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. How have you found the reception to the book by readers from England? Has it differed from the reception of Ghanaians? Have Americans, outside of the context of both Ghana and England, responded in a third way? Do you think it is possible for those who haven't experienced the cultures and environments of Ghana and England to engage with the poems as fully as those who have?
I haven't had the chance to read this collection in Ghana yet, but the few Ghanaians in the UK who have read it say that they recognise themselves in some of the poems. The reception in the UK has been good, although I would say that the reception in the US, where I have just completed a short tour, has been better. I don't know why that is, but I'm always happy to have an appreciative audience.
2. As you hinted at in your last answer, you were recently on a short US tour. What parts of the country did you visited? What were the highlights?
I was in New York State (New York City and Rochester); Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Connecticut and New Jersey, and I had a whale of a time. The reception was very warm - all the books my publisher sent sold out and at the Baobab Cultural Center in Rochester we had a very stimulating discussion on ideas around literature from Africa and current movements within the continent.
3. You seem to move comfortably between "traditional" left-margin justified poems with line breaks and prose poems. In the case of "Ayitey, 1973", in fact, the poem almost seems to transform from one to the other, as the lines grow longer and more unified in length. Generally speaking, at what point during your creative process do you confirm the form of the poem? Does it come early on, as part of your first impulses? Late in the editing process? If it is a conscious choice, what elements of subject, style, etc. help you determine which direction to take?
With me form is always secondary; content comes first. Of course, at times the form comes hand-in-hand with the idea, but generally, I fine tune form and structure during the editing stages – I'm quite a thorough editor of my work and I agonise over how small details affect the reading of a poem, so a jauntier poem where the poetry is in the language will have a lighter, sparser form and a more detailed poem where the poetry is in the events may have a more compact, prose-like structure.
4. Continuing on the editing theme, what kind of a working relationship did you have with Peepal Tree Press poetry series editor, and fellow Ghanaian, Kwame Dawes? Did he provide detailed edits, or broader advice and guidance? More generally, what role do outside editors play in your writing process?
I think editors provide the questions that we are afraid to ask of our work. It's human nature to rest in comfort zones and editors take us outside of them so we can reach the nucleus of our work. So, Kwame was a great cynic; he made me have to defend what I was writing and out of that all the pretentious appendages that didn't belong in the poems were sent packing. The director of Peepal Tree, Jeremy Poynting (an incredibly well-read man) was also involved in the process so the work had three pairs of eyes on it. It was a very enriching experience.
5. You are a fiction writer as well. Do you find that the writing of one stimulates the writing of the other? I've known of writers who have to "switch their brain" between the two genres, and others who move back and forth between them effortlessly. What has been your experience?
I tend to take a break from poetry by writing prose and vice-versa. I find it keeps me productive, but I don't think I find that I have to 'switch' to do so, except in the middle stages of writing a novel, where a certain level of focus is required that I have never experienced with poetry.
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