eyes of a boy, lips of a man and the Michael Marks Award-shortlisted, ballast: a remix (2009), described in the Guardian as, “An astonishing, powerful remix of history and language”. Nii's event-specific commissions include a reading for the London Mayor’s vigil on July 14, 2005 (in response to the London bombings). He also writes for children under the pseudonym K.P. Kojo.
As an advocate for African writing, Nii runs the African Writers’ Evening series, at the Royal Festival Hall and contributes journalism on the subject. He was a 2005 associate Writer-In-Residence on BBC Radio 3 and the featured face for poetry in the 2004 Time Out London Guide. Nii’s début novel Tail of the Blue Bird has been translated into Dutch and German and was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize. His latest book is The Makings of You, a book of poems published by Peepal Tree Press.
Throughout March 2011 OGOV will be featuring poems from "The Makings of You". After the month is over all of the published poems and interviews will be archived here.
Five Questions with Nii:
1.How long have you been writing poetry?
I'd say I've been writing poetry for close to twenty-seven years. I just used to write things on bits of paper; it was my father that first gave them a name when he saw something I'd written and asked if I was writing poetry.
2. Who are your favourite poets? Which poets have most inspired and informed your poetry?
I love different poets for different reasons, but my primary inspirations were overheard conversations when I was growing up. Our languages in Ghana have so much poetry in them. In the more conventional sense, I love Kwesi Brew 's later work, Atukwei Okai's tongue-twisting genius, W.B. Yeats, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda and some of the work of Christopher Okigbo.
3. What do you hope to accomplish with your poetry?
Simply to explore human questions, to keep open humanity's dialogue with the earth. I find that because – in the African context – so many anthropologists and Western writers have created 'impressions' of us in writing already, some of my work tends to seek to reopen debates on the complexity of our existence.
4. The poems in The Makings of You map out a life divided between Ghana and England. In "Crossing Borders", for instance, the speaker notes "I can scarcely remember / my first crossing of water, / borders, date-lines or fingers." How has your own life been split between these two countries, both physically and mentally?
I was born in the UK to parents who – by choice – spoke to me in Ga, so I am a hybrid from birth. However, my awareness of the world began to take shape in Ghana and West Africa where I spent most of my formative years, although the books I read were largely in English, even if they were by African writers. It's hard to say what's what, but mentally, I'm very much Ghanaian – having my Ghanaian tongues (which unlike English contain tones as well as meter) allows me to use and question the English language in a manner that respects my origins and traditions.
5. A major theme of the poems in "The Makings of You" is an intertwining of personal and collective histories. This approach is on full display in "Ayitey, 1973", where the birth of the speaker's sibling is tangled in a web with contemporaneous world events. In doing this, the universal and the individual, the "known" and the "unknown" (from a reader's perspective), meet at a common place that isn't-quite-universal and isn't-quite-known. This seems to be an ideal space in which poetry can reside and thrive, and it is a space you create consistently in your poems, even the purely biographical. In these, the speaker is always almost-at-home in his particular setting (the Ghanaian poems a bit "English" and the England poems a bit "Ghanaian"). What do you think about this interpretation of the book? Were you intentional in creating a space like this?
The intertwining of the personal and universal is a definite engine of my poetry. I am a subscriber to chaos theory – the notion that a small change in one place can have dramatic effects elsewhere, so elements of that govern the leaps that I make in my work. The element of English/Ghanaian is not deliberate, but since I think in Ga and write mainly in English it is not surprising.