Former PRISM poetry editor (2014-15) Rob Taylor sat down with Winnipeg poet and spoken word artist Chimwemwe Undi to discuss her debut chapbook “The Habitual Be,” part of the 2017 New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set (Akashic Books, 2017). Photo Credit: Derek Ford Studios.
listing (V.) – Chimwemwe Undi
in dog years, I am dead. in Black years, alive. so: exceptional, increasingly so. I ask strangers for directions on pocket scraps & build myself a map home as cohesive as a litany i am having trouble remembering. i am having trouble remembering there are too many bodies in this room built for bodies we are magic typecast as disappearing acts. history whispered into memories. & easier things: 1. the prime ministers in chronological order, 2. My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos, 3. the angle at which the earth leans, shaking us off like water there is too much to say for this mouth built for praying there are too many names to unhear so I don’t have to remember or truly, repeat to meaninglessness or truly, forget them, outrage a poor mnemonic device I am having trouble remembering I am forgetting & that is the worst part I cannot hold a name long enough to know it. even the faces are growing statistical, the write ups into archives. I know guilt better than grief, as well as a restlessness, better than a Black body breathing still
(Akashic Books/APBF, 2017).
Reprinted with permission.
The opening lines of The Habitual Be‘s first poem “listing (V.)” are as arresting as any opening lines I’ve read in quite some time. How did they come to you, and at what point in the process of writing the poem? More generally, would you say there is a common way in which you “build” your poems out? Do you usually start with an idea, an image, a line?
This poem is a big example of how coming up through spoken word has influenced my writing. That little bait-and-switch at the beginning elicits audience laughter and then, usually, a sigh or murmur exactly when their guard is down. The first line of this poem, I saw on a hat at a truck stop, bizarrely enough, and jotted down in my smartphone notepad. Most of my poems are born like that, from disconnected ideas found and gathered over the course of living, and then eventually woven together or rather, like, collapsed into something coherent.
My writing style is about 90% scavenging. I imagine if I was living and writing before the time of the smartphone, I’d be that caricatural poet with scraps of paper falling out of their pockets.
In her introduction to your chapbook, poet and academic Tsitsi Jaji notes that “These poems… bear witness to Southern Africans’ deep history of itinerate being.” And your bio attests to this, listing Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Manitoba (both “Treaty 1 territory” and “Winnipeg”) as places of personal grounding. The poems themselves move between Africa and Canada, often quite fluidly (“My father says (laughing) that Anishinaabe sounds African”). How do you think place shapes a person?
Reading Tsitsi’s incredibly generous intro to my chapbook is one of the greatest joys I have experienced as a writer, I will say that. I’m an immigrant who has never really called another place home. I’ve always had a Canadian passport, but lived much of my life in southern African countries that are not the countries my parents grew up in. I have a name and a body that a lot of people read as a neon sign indicating I am not truly from here, and that has, to an extent, been true everywhere I have been. Place has shaped me and my work a huge amount, but more often by rejecting some part of me than by really grounding me in any way.
“I’m an immigrant who has never really called another place home”—that’s a striking thought, and connects a bit with your poem “Mzungu.” The poem is about a young interracial relationship gone bad, and it takes ideas of “the other” and grounds them in the personal, and in the body. The title itself (a word used in many East and Southern African languages to refer to white people, but which technically means something more along the lines of “wanderer” or “foreigner”) feels particularly apt. Who, or what, is being addressed by the title (the boy’s whiteness, his gender, or the speaker’s own foreignness in the situation) seems to shift around as the poem advances. How, and when in the process or writing the poem, did you come to that title? What does the word mzungu mean to you now, writing it in Winnipeg outside of the context of its usual usage, as an “immigrant who has never really called another place home”?
The context of this poem has changed, as has its referent. I will say the piece is less about a specific relationship than about unlearning to pursue the stereotypical white male protagonist as dictated by heteronormativity and white supremacy and, like, the Disney Channel. Mzungu, by itself, to me, has always been as much adjective as noun, and uttered in isolation, describes a sense of both cluelessness and entitlement that is magnified when that mzungu is on their home turf, so to speak.
