Q&A with Writer and Publisher Nii Ayikwei Parkes: ‘The thing about any book, anything that’s written, is that it’s the start of a conversation, it’s never the end’

AiW Guests: Lottie McGrath, Charlie Renwick, Eloise Percy-Davis and Tilly Everard.

ParkesNii Ayikwei Parkes is an acclaimed British-Ghanaian poet, writer, and publisher. Winner of multiple international awards, Parkes’ work ranges from the reinvention of accounts of slavery with sci-fi undertones within ballast: a remix, to playful accounts of mischievous animals for children under his nom de plume, K.P. Kojo. Throughout his work, Parkes toys with vision and perspective – “what is seen and what is – what catches the gaze and what lies beneath.”

Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010 for his debut novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, Parkes went on to receive the Prix Baudelaire and Prix Laure Bataillon for translated fiction in 2014. An experienced performer, Parkes has graced the stage of the Nuyorican poets Café, The Royal Festival Hall and Java, Paris. He is the founder and director of flipped eye publishing, a leading small press, which celebrates its 20 year anniversary this year.

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Lottie McGrath, Charlie Renwick, Eloise Percy-Davis and Tilly Everard for AiW: We just wanted to start the interview by discussing the title of your new poetry collection The Geez. On first appearance you might assume that it’s pronounced the ‘g-eez’ rather than the ‘gaze’, so it seems sort of perfect for a collection focused on, as your blurb states, “the blurred lines between what is seen […] and what is”. Was this intentional and, further to this, what was the inspiration behind this naming and how does it encapsulate the intention of your work as a whole?

Nii Ayikwei Parkes: Almost everything is intentional. There’s always accidental things that happen, but certainly the title is intentional. There’s a whole thing of what is and what isn’t; when you’re gazing at something, what are you seeing? Are you seeing the surface? Are you seeing the depth? So, there is that. It’s also a reference to one of the oldest languages and scripts in which Amharic, one of the Ethiopian languages, is written, which is called Ge’ez as well. I like to layer my meaning [Laughs] so each of the sections begin with a letter from Geez: so, you’ve got “Game”, “Eros”, “Eaux” and “Zest”. Of course, it’s a play on the cover photograph as well which you don’t expect to be in a fetal position and so on many levels there’s playing with the gaze.

Notably, this new collection contains a number of very powerful poems written as gimbals – a poetic form that you created yourself – would you mind explaining what the structure of a gimbal is?

The gimbal is structured as rapid expression and breath. I think that’s probably the simplest way to encapsulate it. In reality, you have three single lines which are the gimbals … If you know anything about gyroscopes and the way that they’re structured, they have these steadying loops which are called gimbals and that’s exactly what those do with the poem. They are the moments of realisation and there’s a transition from the logical to the emotional. So, by the time you get to the central gimbal which is this middle line, that’s where the full transition from logical to emotional begins to happen and it’s also the point of realisation in the poem.

How did it come about? Did you set out to come up with a new poetic form? Or, when you were writing, did you find yourself pushing at the limits of expression?

The GeezI think the thing that people forget is everything that we know – whether it’s the sonnet, whether it’s the sestina, all of these forms – were documented after they were created. They were created to respond to something and then, later on, it was documented and people were able to imitate it. So yes, you can write a sonnet and you can follow the rules but the first person who wrote a sonnet wasn’t following the rules. The rules came afterwards and, even within that, when the sonneti came from Italian into English, the rules again changed because there are way more rhyming words in Italian than there are in English, so you can’t do it exactly the same way.

For this specifically, I was trying to respond to something that I had recognised I’m going to carry with me my whole life, which is the loss of my father. I have written about him in many different ways but I’ve either done very emotional or very logical. I wanted to have the complete experience. And so, I was writing my way through a poem and the very first gimbal I wrote is in the book, it’s called “Of Serendipity”. I must have twenty different versions of that poem, just playing around with it. When it felt correct, when it felt like it had settled in its groove, was when it was a gimbal.

