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 your essay "What We Run On When We Run About Poeting", you say that emotional feeling lies at the centre of what makes you passionate about poetry, and go on to speak to how interactive, inclusive learning can help new readers of poetry connect to this emotional core. While we can't run a poetry workshop here in the Q+A, I was wondering if you could suggest a few poems that you like to use in workshops, or just distribute to friends, that are "core poems" for yourself, emotionally speaking? Why do these particular poems connect with you in the way they do?
This is a question that really could get me doing an all day response, but I will assume a link to the essay and shorten my response. In formal poetry of the Western tradition, one of my favourites is W.B. Yeats' "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" - perfectly structured, yet it has emotion at its core, its imagery reaches out: "the heavens' embroidered cloths" and then distills back to the individual in the closing line "you tread on my dreams".
Atukwei Okai's "Fugue for Fireflies" uses rhythm, syncopation, humour, the Ghanaian conventions of Abe shi daa (Between you and me, there can be no / Ritual of / Thanks,) and local imagery (Your hair is black like the ruins left in / The wake of a harmattan bushfire.) to create a song of hope, love and lust.
Li Young Lee's "The Cleaving" is a long free verse poem that is a perfect example of how the chaotic illogic of emotion can flutter around the world while hanging on to a pole of logic, and I connect to it because I love the visceral language, the place of food in its narrative, and the fact that I am a believer in the interconnectedness of all things.
I could go on through Kwesi Brew, Pablo Neruda, Ainsley Burrows, Rilke and Michael Ondaatje, but it would take forever. These are all people that should be read - seek them in the kingdom of the internet and if you love them, buy their books. I buy loads of second-hand books to keep my book-buying costs down.
2. For years you ran The Writers' Fund of Ghana. For readers who aren't familiar with this project, can you explain your goals for that project? What were your greatest successes? Your biggest hurdles?
Although The Writers Fund is on a small hiatus while I build a bespoke website for it, my passion for it remains the same. My goals for the project relate to the huge gap in the production of writing from Ghana since the 60s and 70s and my belief that that dearth relates to the lack of resources to support writing and reading.
Our goals are: To serve and encourage excellence in creative writing in all the languages used in Ghana; To raise public awareness of the pivotal role of literature in shaping, preserving and developing a society’s identity and cultural life; To lobby educational institutions at home and abroad to secure residencies, scholarships and research opportunities for Ghanaian writers; To work to ensure that Ghanaian writing is well represented in the curriculum in schools and universities both at home and abroad; Support the initiatives of the Ghana Association of Writers.
I think most of the work we managed to do was in support of the Ghana Association of Writers (e.g. we supplied a computer for their administrative staff last year and we have had a few books sent to the GAW library via a simple Amazon.com wishlist). I personally delivered a few literary magazines and we have subscribed to African Writing magazine on behalf of the GAW. The challenges are mainly bureaucratic and the tendency that people in Ghana sometimes have to believe that young people can't possibly do anything of magnitude on their own. I am relaunching soon primarily because I have a higher profile now and I know certain key people better; I'm confident that the second life of The Writers' Fund will be ribboned in much more glory.
3. It's great to hear that the Writers' Fund will be back. Are there ways our readers can help you in your efforts, both leading up to and after the relaunch?
Anyone who has ideas is very welcome to contact me and initiate the exploration of those ideas. One of the things that drives me is the notion that our literary reading - both academic and personal - is in general so many years behind that we haven't tuned in to what we can do with language, how (learning from the Latin American writers, for example) we can bring our unique approach to how the English language is used, etc.
As a result, I am really keen to set up libraries all over the place and anyone who knows how we can get our hands on free shipping containers to use as the framework for building these libraries would be a very welcome contact at the moment. I have had some preliminary discussions with architects about how to customise containers using locally sourced material to create library spaces that are fascinating and conducive to reading/learning.
4. You mentioned earlier that you haven't gotten many responses from Ghanaians to The Makings of You. Hopefully you will get a few through this month-long sneak preview. Do you have any plans to travel to Ghana in the near future? Or to ensure that The Makings of You is available at libraries and schools? It would be wonderful to see the book read widely in Ghana.
I was planning to go to Ghana later this year, but because of some family happenings I've had to reconsider it. I'm not ruling it out completely, but it's unlikely this year. As with all my books, I will make sure that a few get leaked into the system, so we'll see.
5. What are you working on these days? Poetry? Fiction? What should we expect next from you?
I'm working on a book of short stories called "The City Will Love You" for Random House that I intend to finish in the next month or so, and I hope to finish a second novel and another collection of poems soon after that. Of course, soon in writer's language could mean 2013!