FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH NICK MAKOHA

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

NICK MAKOHA: I wrote my first poem when I was six. From then I always wrote poems as a hobby until I was 13 when my Maths teacher (Mr Patel) died of a heart attack. He was a father figure at my boarding school in Thika (Kenya). From then on poetry took on a different purpose in my life. It was only after finishing my degree in Biochemistry did I even consider about pursuing poetry as a career.

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

NM: Letting go of my nine-to-five job at the bank was one of the hardest choices I had to make. I recall looking out of the branch window at Victoria and asking myself There has to be more to life than this? I quit my job soon after and burnt the suits. I did this to remind me that I did not want an easy way back. I wanted to give my all to the art of writing. I have to thank the Poetry School, Poetry Society, Spread the Word and Apples & Snakes for helping me to develop as a poet. Over the years I have attended dozens of their poetry workshops and seminars. My first was with Matthew Hollis. There is always time to learn. Soon I will be participating in a workshop with Terrance Hayes who invented the form the Golden Shovel.

I was on my first Arvon poetry retreat when I really felt like a poet. It was there that the first poems in the collection Kingdom of Gravity began to speak to one another. The working title at that time was The Second Republic. That was what Idi Amin was going to name the New Uganda. Kwame Dawes was the poetry tutor at Arvon and he asked me ‘What type of poet do you want to be; one that obscures or one that reveals?’ Till then I felt like I was treading water but after that conversation I was aware of a burning purpose forming inside of me.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?

NM: Being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection is a dream you can’t plan for. Jeremy my publisher gave me the news. When he told me I had to sit down. The rest of the day was blur after I told my wife and children. A lot of my favorite writers are in the Forward anthology and to think my name will be joining them is humbling.

FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?

NM: It took a long time to form this book Kingdom of Gravity. I did not set out to write a collection, I set out to write good poems which was hard because I was not yet by any means a good poet. The poems at first belonged to three distinct categories; fathers, childhood and Uganda. The Ugandan poems where the weakest. The language was clumsy and filled with exposition. I had just become a father and so talking about fatherhood and my daughter was a safer option.

I remember sitting with Nathalie Teitler at the Southbank one afternoon as she held a copy of my first pamphlet The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man and told me you write like a man in exile. She took me through each of the sixteen poems line-by-line and traced exilic intent. She always believed in my work and set George Szirtes up as my mentor. We spoke at length about poetry, poetics life. ‘Stone’ was the first poem I sent him and it has stuck the course. The last poem was ‘Bird in Flames’ written three days before the book had to go to print. Writing the collection has been like taken a long haul flight. You have to create this pressurised space that can rise above the water and clouds and transport you and the reader to a new destination.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

NM: As far as poets I admire we could be here a while. At present the living poets that are on my desk are Ian Duhig, Jorie Graham, Pascale Petit, Tracy. K. Smith, Eavan Boland, Dan O’Brien, Kei Miller, Warsan Shire, Emily Berry. Dead poets I call on are Derek Walcott, T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov. I admire not just their poetry but also the poetics and the way the talk about poetry.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

NM: I am always working on new poems. The next body of work is in its early stages. In the meantime I am also finishing an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. Later in the year I will be touring Kingdom of Gravity across the country giving readings, talks and workshops. There is also some interest to read my work internationally in Africa, America and Europe.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

NM: Here is advice that has helped me. Poetry works best when you serve it daily with reading, writing, and conversation. Read what you like, read what you don’t like, read what you know and read what confuses you. Eventually all of this reading will inform your work. Surround yourself with a community of writers. Separate creation of poetry from the editing or revision of poetry. Treat it as you would a friend or loved one give it time and patience.