Then I thought to myself: what have I done here? What is it that makes this thing work? And so, I played with it because I’m very fussy about poetry lines; I feel like every line must have its own life, just like people in a community must have their own life but also be part of the larger unit. And so, I played with it all until I was happy and then I tried to write another one. The one I wrote after that was “A Gimbal of Blackness”. When I managed to do that, I realised I was on to something and then I started to play around with it more: initially it was just grief and then I found that it was suitable for a range of emotional subjects.

The Geez contains many languages such as Ga, French and Spanish alongside English as well as using scientific terminology and you have spoken about actively including such “neologisms, Ghanaianisms and transliterations” in your first novel Tail of the Blue Bird. You’ve said before that the Ga language gave you your foundation for dreaming – do you feel that different languages possess different opportunities and limitations? And with the ability to speak five fluently, how has this aided your writing?

I think that all languages are opportunities, so I don’t see limitations. If a language can’t express something that is an opportunity to create something in that language that expresses it; I think that the blessing I have is that I was always aware there was more than one language, and that gave me the freedom to play with language. I was born in England but grew up in a household speaking Ga; so even though English was a second language it was almost like a first one as well. But what happens when you speak multiple languages is you find there are certain sounds or phrases that in one language might be funny but, in another language, mean something completely different. Just knowing that as a kid you are going to play with those things; having that sort of history and heritage of playing with language and sound I think is just great, especially if you end up being a poet.

I also think that because I grew up, essentially the first five years of my life, with two languages and then in Ghana I started to learn three more pretty much straight away, having more than one language allows you to learn other languages quicker. Your brain is attuned to making sense of things in different ways, and I think that is the real blessing. When I have conversations with my older brother, we just switch between languages depending on which one works best for what we are trying to express. The funny thing is, we don’t actually notice it. It was a friend of ours who noticed and said, “Why you switching?” We had actually never thought about it: my older brother is just a year older than me so we’ve been talking our entire lives together and it just happens. And I think that’s beautiful. I think more of the world needs to be more than monolingual.

Does this interplay between languages – languages that can carry different emotions – play a part in your writing process? Particularly with The Geez, for example, is it a method you can use to explore different perspectives?

So there are two ways in which the appropriateness of language can be expressed in the way that you choose words. One of them is to use the language outright. The other way is to look at the way language approaches expressing that thing, and then borrow that approach in another language. So, sometimes, the way that I phrase things in English, will borrow from Ga, because I might think, “Oh, I like the way that Ga approaches this phrase, or I like the way that French approaches this phrase.” So it’s the kind of phrase that will make sense to an English reader, they’ll think it’s a little quirky, but a French reader will think, “Ah this is English, but I kind of get it more.” And that is where the beauty is because I mean, why not?

You’ve also spoke briefly about how musicians rather than writers tend to be your primary source of inspiration. In The Geez this is particularly evident in the last section [“Zest”] and when listening to your own poetry performances. In your opinion, what is gained or perhaps lost from performing poetry?

I don’t think you can lose anything; I think you always gain. The thing about any book, anything that’s written, is that it’s the start of a conversation, it’s never the end. When someone’s performing poetry or reading poetry – because I just consider it reading, I think that if you’re being true to the word, it might come across as performance but you’re just reading the poem – what goes into each of those readings? They’ll all be different and that’s why I said you’ll always gain. What you gain is: where is that writer, that reader on that day emotionally? Where are they in relation to the poem that they’re reading? Are they still, if it’s based on a true story, within that space? Have they processed it? Have they moved on? All of those things can become evident in the way that they read it, so I don’t think you ever lose anything.

