place.

Kayo

Going to certain places in London is always reminiscent of experiences I had with her. And I kind of like that, that confusion that my body goes into when I’m there, because it’s a way of holding on even as you have to let go—which is really what those poems in the collection are about. You can let go of the person but being in the place somehow allows you to inhabit history momentarily. And that feels comforting after a while. Initially it’s very stark and difficult but I can find comfort in it now. It’s useful to just go there and let those feelings wash over me.

‘I like for that protective film to slip away at times too. For something to be very plainly stated. The balance between that vulnerability and a more reserved perspective is — I guess it’s my wheelhouse, really’

Five Dials

You have a line, ‘the part of me lost to the realm of ledgers or legend’, which I think could apply to almost every poem in A Blood Condition. It’s about making your peace with the past that you can’t bring back—and the version of yourself that belongs there.

Kayo

Yeah, it’s definitely the through-line that connects the pieces in the collection. This desire to find a new perspective or direction on all of this material; to find a way out of one reading of it.

Five Dials

Should we talk about the ‘Genealogy’ sequence, which is more explicitly about losing your parents? It’s interesting in light of your point about the bitter-sweet consolation of allowing yourself to experience memories—because the poems in ‘Genealogy’ are almost holding themselves apart from the memories. Each one contains a moment so carefully confined, literally bracketed, like you’re only able to look at it briefly, for fear of being overwhelmed by it.

Kayo

I think that’s a very astute reading. Part of the reason that I write some of this stuff in poetic form is because there’s a limit to what that form can contain. I mean, not necessarily, it depends from poet to poet, but in my writing there’s a balance I’m trying to strike between the form and expression. Between improvisation and something more fixed. If I go too far into improvisation, then I become lost somehow. And so the form anchors things in a way that I find useful, in a way that directs my perspective and my gaze. But also, in making public the very direct and difficult feelings that I’m exploring in this book, I have to find a way to feel safe. And I think poetic form can do that sometimes. Especially the way I use it: it’s not a trick exactly, and not a mode of obfuscation, but certainly it helps me to say things that I would otherwise find difficult. It’s a frame around experience, a way of broaching something that feels uncomfortable. And for me, unless I have that, I can’t explore these particular subjects. It’s too difficult.

The thing that I find particularly moving about that, when I read it in other people’s work, is the reluctance of it — you get another perspective on their grief or the difficulty [of expressing it] in terms of the form they’re using. And I really wanted to have that sense of resistance in the book. Because it’s not something I find easy. And so I felt it was important to keep that friction, I suppose. The form affords me a bit of that.

Five Dials

You said in another interview that poetic practice is a kind of masquerade, which I think was about Kumukanda, a collection that has lots of masks in it. I guess that’s another way of thinking about what you’re saying here: form almost like a protective layer between you and the material that allows you to feel more in control.

Kayo

Yeah, I mean, it does, and at the same time it invites interpretations which are outside of your own perspective, which takes control entirely away. Which I think is a good thing. It’s one of the things I most enjoy about publishing work: it stops being mine in quite so direct a sense. But yeah, there is some layer of protection in using certain forms or in writing in a certain way. But I like for that protective film to slip away at times too. For something to be very plainly stated. The balance between that vulnerability and a more reserved perspective is — I guess it’s my wheelhouse, really.

Five Dials

It’s a very fruitful space. I’m thinking about what you said about not being able to approach or express some things any way other than through poetry. And I wonder whether there are any instances of the reverse: things that you couldn’t express in poetry, either because that protective framework isn’t enough, or they just wouldn’t make sense to you in the form?

Kayo

I’m not sure if I can think of anything specific… I suppose generally I find it really difficult to write about a situation which has a number of different possible interpretations or perspectives in poetic form, because my poetic form often involves a single speaker. Others use multiple voices particularly well, but for me that doesn’t really work as well. So I think whenever there’s multiple voices, I have to think about either multiple poems or moving outside of poetic form.

But it’s something I’m challenging myself to do more in poetry: to incorporate several registers and voices and that kind of thing. I think it’s possible, but I guess not necessarily for the poet that I am at this particular moment. Which is really the only poet I can be [laughs]. Multiple-voice things I tend to write in other forms because it allows me to go into sufficient depth. My poetry is very much about suggestion and concision, so I can’t go into certain levels of depth.

Five Dials

I’m wondering about the political perspective in the collection. It feels to me like there’s more of an explicit political position in this collection than your last one.And as you say, a lot of it is connected to your writing about Zambia, and the extraction of various kinds of resources that has happened there. It’s almost an anti-capitalist lens (maybe I’m just reading that on to your work because I tend to see it everywhere). And I wonder whether that was something that you were deliberately moving towards or whether it just emerged as you wrote?

Kayo

Yeah, I mean, that’s been there as a through-line the whole time. Some of my earliest poems are directly politically engaged— though none of them are available to readers now, thank goodness. I’ve always been a very politically engaged person and it stands to reason that my poetry should contain that. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about anti-capitalist activism, nationhood, sovereignty, land rights, certain ecological issues, but it’s not a new thing. Perhaps what’s new is that it’s treated with such a direct or directed perspective. Whereas in other work, I’ve been content to gesture to those political inflections. I think in this work, I wasn’t satisfied with that. I needed to make it explicit at certain points.

