Ocean Vuong and Kayo Chingonyi’s recent reading is one of the most spectacular that I have attended. R. A. Villanueva introduced the event by noting that the audience would be hearing ‘Poetry with a capital “P”’, praising the ‘staggeringly brilliant’ debut collections of the two poets. When you read their books, he asserted, ‘you start feeling this thing in your gut and it’s a mixture of envy and awe and pure gratefulness – pure thanks – for their work being in the world’. Rather than run through the poets’ biographies (‘They’ve won pretty much every damn thing in the universe!’), R. A. let the work speak for itself, motioning Kayo on stage, and wishing aloud that we had entrance music.
Kayo begins his reading with a polite and low-voiced ‘Good evening’. Answered by a member of the audience, he smiles: ‘I love that, someone responded properly’. This audience interaction would flavour much of the evening, which was punctuated by cheering, whooping, and clapping for both poets, as well as other playful interjections. Kayo was pleased to be reading with Ocean, one of his ‘favourite poets in the world’, and spoke of the ‘kinship’ that exists between writers as they read together. The first poem he reads contains ‘everything that I want to get across to the world about myself’, he says, including his love of garage music and clubs. It is called ‘The Colour of James Brown’s Scream’ (also the title of the pamphlet that Kayo published with Akashic in 2016), and earns spontaneous applause from the audience. Kayo’s manner on stage is relaxed and easy, and it is clear throughout that the audience is very much on his side. As he adjusts the microphone before his second poem, he encourages his listeners to ‘talk among yourselves, flirt, ask for phone numbers – this is the moment’, and indeed there is a distinctly convivial feeling in the air.
‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’, the second poem that Kayo reads, is a longer piece centred on garage, pirate radio, and the lure of cassette tapes. ‘My first entry into art and lyricism was writing garage lyrics’, Kayo explains, and the poem charts how ‘Hours lost / to the underwear section of Littlewoods catalogue / gave way to R&B on E numbers, hi-hats the hiss / of hydraulic pistons, snares like tins dropped / on tiled floors’. Kayo’s reading is rhythmic, perfectly timed – he makes the audience wait on slight pauses between words, heightening the tension of certain passages, and at other moments letting loose with ‘badboy flow’:
k to the a to the y to the o
lyrical G with a badboy flow
if you don’t know better get to know
I’m k to the a to the y to the –
The first line of this passage is met with whoops and cheers, and sitting in the room, I have the sense that this is how poetry should be listened to – with joyous attention and delight, as a communication between poet and audience, and back again. The pleasure the audience takes in the rap-style firing of the lines makes the poem’s ending strike yet more poignantly:
In time, I could rattle off The Slim Shady LP line for line,
though no amount of practice could conjure the pale skin
and blue eyes that made Marshall a poet and me
just another brother who could rhyme.
After reading several more poems, including a joyous piece dedicated to his niece, Kayo changes place with Ocean, who steps on stage and thanks Kayo ‘for – being’. The words are key to the openness and generosity Ocean exhibits when he talks about poetry. ‘The beauty of the poem is that in a way we’re building this little bridge made of line breaks, where we get to meet each other and say “me too”’, Ocean says. He thanks Cape, his publisher, for bringing his book to a British audience, and notes that the room we are gathered in ‘feels in many ways like an extension of the living room I didn’t know I had’. A line like this sounds pithy, but Ocean’s delivery is dreamy and wondrous. He is overcome to be in a room full of people who have ‘chosen to read poetry’, believing the act of reading – and particularly, reading poetry – to be an ‘act of resistance’.
The first poem Ocean reads grew out of his reading of Homer, who in his ‘mythologising of history’, helped him to ‘turn my gaze to American history and its problematics, and how I might mythologise that’. His rendition of the poem ‘Of Thee I Sing’ is intense, almost whispered, with each word weighted as if he is pouring his whole soul into his voice. The effect is unnerving – at moments, I feel faint – and utterly powerful. Later, he talks of language as a ‘place of refuge’, and questions what it means to have a ‘safe space’. ‘As a queer person of colour, perhaps safety is not so much a structure but a feeling, a moment. Perhaps a moment where I have the agency for joy’, Ocean notes. ‘And so I decided to write this ode – for masturbation’. The audience, startled into laughter, settles back to hear the poem that focuses on this ‘inexhaustible joy’:
of chewed stars
to be lost in
is to find within it
Ocean finishes by reading ‘Notebook Fragments’. The poem is written in ‘homage to this form so many of us queer folks have – the diary, the journal, the notebook – where we get to speak perhaps more fully to it, this emptiness, than we do even to our own family, or loved ones’. His reading echoes the fragmentary style of the poem, drawing out the pauses between lines, and hesitating after the poem’s rhetorical questions: ‘Shouldn’t heaven by superheavy by now?’
After Ocean’s reading, R. A. returns to the stage with questions about aspects of both poets’ work. He is interested in how the poetry collections have been constructed – their ‘architecture’ – as well as their cover imagery. Might a poetry book be assembled as a mix tape? The analogy strikes a chord with Kayo, who notes that this is exactly the right way to think about it. Talking with his aunt helped him come up with the title of his book, Kumukanda, and the title in turn gave him something to ‘write towards’. He then needed ‘an image that brought that kind of spirit’, and was drawn to the work of artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The process of putting together the physical book is similar to how the poems come together in the first place, he says: ‘There are ideas and sounds floating about, and I just need to get the right image to make those sounds concrete’. Ocean, in contrast, had no ambition for a collection – ‘I just wrote’. He cites Virginia Woolf as an influence in his desire to constantly re-examine in his poetry, noting that ‘each poem was just another gaze’. When a collection was on the horizon, he explains that ‘my first impulse was that I want Asian bodies on the cover of my book – and I want them to be living’. In the US version of the cover, the two women in the photograph, which also shows Ocean as a child, have their eyes covered; in the UK edition, their faces are cropped out of the image. Ocean explains that this was important for him, as ‘I did not want to claim my story as their witnessing – I didn’t want to speak for them’.
The audience also had the chance to ask questions, and a jumpy microphone prompted cries of ‘Reload! Remix!’ from R. A. One woman asks whether both poets had a sense of giving themselves to poetry, and Kayo replied that ‘there isn’t a day that goes by’ where he doesn’t think of poetry, or a poem that has moved him. The poems that he has memorised come back to him at ‘odd times’ – sometimes mid-conversation – and writing, for him, is part of his larger ‘fandom’ of poetry. Ocean is also emphatic. ‘Poetry has given me life’, he says. ‘I don’t know if I’m giving anything to it, but I feel like I’m collaborating with poets both dead and alive and, in that sense, that is life’. And with that, amid wild applause, both poets make their way over to sign the wonderful debut collections that have prompted so many moments of joy and reflection that evening.
By Suzannah V. Evans