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Nii Parkes

Now, the trick for me is actually the other way around: how do you make sure that that emotion of reading the work is gleaned from reading the work on the page when you’re not present? A lot of the editorial work I do is actually around that, working with people and saying: “okay read this back to me.” If you’re not there, how does somebody know that’s how it’s supposed to read? How do they know there’s supposed to be a pause there? You have to find other ways to do that. That happens for example in delaying the end of a sentence by ending a line halfway between, you know that kind of thing. Or the choice of vocabulary that allows for people to draw meaning out of something before you land on the real meaning. It’s about creating those tensions on the page. In person we can moderate that, we can mitigate any misunderstandings because you’re watching the audience; you can feel their reaction, you can adjust for that. You can’t do that when it’s just on the page in somebody’s hands.

Following on from this, in The Geez, you approach quite serious themes in unexpected ways. Two moments that stood out for me was the pairing of domestic abuse with Michael Jackson in “Moonwalk”, and “yorkshire bath displays,” where the story of someone carrying a bath across Leeds opens up a dialogue on racism. What inspired and what are the purposes of such a method?

I’ve always had a slight discomfort with the way in which, my French friends always call it Disney, the way in which the bad guy always has a scar, and the good guy is good looking in a particular and clichéd way, and I feel like it robs us of the opportunity to notice that sometimes the harms are hidden in the beautiful. And so that is what I try to transpose into the writing. When I talk about Michael Jackson, yes he made beautiful art, but he also came from an abusive family. So, what is it when we only ever look at the art and don’t look at the abuse? And is art just expression or is it also an escape?

When you talk to people who experience racism or sexism, you find very often what they share is an experience of gaslighting. They’ll say “this person did this because I’m of this race or of this gender,” and people will say “Nah, you’re mistaken, it didn’t really happen that way.”  And so “yorkshire bath displays” explores that. I think that we label subjects and people become tired of hearing about them, and so sometimes it is important to take it slightly out of context to explore. In my first collection The Makings of You, for instance, there is a series called “Ballast” where I look at the slave trade but travel is by balloon rather than ship. And by doing that I found that people were way happier to talk about the harms that were done and continue to endure, than if it was expressed in a very factual way. You know, suddenly the thing where people were throwing slaves overboard for insurance money, if you imagine that by balloon, that means they will physically hit the ground and so somebody has to look at it, somebody has to deal with it.

And so that is the kind of thing that I try to explore and do, and to sort of go beyond. That is why “yorkshire bath display” is also about telling the truth of what actually happened, or how come somebody is out there trying to buy a bath, how come they are trying to get transport to take that bath back? It’s really just about perspectives, and again, we can go back to the gaze: there are many ways to look at something, and I think that ultimately many of us become writers because we look at things slightly differently, but for me it’s part of my project also to look at new ways of looking at things.

Like the title of the poetry collection, the name of your publishing company flipped eye suggests a desire to reverse the reader’s gaze, or at least challenge assumptions. You said in a TED Talk “everything around us becomes part of our knowledge”. How does this link to the project of flipped eye and the ways that it pushes against market forces?

I think again it’s about what you choose to be a motivation. If the motivation is about publishing great work, then are we going to judge great work by how much it might sell? Regardless of how people plan, they’re not sure. A friend of mine – Chris Cleave – had a book called Incendiary that was his debut novel and about a bombing. Then just as it was about to come out, 7/7 [London bombings] happened. Suddenly, his marketing team couldn’t market the book the way they intended. So here they were, they thought they had a sure thing; they’ve done all the work, the book was about to go out and suddenly “we can’t market it”. So, if that reality exists where things can change so suddenly, then focus should be on getting the great work and figuring out how to sell it afterwards. That’s essentially the guide for flipped eye. If people don’t feel like they have opportunities, let’s give them the opportunities –especially if the work is good enough.

I think one of the other things that helps us in making these decisions is that myself and many of my fellow editors – Niall O’Sullivan, Jacob Sam-La Rose – are also writers. My criteria is, if I don’t feel like somebody has the potential to be better than me, then I’m not going to waste my time editing them because I could be writing myself.

