Chimwemwe Undi is a poet of southern African descent living and writing on Treaty One territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her family origins are in Zambia and Zimbabwe and she spent some of her childhood living in Namibia. As a spoken word artist, she has been featured at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and Spur Festival, where she shared the stage with Dr. Cornel West. Her work has been longlisted for the Cosmonaut’s Avenue Poetry Prize and appears or is forthcoming in several publications, including CV2, Room, Prairie Fire and Lemon Hound.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about your African roots?
Chimwemwe Undi: I like to say that my family is from the bottom bit of the continent. My parents are Zambian and Zimbabwean, and I spent the first dozen years of my life in Namibia and South Africa. Being African is important to me, and influences not only the way I write but the way I live. That being said, I try not to discount my impact on the colonized land I now live on, and it’s impact on me. I am a settler of colour living on Treaty One land, and I take seriously the responsibilities associated with that.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspires you to write?
Chimwemwe Undi: Writing is how I process everything. Translating experience into finely tuned poetry or prose forces me to spend time with those memories, to unfold them and examine them, in a way that I find necessary and healing.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you hear about the Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Chimwemwe Undi: I’m not sure I remember not knowing about the prize. I try to read the work of young people of color, especially those of the African diaspora, and the Brunel shortlists have been a fine source of names to remember, as well as a reminder of the quality of work to which I aspire.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any rituals you do before you sit down to write?
Chimwemwe Undi: I think good art is as close to actual magic as we’ll ever get, but I don’t find treating it’s creation as one driven by whims or muses or some intangible inspirational energy is particularly productive. I respect the craft of writing, and as such, I treat it as a skill which I am constantly improving. I try to write daily, to read widely, and to challenge myself by writing what is difficult, whether emotionally or technically.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “The Shadow Machine”?
Chimwemwe Undi: Quite a while, and most of that time was trying to find the entrance into the experience which needed to be processed. It is a poem about loss and the complicated ways we grieve, and the ways our grief looks different from our predecessors’ grief, in this case because of the nature of the internet. Finding a way into that took longer than writing my way out of it.
Geosi Gyasi: In writing, what are you most concerned about?
Chimwemwe Undi: It depends on the form. A thing I love about poetry is how much can be said with so little. I love to see how few words can be used to convey a feeling.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on these lines from your poem, “The Shadow Machine”:
“the internet is a cemetery
where nothing ever dies”
Chimwemwe Undi: There are several allusions to online media in the poem, this first line to a podcast, others to comments on Facebook, Instagram captions and tweets. Like the less fortunate poems, these kind of contributions in the world wide web are quickly forgotten despite their theoretical immortality.
Geosi Gyasi: What does the future hold for you as a writer?
Chimwemwe Undi: I’m not sure. I will continue writing and performing, and hope that the response to my work remains as positive as it has been, and my relationship with it as healing.
Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Chimwemwe Undi’s poems.
Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’
The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.