Agnes Török & Chimwemwe Undi: Speaking with Feeling

Article by Annie Rutherford | 18 Aug 2016
  • Chimwemwe Undi

The best and worst problem for a reviewer to have is this: the best kind of event will not let itself be neatly described in 300 words. Some things you cannot bottle and label. Agnes Török’s and Chimwemwe Undi’s poetry, which they perform at Edinburgh International Book Festival, may belong to this category.

We could tell you that Török writes a lot about happiness, and that happiness is not “a beautiful slim white woman laughing alone with a salad.” Török spent a year living according to research on happiness, and out of this experience a book was born: Happiness is an Artform, which promptly sells out in the festival bookshop. Török does not whitewash happiness. Instead, she explores questions of mental health and trauma, of politics and protesting. As she argues, “If we want to take happiness seriously, we need to take poverty seriously. We need to take austerity seriously.”

Agnes Török
Agnes Török, photo: Helen Jones

We could tell you that in her work, among other issues, Undi explores what it is to exist as a black person in North America today. That she can chill a room of a hundred people with a single metaphor, but that she also celebrates “the gold we have spun out of a very dark history.” Undi weaves serious issues into language and images which remain playful, and make you want to hear her poems again, to see them in front of you. As she reads, it's possible to glimpse nuggets of gold which you cannot quite grasp.

In this young generation of poets, poetry of witness is alive and well. The ending of a poem by Undi says it all: “We were there. And still are. And still screaming. And that is not enough for anyone. But it’s something.”

Agnes Török and Chimwemwe Undi were speaking at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 16 Aug