About Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Nii Ayikwei Parkes grew up in Ghana but was born in the UK where he later returned for further study, where with the friendship and tutelage of fellow black poets he became a vibrant new voice in British performance poetry. 

Parkes has published five books of poems, beginning with the pamphlet eyes of a boy, lips of a man (1999), M is for Madrigal (2004), and the Michael Marks Award-shortlisted ballast: a remix (2009). His debut collection, The Makings of You, was published by Peepal Press in 2010. That year, Parkes also published his first novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and translated into multiple languages, winning both of France’s major prizes for translated fiction – Prix Baudelaire and Prix Laure Bataillon. His most recent collection, The Geez, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for 2020, described by PBS as navigating ‘the blurred lines between age and youth; the real and the imagined; what is seen and what is.’ The Geez was also longlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize and shortlisted for the Walcott Prize for Poetry. Other honours include visiting positions at the University of Southampton and California State University, and Ghana’s national ACRAG award for poetry and literacy advocacy. 

The poems selected here chart Parkes’ continuing and deepening commitment to joy, to the sense of play and discovery felt throughout his work – from ‘Blowing Smoke’ in his most recent collection to ‘Ghana By Air’.  

In ‘Ghana By Air’ we are invited by the speaker on a journey through the bright streets of Accra, enticed by questions that spark the ears as well as the eyes: 

 

Did you see a woman drag her husband 

home by the cuff – insulting him all the way? 

Did you hear the market traders 

hurling prices down the street? 

 

Here the city is experienced as a multiplicity, and the music of the poem is too, as Parkes syncopates two rhythms, two worlds, two formal ordering principles. The first: quick-fire questions in quatrains containing passing yet vivid glimpses of the city’s inhabitants. The second: slower, short-lined sestets opening onto (and into) expansive vistas of the landscape. It is within this prism of difference that one of Parkes’ main poetic concerns can be observed – the challenge of communicating two worlds simultaneously without one obliterating the other, to find through the portal of the poem a potential third space of transformation and peace: 

 

Follow them 

lift the hem 

of the sea 

you have reached 

the centre 

of the world. 

 

This glitching vision of the world – the material world of the senses and the world of imagination, freedom and spirit – is written in full consciousness of the literary matrix of the so-called first world/third world and refuses to be co-opted or reduced by it. As Parkes has said, ‘I find myself caught in the other masquerade of being Other. Founded on identical presumptions of Sameness.’ (‘On The Responsibility of Being Other’, Writivism 2017)  

A similar intimate vision is also present in Parkes’ shape-shifting poem on the nature of love and desire ‘Blowing Smoke’, a three-part sequence ‘drenched in a hummingbird sensation of time’. Where bodies blur their boundaries but only after first being witnessed in their specificity (‘my naked torso / brown as the bark of the mango tree I’ve mounted’); where a lover ‘lifts her head to gift the stars white smoke.’ Parkes’ calm, rooted reading with a sensitivity to music honed from a career of performing around the world can be clearly felt on these recordings, holding our bodies and minds in the quiet gravity of his words before a glottal bursts a vowel free of its consonants, lifting like a wisp to ‘where the smoke rings go.’ 

Recordings made on 24th September 2021 at Spiritland Studio, North London.

Poems by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

By Yourself Boy… (1988 – 2007) - Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Blowing Smoke - Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Ghana by Air - Nii Ayikwei Parkes
A Gimbal of Blackness - Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Half a Lime - Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Gone - Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Books by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Awards

2021

‘The GA Picture Alphabet’ shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize

Prize website
2021

‘The Geeze’ longlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize

Prize website
2020

‘The Geez’ – Poetry Book Society Recommendation

Prize website
2014

‘Tail of the Blue Bird’ Winner of the Prix Mahogany prize

Prize website
2010

‘Tail of the Blue Bird’ Die Welt Top-10 Crime Book

Prize website
2010

‘Tail of the Bluebird’ shortlisted for 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

Prize website
2009

The ‘Ballast Series’ - shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award

Prize website

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