Kayo Chingonyi – commissioned poet

The Council commissioned the poet Kayo Chingonyi to help explore ideas about naturalness in bioethics debates.

After spending some time with the Nuffield Council team, Kayo published a first poem in September 2015, followed by four new poems published on 30 November 2015. Read the complete set of Kayo’s works below.

The poems

Ode to Natural Hair (Nov 2015)

The year waves came in, when we sang
you’re sweet like chocolate, boy
without shame, everyone had a method
for taming even the most rebellious head
of pepper grains into slick, crazy-paved,
deference to R ‘n’ B stars who loomed
large from hoardings, pasted into diaries
and exercise books, their lyrics written
out on the backs of hands. We wanted
to be wanted like that, so we slept with
our mothers’ head wraps tight round
our heads to keep the façade in place.

Some learned the grace of clippers,
the better to keep their edges in check,
others would get the barber to shape
them up with a razor blade so the skin
stung and the stubble stayed hidden.
But for all we tried to hide our natural
hair it came back, rising unbidden
from our scalps, as if each follicle
knew that soon we would covet shaved
lines in sideburns, eyebrows, anything
to set ourselves apart, betray our roots.

Fidelity (Nov 2015)

we have learned to imitoot you exarktly.’ – The Simpsons, ‘Tree House of Horror VII’

The doppelganger arrived in the small hours
with a suitcase of clothes identical to mine
down to the last crease and palm oil stain
(the institute is meticulous about such things).

A team of techno-detectives have condensed
my digital footprint to the perfect wallet litter:
train tickets, a Polaroid taken on the day
of my graduation, a receipt from the Museo

Nacional de Antropología’s gift shop.
Every detail fits my natural inclinations.
Still, something sticks, and here the doppelganger
is to divine the finer points of my ontology.

We begin with the day Burial fell into hearing,
a side-street in Newcastle, headphones itching
the skin of my ears. He has a lot of questions
I cannot answer in any language I speak.

After several weeks the doppelganger leaves
to complete his mission. He stands in for me
with such fidelity I have, at times, slipped
and started thinking we are one and the same.

Some days it is hard to know who imitates who.
If, after all, I am not the sum of my habits
but a mass of tangled possibilities, then maybe
I am pretending to be him pretending to be me.

Against Retromania (Nov 2015)

Once, I held friends’ home phone numbers
in my head like songs I’d known all my life.

It’s not the conversations I best remember
but the digits on my tongue as I said the spell

to myself, the different tones when I pressed
each key, a particular music. It was all timing:

get it wrong and you’d be stuck with someone’s
mischievous sibling, pretending to be them, or,

worse yet, a disapproving parent—who wasn’t
really sure you were quite the right type of friend.

Then came the days of sms, and voice gave way
to text, gave way to elevated breath in the wake

of telephone conversations—clumsy, now, since
we fell out of practice. Before the age of digital

natives; a nation of people looking down at screens,
elders say we were beings of speech, the real thing.

But maybe some part of us craves this solitude.
For all I miss the rattle of phone box coin slots,

for all I lament the end of conversation, I knew
all along it was over as soon at it began—given

all these ways we invented for talking to someone
who isn’t there, the way I am talking to you now.

Naturalized Citizens (Nov 2015)

To be subjects somewhere
we waited in the shadow of municipal buildings
that we might learn a mania for queues
each of us with a story
and those behind glass the harshest
critics—who have forgotten what it takes
to make the worst days of your life
catchy; a tune children might sing.

To be subjects somewhere
we shortened our names
or, better still, changed them wholesale:
KiKi for Christabel, Victor for Wojtek
the histories we carried given over,
like passports of lesser standing,
until we didn’t know memory from myth
and no one lived who could say.

To be subjects somewhere
we stood, out of place, so long
we dreamed of going back
to where our names were
not some bitter herb added
to the local cuisine, to where people
did not watch us with suspicion
as if genes could hold a flag.

The Realms of Possibility (Sept 2015)

I

It fell to me to manage his affairs.
The Eames went to his daughter,

the mini water cooler—a gift from
the faculty—served as a shrine till

mildew made a cleaner throw it out.
His papers were couriered over night

to his alma mater where he concluded
his early work into the nature of nature

before taking up a research fellowship
in the Department of Natural Sciences

(a short-lived post from which he resigned
amid pressure from a smear campaign)

It is not for man to question the nature
of things read one of the banners

held aloft at a rally outside the gates
of the university’s central library.

The story kept local news outlets ticking
over for several weeks, indeed it was

The Mercury who secured the quote
that is in now our departmental credo

A journalist caught the professor
in a moment of openness outside

Perkins Tea Room and Sandwich Bar
What do you say, Professor, to those

who say that the work you’re doing
is against God? To which, he quipped

I am certain of nothing and will keep
asking questions until I can prove it.

II

In spite of a subtle gift for allusion evinced in the twists and turns of his lectures, skilful bon mots woven, always, into the thread of his sentences, his coinages rarely caught-on. At one stage, when several students in his supplementary seminar let their membership lapse, he started hiding cryptograms in the undergraduate course pack (awarding extra points to those among us who took the time to solve these little problems). This, and his wilful disregard for the letter of the syllabus, was how I came to be working as a research assistant on the project for which he is, perhaps, most famous. The breakthrough came by accident and, in truth, wasn’t seen as a breakthrough at the time. There was an anomaly in the numbers, who can say, now what caused it but for months our work was to find out why. Specialists in the field consulted with the team regularly and it is from this period of not-knowing that we found some of the most valuable data. Many of us still remember the briefing at which the first inklings of a new idea gathered steam. There was something in the way we spoke that day, as if each word were being re-made in the moment of speaking, as if its meaning might any moment scatter like seeds in a stiff breeze coming to land in a strange place and finding a home there where they had no business being.

Watch a video of Kayo performing The Realms of Possibility: 

“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of someone acting as executor of a will or being left something in a will. When it came to this commission it happened that I had a sketch of a character in mind set in the world of scientific research. After I had written the first part the second and third followed quickly. I wanted this poem to introduce the main theme I’ll be exploring in more detail in subsequent poems for this project: the idea that acts of poetic and scientific inquiry are as much about framing a question as coming to a conclusion.” – Kayo Chingonyi talking about the project

Kayo’s blog

Naming something that is at the limits of naming

In October 2015, Kayo attended the Council’s expert roundtable, which was an opportunity to test the preliminary findings of the Council’s work on naturalness, and seek guidance on whether the Council should develop any recommendations for specific audiences. Following the event, Kayo wrote a blog post Naming something that is at the limits of naming for the Council exploring the uses of the terms ‘natural’, ‘unnatural’ and ‘nature’ in language.

About Kayo

Kayo Chingonyi was born in Zambia in 1987, moving to the UK in 1993. He holds a BA in English Literature from The University of Sheffield and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London and works as a writer, events producer, and creative writing tutor.

His poems have been published in a range of magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review,Magma, Wasafiri, The Best British Poetry 2011 and 2013 (Salt Publishing, 2011 and 2013), The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt Publishing, 2011), Out Of Bounds (Bloodaxe, 2012), The World Record (Bloodaxe, 2012), and in a debut pamphlet entitled Some Bright Elegance (Salt Publishing, 2012).

Kayo has also been invited to read from his work at venues and events across the UK and internationally. In 2012 he represented Zambia at Poetry Parnassus, a festival of world poets staged by The Southbank Centre as part of the London 2012 Festival. He was recently awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and shortlisted for the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize.

Find out more about Kayo at: https://kchingonyi.wordpress.com/bio/

Previous work

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