And yes, I think that is a response to what the world has been like in my lifetime. I graduated from my first degree in 2008, into recession and austerity, and started writing the poems that formed my first book. The country has also changed since I first moved here in 1993, in lots of different ways. I couldn’t write about the things I’ve inherited without touching on all those political resonances because that’s where my political engagement comes from.You know? I was raised up in that. If I’m interacting with that heritage, it’s going to be political.

Five Dials

The collection is very much marked by loss of various kinds—I think that’s often the thing that politicizes people further, right, when you recognize what you stand to lose, or you start to join the dots of why things have been lost, who’s responsible, who could have prevented it.

Kayo

Yeah, I think so. You ask the most pointed questions in situations of loss. Questions about existence. Those why questions come out a lot more in those particular moments. So, yeah, I think it does make sense, in the context of a book so much about loss, that there should be so many why questions as well.

Five Dials

One of the real sources of joy in the collection, one counterpoint to that loss, is music, which features in all your work. It feels like one of the constants that move with these various versions of yourself, as they evolve and exist in different spaces and different communities. And so I’m interested to ask whether you were listening to music while you wrote it, and what, if any, are the musical influences in the collection?

Kayo

For part of the time I was working on the collection, I started to listen to my mum’s tapes, her lifetime collection of tapes, all of which I inherited. So there’s instances of things that she recorded in different genres, a real mixture of genres from eighties and nineties dancehall to country, which were two of her favourite musics. Listening to all of that was a way of getting into a kind of sonic heritage that was just there in the background for me as a small child. Music was always part of every home that I’ve been in.

And then in terms of do I write listening to music: sometimes. I think what’s truer is that I write in the spirit of music or a piece of music. More often than not, my way into a poem is to find its tune, for want of a better word. And once I can recognize what that tune might be, then it really helps me to continue. It’s a kind of propulsive force. I’m engaged in a musical practice, through language, in writing poetry, so whether I’m listening to something or not, there’s that spirit guiding what I do.

And certainly, when it comes time to edit the work, I’m really interested in how it sounds. Sounding it out is a big part of the process. That strikes me as a musical process too, and one that really helps me to decide when a piece is finished.

‘For me, at its best, on the page or in the air, a poem is a way of codifying certain kinds of sonic pattern’

Five Dials

Where do you stand on hearing poetry aloud versus reading it? Is there a dimension that you don’t get if you’re just meeting it on the page?

Kayo

I think it’s just different. Firstly, I would say it depends on the person who’s reading, because for some people reading on the page is so connected to performance that they can imagine or hear the performance in their heads. Particularly when you have someone like John Cooper Clarke, say, his work is really famous in performance, so when you read it on the page, you can’t help but hear his Salford twang.

I guess for me, at its best, on the page or in the air, a poem is a way of codifying certain kinds of sonic pattern. And you can do that on the page just as well. But it’s just a different kind of music that’s enacted. It’s the difference between reading sheet music and watching a performance. And, you know, you can read sheet music and get a lot of pleasure from what the composer has done. And you can enact it in your head—but you have to be trained in reading in that way.

You make compromises [as a poet] both on the page and in the air for the people who do not experience poetry as clearly in those forms. So when you’re reading your poem aloud, you might make a concession to somebody hearing it for the first time who is not able to read it. And when you’re on the page, you surrender some of that improvisational lightness in favour of the possibility of looking again and again at the same thing. And I think, if you’re doing it well, then you balance those two poles and you create something which is fixed and improvisational at the same time. Ideally. But I think if anybody ever got it completely right, they’d probably stop writing poetry and do something else.

Five Dials

I wanted to end (perhaps predictably) by talking about the end of the collection, because it brings us to a point that feels hopeful and celebratory, turning to romantic love and also returning to the Zambezi River. We’ve passed through the crucible of your reckoning with these various inheritances, and I wondered whether there’s a deliberate sense of homecoming, or of cyclicality, in that moment of renewal and looking to the future.

Kayo

I have to credit my editor, Parisa Ebrahimi, for the cyclical return to the river at the end of the book. She’s really a genius in putting a book together. She’s really exceptionally gifted at that. And she hit upon the idea of separating that long poem throughout the book and using it as a framing narrative.

One of the things that that does is open up a space for transformation. And that transformation is partly about acceptance— any kind of lasting and working relationship is built on that level of acceptance, I guess. I was thinking about the hope that can arise from doing certain kinds of work with what you inherit and coming to terms with what you inherit. That’s why the end of the book looks so much to the future, which is unformed, and feels so open. Because once you move through what’s past, there’s a possibility that opens up in life again: this feeling that everything isn’t determined already. There’s a space for new experiences and possibilities.

That’s why the book ends as it does: because it mirrors the experience of going through the inherited stuff to find peace. The end of the book reflects that peace. And it reflects on how vulnerable we remain but how possible it is to be hopeful in spite of that. I think that’s the main thing I was left with, from working on this book. ◊

A Blood Condition will be released in the UK on 22 April 2021, published by Chatto & Windus.

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