You touched on your fellow editors. How does your background in science and your editors’ various interests, in things like technology, gardening and art, inform your decision-making processes?

We’re not from backgrounds where we had to study literature as part of having to pass exams, so we don’t have the same reference for convention. So, we’re more likely to listen to something outside the box and say “Why you doing that? Can you explain it?” rather than “you can’t do that”. Dance the gunsArt is the project of constant change and innovation so if you can explain it and I can understand it, then we can go with it. Niall [O’Sullivan, Senior Editor of Poetry] is working class. He went to art school, he lived on an estate in Slough, and he struggled. Therefore, he knows the psychic distance he has with a certain class of person: he’s got all that vocabulary and his emotional vocabulary is wider than most people who work in publishing. That helps, it’s always a positive. We don’t have the same reverence for the English canon. Reverence is a good thing but it’s also a dangerous thing. It’s important to understand what makes great art. But you can’t then fall into the trap of trying to duplicate that art, because the very thing that made it great art in the first place was that it had never been done before.

Also, we’re humble and I think that’s really important. We’re humble because we don’t believe we know it all, precisely because we haven’t come from that kind of background. You know, I haven’t read half of what people consider to be the English canon because I have multiple heritages. Why should I privilege one over the other? So, if I get to a book, I get to it. But I’m not going to give myself a project of reading every single thing that was ever translated from Homer, or reading everything that Shakespeare ever wrote, even when he’s being self-indulgent! I’m not that person.

You recently said one of your “proudest moments as editor” was the publishing of Dance the Guns to Silence: 100 Poems for Ken Saro-Wiwa. Why is this and do you have any other stand-out moments you are particularly proud of?

Dance the Guns to Silence is particular because it was a project to commemorate or memorialise Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was one of the Oguni 9 who campaigned against Shell in Nigeria and the damage that their work was doing, and was executed. It’s something that went under the radar, nobody talked about it for a while. So, in publishing the book there was also a campaign that happened, and out of that campaign Shell then approached the Ogoni 9 and the community and started to try to make reparations. I don’t think there will ever be full reparations – but it’s the one time where you can really see the tangible work that a book can do in the world. That’s why I consider it to be one of my proudest moments.

But I’m proud every time a book goes out! Of course, there are books that become part of social lore and so it elevates the pride maybe a little bit. One example here is Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth which has become a huge global hit. But also for me very importantly, it was the first book that Jacob edited after we had trained him. So it’s a huge moment for everyone else because of how much it sold, but for me it’s a huge moment of vindication. I approached Jacob and Niall to join me as editors after having edited them and having this instinct that they would be good – just because of the discussions we had about their work and their motivations, “why have you chosen to do this, why have you chosen to do that” and how they were able to articulate that. I felt they really had the potential to be great editors, so I approached them and they agreed. So, the pride is on many levels. You will probably find that this is a pattern with me: I like things in layers, and it’s always been that way since I was a kid.

On the flipside, have you faced any adversities as a small publisher and how have you overcome them?

I mean the main adversity as a small publisher is that you don’t have the budgets that bigger publishers have. You can have great work and it can be frustrating because you can tell these writers are really good but you don’t have the resources to do the PR work – you can do a little bit but everything is guerilla. You know the number of times I’ve been down streets with little postcards of the book, dropping them in the tube/on buses because I can’t afford to pay someone else to do it. Then eventually, and this is the curse of being a small publisher you become a little bigger: when you’re below a certain size you can actually put in the work and support books a little bit more because there aren’t so many but by the time we had 40 authors I couldn’t do that anymore because it would mean that I wouldn’t even have time to edit. I mean I think the main challenge is staying afloat which we’ve done, so I’m proud of that.

