Kayo Chingonyi

The poet reflects on how our sense of community and dialect has shifted over the year, ahead of Sheffield Libraries' digital dinner time of poetry and film

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The last public event that I took part IRL was at Firth Park Library in Sheffield in March last year. The typical rhythm of my life is that, in the past, such events have taken up between a third and half of my working engagements the year. It’s strange to be sat here writing this in the same room I’ve been sat in for 11 months but of course I’m incredibly grateful to have that.

I had become used to being in the world in a particular way: meeting new people, sharing conversation, capturing overheard snippets in my notebook. Part of my joy in working on Collections in Verse – a programme of poetry events inspired by British Library collections – was that it would be about community engagement. If it has taught us anything this last year has expanded our notions of community engagement. The library where the March event was held became a food bank when lockdown hit. This is the kind of agile role that libraries serve in the community. They are spaces of exchange and working on this project made me feel proud such spaces still exist. Working on this project gave me a sense of how endangered such spaces are.

And this sense of endangerment made me think about language: the words that we speak, how they came to be and how they cease to exist as time passes. What I noticed is that often the words we lose are hyperlocal in character. These are the words that give us a sense of engagement within a small community. What happens when these words and phrases are lost? The contours and complexities of a community are lost. This is something I keep thinking about. What are the parts of myself I sacrifice for my voice to be palatable or explicable to a wider audience? How much does shame inform my choice to lose certain words and phrases from my vocabulary? These are the central questions at the heart of linguistics scholar Johanna Blakey’s research.

Johanna, who I was fortunate enough to collaborate with as part of Collections in Verse, connected the threads between class, shame, inheritance and upward mobility, as they relate to the words we speak. Being in Firth Park, among people who speak in accents that are more or less broad (broad is the word many people used to describe that depth and richness of connection to an earlier influence in language) was a chance to listen to the evolution of language. This was a really powerful aspect of the project, guiding the poems I wrote, all of which are dictionary definitions celebrating Yorkshire dialect words. This is my own grammar of this place. Having moved back to Yorkshire three years ago this project has connected me to rhythms that shaped the tail end of my teens, as an undergraduate in Sheffield. I hadn’t realised how much these Yorkshire idioms had seeped into my consciousness. I have added them to the influences that I draw from the North East and from a long season of living in London. The result is hybrid.

When it flows, I feel connected to a history that stretches out far longer than my lifespan will

And in this hotchpotch is found the living English language, which has always been subject to mutation, influence and flux. I love speaking in a language that is provisional in this way. Writing in such a language is joyful, because there are thousands of variations. In that space of variation, we get a writer’s personality. That’s what this enterprise is all about: the communication of one personality with another or a group of others. This is why this technology I’m using to communicate with you at this particular moment was created.

Tapping into that as a poet feels magical. When it flows, I feel connected to a history that stretches out far longer than my lifespan will. I feel supported by an ensemble of writers. I feel like I’m adding my own small instrumentation to the grand orchestra of literature. But it troubles me that we think so often of literature as a particular kind of language when the truth is that, at its best, literature is composed of the kind of language that moves and cannot be adequately pinned down. Collections in Verse has connected me to this truth and I will take this gift on with me. This is one of the richest gifts a writer can receive: a renewed sense of what is at stake each time we approach the blank page.

Digesting History invites audiences to join a digital dining table from their own homes, where recipes, riddles and new poetry will be shared by Kayo Chingonyi, Rachel Bower and Joe Kriss inspired by their visit to the British Library’s 2018 exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War and their conversations with Sheffield communities. The event is free but donations will be taken for Open Kitchen Social Club, which supports destitute asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and those in need in Sheffield. Book at

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