I have just finished reading Selina Todd’s amazing “The People: the rise and fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010”, which wasn’t the best of reads in a run-up to what turned out to be a disastrous election result. Some of her detailed research of the first half of the 20th century, was drawn from the Mass Observation project; this was set up by a group of volunteers who wanted to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ and so carried out interviews with people about their daily lives. It was stopped in the 1950s then revived in the 1980s and continues today. There is also a similar project in the US called Humans of New York.
It got me thinking about how we observe people in their daily lives. One aspect, which Kayo Chingonyi’s poem Andrew’s Corner revived in me, was observations by sociologists in the US of street corner life. One of the first that I know of is William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, which mapped the lives of poor Italian Americans in a Boston slum in the 1940s. Then a more famous study, Eliot Liebow’s ‘Tally’s Corner’ which has sold over a million copies. Liebow sought to show another, more positive side to the way in which African American men responded to poverty during the 1960s. It showed them not to be feckless and non-caring parents; “Leroy bathed the children, braided the girls’ hair, washed their clothes at ‘the Bendix’ (laundromat), played with them, and on their birthdays went shoplifting to get them gifts.”
Observation is a key quality of a poet, and Kayo does this so well in Andrew’s Corner that maps the generational experiences of a particular corner of London, “Where an old man comes, to practise/standing still, tutting that the street he fought to keep is gone.” And we are given all of the senses of change, “the world of bass,” “the smell of weed and too much CK One” and the detritus of objects that tell their own stories, “condom wrappers, kebab meat, a ballet pump”. Then finally the crossover of night to day, where “joggers dodge a dead pigeon, offer wordless/greeting to the night bus’s army of sanguine-/eyed ravers, nursing bad skin and tinnitus.” Top notch.
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 Ploughshares, 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), Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014) 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.
Where an old man comes, to practise
standing still, tutting
that the street he fought to keep is gone
and, sixty years on, he doesn’t belong
to this world of bass, blasting out of
passing cars, and earshot, at the speed
of an age when pubs close down
overnight; are mounds of rubble in a week.
Where flowers moulder in memory of Tash,
fifteen, her twenty-something boyfriend
too drunk to swerve and miss the tree,
girls own their grown woman outfits,
smile at boys who smell of weed and too much
CK One. Pel, who can get served, stands in line.
Outside his friends play the transatlantic
dozens; the correct answer is always your mum.
Where alleys wake to condom wrappers,
kebab meat, a ballet pump, last week
a van pulled up and it was blood. Today:
joggers dodge a dead pigeon, offer wordless
greeting to the night bus’s army of sanguine-
eyed ravers, nursing bad skin and tinnitus.
Goaded by the light, past the same house on repeat,
they think of taking off their shoes: inviolable sleep.
Andrew’s Corner originally appeared in Kayo’s “Some Bright Elegance” published by Salt in 21012