Zambian-born British poet Kayo Chingonyi has been chosen from a shortlist of six authors to win the world’s biggest literary prize for young writers, the International Dylan Thomas Prize. Last night (10 May), at a ceremony at Swansea University, he was presented with the prestigious award and a prize of £30,000 for his debut poetry collection Kumukanda (Vintage, £10). This bold collection explores black masculinity and rites of passage for young black men in Britain today. He spoke to Big Issue North after the event.
You were the only poet on the shortlist for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize. Were you surprised to win over prose writers and what was your reaction to winning?
I think anyone who sat near me in the room when it was announced saw the shock written all over my face. Even as I was invited to the lectern to speak I had to hold onto it for a moment and let it sink in. The shortlist, and indeed the longlist, had some wonderfully gifted writers on it. I feel honoured to be thought worthy of such company.
You’re a performer as much as a poet. Do your poems serve different purposes whether read or listened to?
Speaking poems aloud is important to me. It was my way into the poetry community and I still love being in the audience at a reading and hearing something that sets off new pathways in my brain. As to whether the poems “serve different purposes” I would say I’m trying, in my poems, to reach a balance between things so the performance and publication of my poems serve the same purpose, which is to bring me into community with readers and listeners through language.
You are an MC, producer and DJ too. Are musicians overlooked as serious poets and do you hope to bridge that gap?
I love music and I write songs and DJ primarily for fun. That is not my job but it is a part of my creativity and feeds into my poetry writing. I think artists of various disciplines have a lot to learn from each other. I don’t know if musicians are overlooked as “serious poets” but I do find the possibilities of an interdisciplinary artistic practice beguiling.
The government is calling for a crackdown on drill videos. Are they a legitimate form of expression for kids or an incitement to the current wave of violence on London’s streets?
The government has systematically stripped back the kinds of community intervention that prevent acts of violence and drill is being used as a scapegoat. That is not to say the imagery in certain videos is unproblematic but that imagery is reflective of a deeper societal problem which transcends one place and is a function of the way toxic masculinity operates, the way class operates, the ways people are racialised, and the consequences of austerity.
Wordsworth called poetry “emotion recollected in tranquility”. What do you make of this definition?
I always thought I wasn’t a Wordsworth fan until I read JH Prynne’s account of the Wordsworth poem The Solitary Reaper. I think Wordsworth’s definition is not that meaningful to me because I think poems can embody feeling as well as recollecting it but then I cannot ask Wordsworth what he meant.
Your title refers to “initiation” rites in Zambia, which you left aged six. Did you miss that experience and was there an alternative form for you in London?
I didn’t take part in those rites and there was no particular singular process in the UK but I did move through certain things that pushed me, perhaps earlier than I would have liked, across the threshold into adulthood. Being perceived as “other”, for example; bereavement; moving around a lot…
It’s hard to know how the acclaim that comes from the prize will change your life but will the prize money be transformative in your life?
I have been a freelance writer for a while and this will be the first time I can save for the future; that hasn’t felt possible up until this point and is an enormous privilege for which I am very grateful.