Nii Ayikwei Parkes: Poets must learn editing and performing
For poetry lovers and those who wish to improve in both their writings and performances, African Writers Trust provided an opportunity to interact with one of Africa’s leading poets. The Ghanian poet Nii Ayikwei Parkes visited Uganda and shared his knowledge with the locals.
Written by Nakisanze Segawa
When asked about the chances of African writers to get published in the western world, Nii Ayikwei Parkes told about the hardship he had to go through in order to get published:
“Agents in the western world will only say yes to you because they think it is trendy to represent an African writer,” he explained. “In Europe and America, people have their own perception of what African writing should be about, which is sad because once one comes out with a story and it doesn’t suit the description of ‘African literature’, then it becomes complex for one to get published there.”
Nii added that it was rare for people abroad to read African literature. They would only buy a book by an African writer when they are visiting that particular country, so the book serves them as a guidebook more than a form of entertainment.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes was in Kampala as a guest of the African Writers Trust, a London-based organization that links African writers in the Diaspora to those living in Africa. In Uganda, he carried out a three-day poetry workshop hosted at Nob View Hotel in Ntinda. The workshop was attended by both already published poets and some aspiring to be.
Impressions of Nii
When asked about their impression of Nii Ayikwei Parkes, two of the participants used similar words when describing the man, “a good poet, a marvelous writer, and a great performer”.
Ogot Gwada, a Kenyan living in Uganda, also said that he learnt a lot about editing which skill he will use to improve in his work:
”It was great; the interactive sessions with other writers was such a wonderful experience which taught me a lot. Nii talked about the different techniques in writing, very insightful with immense depth in how poetry is supposed to be like, and indeed a great poet from a lay point.”
He also thought the workshop was of a “noble ideal” which should be repeated. Though he considered Nii Parkes a great performer, Ogot—whose knowledge about teaching is based on experience—also noticed that Mr. Parkes had a listening problem.
“But all in all, he is a good writer and a great performer,” he added.
Inspirations and real life
Inspiration seemed to be another right word to describe the workshop experience. Many participants loved the fact that Nii makes poetry seem like an undertaking that isn’t divorced from real life.
Nii also advised poetry lovers to stick to their first impression of the poems they read, because it always makes more meaning.
Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of good editing:
“Make sure your piece is adequately edited before presenting it to a publisher. They have no time to work on your book, your poetry, or your short story. It is not their job to improve your work, but rather to publish it. Your writing won’t be appealing if it lacks flow and gets punctuated with a poorly put commas and full stops.”
Nii made this remarks at the readers/writers club that takes place every Monday evening at the Femrite office, in which he participated in the critiquing and betterment with an extract of a novel still under way.
Not an activist
He sits on the board of the Caine prize for African writings and was in the judging committee of this year’s Commonwealth book prize.
Nii’s passion for writing and performing inspired him to bring together African writers living in the UK. He started and runs the African Writers evening series at the Poetry café in Covent Garden, London every other month.
He has been described as an activist of African literature, a thing he perceives differently. “I established a writers’ fund in Ghana to promote young writers, a publishing house and an African writer’s evening in London, but I don’t think that makes me an activist,” he said.
Nii travels all over the world and leads forums internationally, that is, performing and facilitating workshops.
Performing at the National Theatre
Nii also performed for a big audience at the National Theater where some of the workshop participants shared the stage with him. They recited the poems they had written in the workshop.
One of them was Namboze Kawuma, a writer for African woman fashion magazine, who had previously enjoyed reading poetry but dared not write it. She narrates her experience as being encouraging:
“Nii Ayikwei Parkes doesn’t just make progress seem inevitable, he does it with such a naturalness which is endearing. He allayed most of my fears about poetry (specifically, writing it), and he did not have to open a five hundred page text-book or give a long-winded lecture.”
Nii’s poetry performance was gripping, and his two poems The West African Mosquito and The Alphabet were the most exciting.
Nii did not only stop at performing for the audience, he made sure that he involved them too. With his poem The alphabet he pulled the audiences into reciting the poem with him, which in response mentioned all the alphabetical letters in order till the end.
In The West African Mosquito poem he personified the tiny insect and portrayed its pride when weakening the human body. While in the alphabetical one, he depicts strong affectionate for a loved one with every letter of the English alphabet.
He also read an excerpt from his novel Tail of a blue bird, and one wouldn’t fail to observe the difference between the reader and the character in the book.
When speaking Nii sounds a Briton, but when he reads he enters into his characters and sounds like a West African with an ‘O’ accent in every word spoken. In the workshop he emphasized the importance of presenting one’s works beautifully, and that is through performance as a way of self marketing.
“No one would be interested in buying your works when poorly read or presented,” he added.
Born in the UK in 1974 and raised in Ghana, he holds BSc in Food manufacturing management with French from Manchester Metropolitan University, graduating top of class with first class honors degree, before heading for a Master in Creative Writing at Birk Back, University of London.
He is a writer, editor, broadcaster and sociocultural commentator whose voice may not be strange to BBC radio listeners. Nii has published three poetry chapbooks, namely Eyes of a boy, M is for Madrigal and Lips of a man.
His first and only novel so far titled Tail of the blue bird, which story tells a clash and clasp of the old and new worlds, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth first book prize in 2010 and has been translated in Dutch and German. He has also published a poetry collection The making of you.
In 2007 he was a British Council Writer-in-residency at California State University, Los Angeles, and in the same year he become one of the youngest writers to be featured in the underground programme in London for his poem Tin Roof.
Nakisanze Segawa is an aspring writer and the third winner of the 2010 Bereverly Nambozo Poetry award. Currentlly she is working on her first novel, which is also historical about Kabaka Mwanga.