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 (More) Questions with Nii:
1. In last week's interview, you noted that you "think in Ga and write mainly in English". Do you think of this process as an act of translation from Ga to English, or as the writing of a hybrid language: an almost-English, with the tones and rhythms of Ga working in the background?
It's an interesting question and I think that our generation of hybrid Asian, African, Latin American and Caribbean folk operate on a sliding scale between those two processes. For me, I rarely think about translation in the context of Ga/English and poetry so I guess I would say it's an almost-English (inasmuch as you can argue for a 'pure' English, of course). I would consider it, more precisely, a personal variety in a family of hybrid-Englishes.
2. Do you consider the poems in "The Makings of You" to be autobiographical? Or at least biographical (from a common speaker, though not yourself)? Or does the perspective change from poem to poem?
Half of “The Makings of You” is autobiographical in the sense that the poems derive either from direct personal experience or from amalgamations of experiences that I know of. The ridiculousness of the conventions of international travel highlighted in the poem "Crossing Borders" could only have become obvious to me through personal experience. The rest of it is autobiographical in the way that all poetry collections are – in that I write about things that concern me. For instance, the effects of the slave trade on my own family inspired the ballast series, although they are complete fantasy.
3. It was great to see you mention Kwesi Brew in your list of poets who influenced your own writing. Brew is a favourite of ours here at OGOV, and we've done our best to champion his writing. You did the same on your old Wordpress site, djwenmo. In fact, at the time of this interview, our biography of Brew and your posting of his poem "The Mesh" are the top two search results when you Google "Kwesi Brew". This in itself says a good deal about the dearth of online discussion on Kwesi Brew. How do you explain this lack of attention to the work of Kwesi Brew? If you could make a claim for why Brew and his writing should be discussed more online, what would you say?
The dearth of attention is, I believe, as a result of our earlier poets all being lumped into academic imprints with no effort being made to publish them as mainstream poets (Atukwei Okai was an exception as his début was published by Simon & Schuster). I think Brew is a particularly interesting poet to study because, like Christopher Okigbo, you can find his work in two distinct voices, a perfect European mimic and then a hybridised voice knowledgeable about its Ghanaian origins; it's like a map of the psychological effect of colonial-era instruction.
Kwesi Brew's work maps a return to one's essence; he credits his encounter with African-Americans with helping him see the value in the culture that he had discarded as barbaric and archaic, leading him to delve back into knowledge and sensibilities that he had buried in his later work. For that reason, his work is of value not just because of its sublime quality, but also for anthropological reasons and as a basis for philosophical debate.
4. I often find love poems either come first or last for poets. For some, the first batch of terrible poems they write early in their career are love poems. For others, love poems are something that takes them a long time to approach. What has your history with love poems been?
Oh, I have a distinguished and – by contractual necessity – secret history of writing love poems for several clients while I was in Achimota School. That's all I can say on the subject. I'm not sure how good they were, but they worked.
5. Do you find love poems to be easier or harder to write than other types of poems? Or are they no different? Why do you think this is?
I think real, heartfelt love poems will always be difficult to write, because they are not just about the craft of writing poetry; they are about outright honestly and vulnerability. All poems are to some degree, but they are not necessarily going to be read by the 'loved', whereas love poems often are.