collapsed into something coherent - "The Habitual Be" by Chimwemwe Undi

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

from The Habitual Be
(Akashic Books/APBF, 2017).
Reprinted with permission.

The Habitual Be
by Chimwemwe Undi
Last year I interviewed Ngwatilo Mawiyoo about her poetry chapbook Dagoretti Corner, which appeared as part of the 2016 incarnation of the New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set. Ngwatilo was living in Vancouver at the time, and it was a great joy this year to see that another poet with Canadian connections, Winnipeg's own Chimwemwe Undi, is featured in the 2017 edition.

The series, helmed by poets Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, is now in its fourth year and continues to grow (this year's edition features ten chapbooks, up from eight in 2016). It's one of the best, most eclectic, most engaging reads you'll have each year, and I can't recommend it enough.

This goes doubly for Chimwemwe Undi's The Habitual Be. The chapbook is equal parts personal and political: its politics infused into its intimate relationships; its relationships anchoring its politics in real bodies and lives. Its poems explore what we can learn from one another (across cultures, across histories, across the disparate parts of ourselves), and the limitations of that learning, be the subject apartheid, Indigenous reconciliation, romantic relationships, or religious faith.

"These are poems to break a spell," says Tsitsi Jaji in her introduction to the chapbook, and I couldn't agree with her more. But also, they cast their own. New spells, better ones. Songs, really. Full of doubt and limitations and hopeful, good thought.

I was lucky enough to chat with Chimwemwe about her chapbook this fall, and the conversation touched on the aforementioned politics, the inspirations for her poems, how spoken word has shaped her page poetry, and much more. I hope you enjoy!

Chimwemwe Undi doesn't ever have scraps of paper falling out of her pockets
because she carries five laptops with her at all times.
Photo: Derek Ford Studios.

Rob: 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. 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?

Chimwemwe: 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.

Rob: 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?

Chimwemwe: 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.

Rob: "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"?

Chimwemwe: 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.

Rob: Speaking of your "home turf" of Winnipeg/Treay 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?

Chimwemwe: 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.

Rob: 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?

Chimwemwe: 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.

Rob: Could you speak more general about the influence spoken word has had on your page poetry, both the poems themselves and the way you present them on the page?

Chimwemwe: 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.

Rob: Near the end of the chapbook you write poems "after" Lucille Clifton and Audre Lorde. Could you speak about the influence these two writers have had on your work?

Chimwemwe: 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.

Rob: 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?

Chimwemwe: 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.


As someone who's now read a whole bunch of Chimwemwe Undi's poetry, I can tell you it's 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.


Ontario Reading Sprint

I'm doing five readings in four days in Southern Ontario next week. I'll sleep on the plane? I'll sleep on the plane.

I'm very excited for this mini-tour, the last hurrah for The News as well as a pre-hurrah for "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project, which arrived on my doorstop only yesterday!

Soooo many elephants!

I won't be launching "Oh Not So Great" in Vancouver until January (stay tuned for details), so folks in Ontario be sure to bootleg copies and make your millions selling them across the border.

I'm really thrilled to be able to do all these readings (my first time reading in each city, save Toronto), all the more so because of the far-more-talented-than-me poets who I get to read beside: Liz Ross, Chris Banks, Catherine Graham and Roo Borson:

I am half as intelligent as Roo, hence my head being half as large in the poster.

Roo Borson! Only one of my poetry idols, whose Night Walk was one of the first great Canadian poetry books I read, and whose Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida remains one of my favourite poetry collections of the 21st Century. I'm going to keep it cool. Cool cool cool cool cool. After I get her to sign all my books, of course.

The details on all the readings:

Say It! Reading Series
Monday, November 20th, 2017
7:30 p.m. (doors open 7 p.m.)
The Human Bean
80 King Street West
Cobourg, Ontario
Reading with: Liz Ross and Rachel Revoy

Art Bar Reading Series

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017
8:00 p.m.
Free Times Cafe
320 College Street
Toronto, Ontario
Reading with: Catherine Graham and Chris Banks

Poetry London
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
7:30 p.m.
London Public Library, Landon Branch
167 Wortley Road
London, Ontario
Reading with: Roo Borson

Redeemer University College Reading
Thursday, November 23rd, 2017
4:30 p.m.
777 Garner Road East
Ancaster, Ontario

Hamilton Poetry Centre

Thursday, November 23rd, 2017
7:15 p.m.
Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton
1060 King Street West
Hamilton, Ontario

If you're in the region, I'd love to see you at one of these readings. And if I see you on two different nights I'll give you a free book for your unreasonable loyalty!


a Tyrannosaur’s metabolism

I’ve heard some people say, upon winning some honour or another, that their satisfaction lies in the knowledge that more people will read their work. And, yeah, sure, that’s cool (I guess). I’ve heard others say that they don’t care about awards at all. To me, the latter are like those skinny folks with a Tyrannosaur’s metabolism who brag they can eat whatever they want without gaining a pound; blind to their own good fortune, deaf to how obnoxious their virtuous indifference sounds. What a privilege to be above such things! What luck to find yourself in that elite, enlightened class, so deeply connected to your art that you can practice it completely independent of how it has impressed itself upon the world.

- Jared Young, on thinking his book just maybe might have possibly been longlisted for the Giller Prize, over at Canadian Notes & Queries. You can read the whole silly thing here.


there is nothing else to say

James Baldwin: Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know the effort is

Interviewer: Can you discern talent in someone?

Baldwin: Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.

- James Baldwin, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.