Some poets can pinpoint the time in their lives when they decided, “That’s it, I’m going to be a poet.” Often that moment comes when discovering another poet’s work. In this feature Kayo Chingonyi talks about discovering Douglas Dunn.
Jorie Graham was a film student at New York University when she overheard a class being taught on T.S. Eliot and found, in the few lines she heard, something her ‘soul recognised‘. Don Paterson speaks of a similar moment, after he first moved to London to work as a musician, when he saw Tony Harrison reading one of his poems on TV and thought ‘I’m having some of this‘.
When I started writing in my own time, when I was ten or eleven, I focused on stories. I loved studying ‘The Highwayman’ at school and entered some poems into competitions but never thought of poetry as a major interest. This changed when I found a copy of Douglas Dunn’s Selected Poems in the Romford branch of Oxfam (using the flawed but oddly effective method of choosing books that looked interesting). Taken in by the pattern on the cover, I opened the book at random and started reading a poem called ‘In The Small Hotel’. I came to the words: “They sit like chessmen/At their linen squares, waiting to be moved” and found it to be such a perfect description of people sitting at tables in a hotel that I couldn’t believe someone had put the words together. This was the first time I remember thinking “I wish I’d written that.” I bought the book, read and re-read that poem and then worked my way slowly through the rest. In this process I came across many poems that I still return to spanning nearly twenty years of Dunn’s career.
One of the many things I got from reading Dunn was a commitment to writing poems that try to make pictures in the reader’s head. This is now so much a part of what I’m trying to do when I write that I don’t really think about it. That’s the important thing about reading poetry; it helps you work out what kind of poet you want to be. Since I don’t want to stay writing in the same way forever, I still read widely so that I’m constantly challenging my ideas about what makes a good poem by exposing myself to different ways of writing them. This is useful because, as it turns out, there’ isn’t a formula to writing poems; each time I’m faced with a blank page means starting from scratch and seeing where the poem will take me.
If you would like to read and listen to recordings of a selection of Douglas Dunn’s poems you can do so at the Poetry Archive.
Kayo’s Top 5 Recommended Poetry Books:
Fifty Strong: Fifty Poems Chosen by Teenagers for Teenagers (Hayward Gallery Publishing, 2004)
A very readable introduction to poetry covering various styles, from Maya Angelou to Leonard Cohen, edited by teenagers from across the UK.
Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe, 2009)
A refreshing and important snapshot of some of the younger poets currently writing in Britain.
Luke Kennard, The Solex Brothers (Salt Publishing, 2007)
A cavalcade of curious characters, odd situations and beautiful images. An engrossing, enjoyable book.
Helen Mort, The Shape of Every Box (Tall-Lighthouse 2007)
Mort writes poems which are memorable for their ideas and subjects as well as their musical quality.
Jay Bernard, Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl (Tall-Lighthouse, 2008)
Bernard is a writer with a vivid imagination and generous intellect; qualities which inform the wonderful poems in this book.
Kayo Chingonyi was born in Zambia but has spent most of his 24 years in the UK. His poems have been published in a range of print and online magazines and anthologies such as City Lighthouse (Tall-Lighthouse 2009), The Shuffle Anthology (The Shuffle Press, 2009), Verbalized (British Council, 2010), Paradise by Night (Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2010) and The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt Publishing, 2011).
He has performed his work across the UK and internationally, with the British Council, at such venues and events as Tate Britain, London Literature Festival, The Big Chill, The RSC Swan Theatre, Buckingham Palace, State Theatre of South Africa (Pretoria), New Space Theatre (Cape Town) and Museum Africa (Johannesburg). He read English Literature at The University of Sheffield and is a Visiting Writer at Kingston University.
Did you have a moment when you decided that you were going to write poetry, or did you come to poetry gradually? Is there a poet whose work you return to again and again?