Chimwemwe Undi is a performance and page poet living and writing as a guest on Treaty One in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her work has appeared on stages at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and in the pages of Room Magazine, Arc Poetry Magazine and Prairie Fire Magazine, among others. Her work explores themes related to social justice, belonging and identity, and is influenced by storytelling and spoken word traditions. Her debut chapbook, The Habitual Be, was published by University of Nebraska Press's African Poetry Book Fund in 2017.
I read and watched a lot of poetry in high school. I loved, and still love, but do not remember where I first encountered Albert Goldbarth’s “The More Modest the Definition of Heaven, the Oftener We’re There.”
Most kids that go through a school system are required to write poems — limericks and poems both about and shaped like objects, haiku and acrostics of our own names. I just kept writing outside of the classroom. I kept a journal for a long time, and still do, on and off, and it was filled with words trying to be poems. I started to think of myself as a sort of poet in high school, where I was that lucky brand of nerd who found a group of equally nerdy peers, and we formed a slam club that was as much about listening and reading and reacting as it was about performing and taking up space. Although I have been lucky to publish a few poems, and been granted some amazing poetry-related opportunities, poetry has never been my “day job,” so to speak, and I didn’t get a degree writing or literature in school. At times, this has challenged my conception of myself as a poet, but I’m grateful to be part of the long history of Black women who moved between intellectual, activist and creative worlds.
I think more about the job that the poem has than the job that the poet does. I want to write poems that are a balm or are keys gripped between fingers on the dark part of the walk or a hot water bottle or a mirror.
[“A History of Houses Built Out of Spite”] is inspired by the ways that queer people, especially femme people and women, find and make homes in a world that is unsafe for them. I read an article about houses built by disgruntled landowners, and thought about “houses,” or chosen families that queer and trans* people had made from themselves after been ostracized by loved ones and by institutions in general, and Amy Winehouse, and a particularly beautiful dance party just after I turned 18.
The excerpt from Dionne Brand’s thirsty is a masterpiece of musicality. It would hypnotize if it wasn’t so jarring. I love the feel of a poem like that, where saying it is almost as pleasing as hearing what it says, and I’d love to see how its performance would transform once the work was grounded in my body.