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 CV2, among others. She holds an MA in linguistics from York University. Her debut chapbook, The Habitual Be, was published by University of Nebraska Press in 2017.
1. Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
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.”
2. When did you first start writing poetry? And when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
Most kids that go through a school system are required to write poems — limericks and poems both about and shaped like objects, haikus 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.
3. What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
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.
4. What inspired you to write “A History of Houses Built Out of Spite”?
This poem 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.
5. If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, what would it be?
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.