I think the main challenges we’ve had have been things like bookshops not taking you seriously because you don’t have a conventional distribution agreement. Again, flipped eye have an obligation, or a duty, to two parties: the reader and the writer. With the writer, we want them to be authentic and to support their ideas, edit them and pay them their royalties and all of that; and then to the reader it’s “we’re going to give you work that reflects the world and not just what the market seems to be buying”.

We want the books to be affordable, and that means that sometimes we can’t use certain distributors because the discounts they want are so high that it then makes it uneconomical for us to use them, and then also print the books and pay royalties. If you read or buy a lot of poetry you will find that poetry books tend to be like £10, £11, £12.99 and if you’re lucky £8.95. I think that our most expensive books are £7.95 and the pamphlets are £4. So, we have unconventional arrangements and yes, those are the battles that we fight. It’s around distribution and staying true to our foundational ideology: don’t overprice the books, because when somebody doesn’t have money, a £1 price difference can make the difference between if they consider something disposable income for buying a book or not.

We also noticed that flipped eye’s Spring Catalogue also included drama and non-fiction. We were wondering whether you plan to expand further into these forms or into other forms in the next 20 years?

Definitely. I think I’ve touched on capacity and the fact that as we grew bigger, we couldn’t do certain things. One of the reasons why Jacob and Niall came on board was because I literally could not edit everyone. I asked people like Nick Makoha to go to Peepal Tree because I said I don’t have the capacity – go there and they will do a good job with your book. I think that there are lots of small publishers that do great work, and we really respect their work, so I have had no hesitation in recommending some of my authors to move. But one of the things that we’re trying to do from this 20th anniversary is to increase capacity. We brought in a new editor, Mitchell Albert, who has a non-fiction background and so yes – we’re hoping to expand into non-fiction. We’ve had non-fiction in the pipeline for years so we just haven’t been able to pull it off [Laughs]. I love music and I’ve been talking to a jazz journalist for years about publishing a book he has on John Coltrane. I think the fact that he still hasn’t published it tells of how much faith he has in my love for music [Laughs]! But that’s the type of work that we want to do. And it’s a great privilege to launch the new non-fiction imprint with José Eduardo Agualusa, who is a good friend and a wonderful writer of fiction, but people have not experienced his non-fiction in English.

14th taleDrama we’ve done, we did Inua Ellams’ The 14th Tale, which won the Fringe First award and was at the National Theatre. We then sold the rights on to Oberon. We also published Zena Edwards’ play. So we’ve kind of done little bits of these things, but we want to be more deliberate and more planned about it now. Also, I think that every time we start to publish more consistently in a genre, it can shake that area a little bit: people will know that if I have work that is a little too daring for what the mainstream might want, I can go to flipped eye. That’s the thing I like about small publishers: the impact doesn’t have to be in the work that we put out but in the way that it makes bigger publishers react when we have our successes. A great example is Peepal Tree have Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch which won the Costa book of the year award, has just been shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, and is a Sunday Times number one bestseller. That’s from a small publisher, and you know what’s going to happen right after that: people are going to start publishing books that are like that, or as adventurous as that. Small publishing has this corrective effect on the market. What big publishing does is it tries to say “this is what the readers want” without asking the readers, whereas smaller publishers will say this is a great book, let’s give readers a chance to experience it. I think those two different questions are very important and for how the industry evolves.

Talking about new books, you recently tweeted that you were in the process of starting a new book. We were wondering if you could give us any insight into what it might be about, or your inspirations behind it?

[Laughs] I’ve actually completed a new book that is probably going to appear in French first. It’s called Azúcar, and it’s about belonging. I think that’s all I can tell you – and because of the title you can guess that sugar has some role to play in it. And it happens on an island.

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The Geez is available to purchase at Peepal Tree Press now:

https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/geez

Check out flipped eye’s latest work over on their website:

https://flippedeye.net/

Interviewers

Interviewers Lottie McGrath, Charlie Renwick, Eloise Percy-Davis and Tilly Everard with Nii Parkes



Categories: AiW Q&A, Poetry, Writers

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