Speaking of your “home turf” of Winnipeg/Treaty 1 Territory, The Habitual Be features a number of poems which touch in one way or another on Indigenous issues in Canada, most explicitly “Sangena” where you compare South African apartheid with Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. You write, “and why should it be different? / What is different?” then later, “Suddenly we are turning two blind eyes and pretending that they are blue.” How has your background shaped your thinking on the politics around Indigenous issues in Canada? And vice versa, how has your awareness of Indigenous issues affected your thinking about Southern African politics and history?
My understanding of southern African history, and indeed of Canadian history, is emerging, and consists of a lot of unlearning and assessing what I feel I already know. My master’s thesis dealt partially with the South African government’s attempt to foster reconciliation without fully and critically acknowledging what was being reconciled and why. This is something I see here in Canada: an attempt to decolonize without unmaking the colony, and I’m frustrated by and fascinated with these tensions and the ways that colonialism imitates itself as it makes nations and spreads across them. This shows up in my poetry, in my activism and teaching, and probably in my water cooler banter.
Ha! And “decolonize without unmaking the colony”—yes, exactly!
Most of the poems in The Habitual Be are lineated, while “Sangena” is largely a prose poem, and “A History of Houses Built Out of Spite” is, strikingly, a lineated poem presented as prose, but with slashes to mark the intended line breaks. Could you speak a bit about your feelings around lineated v. prose poems, and the choice you made in “A History of Houses…” to straddle the two? How do you think each influences the reader’s experience of the poem?
It might be a result of not having any formal training in poetics, but I don’t necessarily have strong and consistent feelings about form. I’m not attached to any structure or even genre, necessarily. I don’t think of myself as primarily a spoken word artist, but I’m as driven by sound as even the most dedicated performance poet. The vast majority of my poems are read aloud again and again, in private and in front of audiences, before a single non-me reads the poems, so, often, the music of the work is in my body before I think seriously about how to represent it on the page, and when I think about form earlier than that, it’s to remind myself what the poem should sound like when I read it next.
Could you speak more generally about the influence spoken word has had on your page poetry, both the poems themselves and the way you present them on the page?
Eve Ewing tweeted “They lied to you about what poetry is” and I was like, true, they did. Spoken word exposed me to new truths about what poems can be, and the contemporary class of poets, especially American poets of colour who are openly and proudly influenced by spoken word and hip hop, constantly remind me that there are many, many truths about what poems can be, and look like, and feel like, and make me feel.
As far as the page, specifically, I think attending slams and going to spoken word shows, and seeing dynamic features drove home, for me, how switching up the form can surprise an audience, or a reader, into paying better attention. In 2014, I saw my friend Sabrina Benaim surprise an audience into hearing a familiar story in a new way, by dancing through it, displacing her voice and silencing herself in a poem about silencing, and I don’t think that kind of innovation should be or can be limited to the stage.
Every single poem I write, or at least every choice I make within it, is “after” someone, whether I realize it or not. An explicit aftering, for me, is placing my poem across the table from the mentioned poet’s poem, or in the case of the poem written after Audre, with her lifetime of work. Audre Lorde is one of my favourite poets. We live close by in terms of the intersections of our identities, and for that and other reasons, her work resonates deeply with me.
“won’t you celebrate with me,” the Lucille Clifton poem, is one that haunted me if haunting can be lovely—for about 3 months, showing up in my inbox, in podcasts, in a workshop, on my walk home. I thought that, maybe, it was placing itself in front of me so often because it wanted to be a lens.
Your chapbook appears as one of ten in this year’s New Generation African Poets chapbook box set. The box set is designed to introduce readers to African poets they most likely wouldn’t encounter otherwise. Likewise, I’d like to end this interview by giving you the space to recommend an African poet with whom North American readers are likely unfamiliar. Who is exciting you right now in the world of African poetry, and why?
Gbenga Adesina is a previous winner of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, for which I was shortlisted and through which I was selected for the box set. His work is remarkably tactile and eloquent, and remarkably sticky, by which I mean, months after first encountering it, I found myself recalling it and thinking it had popped up in a conversation with a particularly bright friend. That is, to me, high praise and a strong recommendation.
Chimwemwe Undi’s poetry is as “sticky” as it gets. You can pick up a copy of The Habitual Be, as part of the New Generation African Poets (Nne) box set via the Akashic Books website or, I suppose, from Amazon.
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.