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Where It Begins: an interview with Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Where does a poem begin? How does a poem not exist and then suddenly, miraculously flare into life? This Summer, poet, novelist and editor Nii Ayikwei Parkes will be unpacking what it means to think like a poet.

In his new online course, Where It Begins – a course for new poets, Nii will be going back to the very roots of poetic language and exploring the elements that define it, showing us along the way how all poems derive from the simplest of beginnings (a line, a title, a phrase, an image, a metaphor), and how all things – with the right mindset – are capable of being transformed into poetry.

We caught up with Nii to discuss his own creative process and where he picks up new ideas for poems.

Hi Nii. Where do your poems begin?

Nii: Very tempting when you ask a word-juggler that question to throw the beginning back at you. They begin in my head, triggered by things that happen outside my head – usually an image or a sound, those are my primary stimuli – but my creation begins in sound.

When did you start writing poetry? And what point did you think of yourself as a ‘proper’ poet?

Nii: I became aware I was writing poetry, when I was 10 and my father read something I had written and said, ‘you’re writing poems? Good.’ I don’t think of myself as a proper poet; I actually pride myself on being a quite improper poet.

As well as poet, you’re also a widely-published novelist and short story writer. How much of a perceptual shift does it takes to switch from writing poetry to writing fiction? Or is it all just writing?

Nii: There is a definite shift, although – for me – poetry lives in all writing, it’s just that in a play or a short story, poetry is just an average girl humming in the streets, in a poem she’s Aretha Franklin jamming on stage with Prince, the world is hanging on to every sweet note and they want autographs afterwards. The forms are different enough that I can take a break from poetry by writing fiction and that is a huge blessing.

Your poems have a very singular voice and you can really hear your roots in performance. Do you read aloud to yourself as you write? How does your editing process work?

Nii: I think reading is invaluable to the editing process ? for both prose and poetry. Actually, as an editor, I often forget the titles of my writers’ work but as soon as I hear them read, it comes back to me ? I read as I write, I read as I edit, I sing as I cook; sound is vital to me.

You speak Ga, a Kwa language spoken in Ghana. It looks and sounds completely different to English and other essentially ‘Latin’ languages of the West. What has Ga taught you and how has it made you think about language and poetry differently?

Nii: I don’t think Ga can teach me any more than I can teach myself; it’s my root, my first language, so in fact I learn about Ga when I encounter other languages, I become more aware of its riches ? for example, tonality in Ga can render any strict accentual metrical regimen laughable; you see effects of it in so-called Patois and Pidgen Englishes, which are in reality new languages. So, I guess I approach all poetry in English with an undertow of Ga ? if that makes sense.

There’s the strong sense in your work of the importance of togetherness, be that personal (family) or political (society), including several very touching poems about its opposite (isolation/incarceration). I’ve also read in a previous interview that one of your main interests is “power and conflict”. Are these two things related?

Nii: I come from a very communal society and an even more communal home, but I also love quiet introspection. I’ve lived like this all my life without feeling conflict so I guess it’s inevitable that thrown into a world where things like that are not seen as co-existing easily, I’m bound to explore and advertise the place of multiplicity, the possibility of in-between and in-between in-between. As for power and conflict, I don’t think you can be a storyteller without an interest in these things (conscious or not); they are the base of tension and tension is drama – drama is life.

Your wonderful poem series ‘Ballast: a remix’ imagines an alternate universe where the slave trade used the hot air balloon as its main mode of transport, rather than the slave ship. It’s an incredible concept, and the science fiction twist is a really brilliant way of exploring issues around colonialism – where did the idea start?

Nii: I fell in love with science at a very early age so it haunts my work anyway, but the idea came from the experience of trying to explore the slave trade with a multiracial group of teenagers in the USA. It got so emotionally derailed that I realised that there had to be another way. Although I’m from Ghana, as my European surname suggests, my paternal family were directly affected by the slave trade and have only been back on the African continent for four or five generations, so it was something I really wanted to explore as well. Scientific abstraction was the thing that eventually felt right and it really helped explore the ideas, the unfortunate historic realities in a clear manner. The response from the USA and the Caribbean has been positive too, so I think it worked.

You’ve written very evocatively about your childhood experiences. Does writing poetry help strengthen your memory, and has it unlocked things you’ve forgotten? Is a memory more ‘true’ than a poem?

Nii: If memory was a memory card we’d all be raving mad – I don’t think we can handle the whole truth about our lives. I think poetry helps me cast the memories that I choose, the ones I want to keep, but in writing them down, saying them out loud, I do find that more details come to the fore. A caveat: not everything I write in the first person is from personal experience; I make lots of stuff up – I am a writer after all!

Tell me more about your poem ‘The Fire Gallery’ – it made a huge impression on me when I read it.

Nii: Prior to the largely narrative work I produced for The Makings of You, many of my poems were abstract, experimental pieces that read well, but hid lots of language and science play. These days I find I’m playing between those experimental tendencies and the narrative. The poem is based on much of what I’ve said before – my family, the slave trade – but the approach is to explore the idea of residual anger or notions of vengeance through the idea of a meme (an inherited genetic trait, habit, hidden thing) and a cultural inheritance that many Native American and African cultures share, which is a totem; mine is fire. I could say more, but it would be too much.

You’ve traveled very extensively and performed poetry all over the world. Any local literary experiences that have really surprised you? What possibilities have new cultures jump-started in your work?

Nii: Easy, for surprise experiences – a Bengali-Spanish edition of Neruda that I picked up in Calcutta. I speak neither language, but it’s one of my most prized possessions. Encounters with new cultures jump-start my work all the time though so it’s harder to pin down – everyone I speak to is a new culture.

I read somewhere that you were the first African poet to have work available on the iTunes store. It’s been ten years since then – has the Internet been a positive, globalising force for international poetry? Or is still marginalised as a ‘niche’?

Nii: In audio and video, I think, international poetry is not a niche, which, I guess, tells us about the anti-globalising powers of print.

What are you reading at the moment?

Nii: Actually, I’m just between two books I should have read ages ago: just finished Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead and about to start Sean O’Brien’s November.

What can we expect from your course?

Nii: I’m a patient and humble reader and I like to learn and nurture. I don’t know what that says about what to expect from the course, but good poems will be written.

What advice would you give to a young poet writing poetry for the first time?

Nii: Finish it, read it and lose your last four lines. Now your work begins – rewrites.

Have you recently started writing poetry and you’re keen to progress further and develop your skills? Do you get blank page fear and want to learn new ways to nurture creative ideas? Book your place on Where It Begins, Nii’s new foundation course for developing poets, or call 0207 582 1679.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a writer, editor, socio-cultural commentator and performance poet. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck (University of London) and is a 2007 recipient of Ghana's national ACRAG award for poetry and literary advocacy. Nii's début novel Tail of the Blue Bird was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize and his work has been translated into Italian, French, Chinese, Dutch, German and Arabic. His latest books of poetry are the Michael Marks Award-shortlisted pamphlet, ballast: a remix (2009) and The Makings of You (Peepal Tree Press).

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Image credit: Andrew Wilkinson