“the fact that I lost the use of my mother tongue… meant I leant on language and poetry in particular to codify my emotional experience.”
Resurrection Man (Jai Alai Books, 2017)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I was born in Uganda and had to flee Uganda because of the Idi Amin regime. My mother and father were separated at the time, so I spent much of my childhood in boarding schools in Kenya and England and also spent some time living with my father, who worked in Saudi Arabia as a doctor. I think the nomadic nature of my childhood and the fact that I lost the use of my mother tongue in the countries I moved to meant I leant on language and poetry in particular to codify my emotional experience.
I wrote my first poem when I was six and carried on writing through my childhood. But the death of my maths teacher Mr. Patel in my boarding school of a heart attack was a pivotal event. He was like a father figure and took me under his wing. When he passed I was inconsolable. I remember crying under a tree. In my grief I thought there must be something I can do, so I wrote him a poem. They published that poem in a yearbook. My classmates caught me crying as I penciled each line.
This outted me as a poet and I have pretty much written ever since. But it was not after leaving University with a biochemistry degree that I decided to take poetry on as a career. I left my job in banking in quite dramatic fashion by burning my suits. I knew if I was going to have any chance as a writer, I could not give myself a back door or safety net.
How do you decorate your writing space?
I think of my writing space a bit differently. I often work from home to allow myself to be in easy reach of my library in the living room. The ingredients that make up my writing space are reading, silence, my computer, a notebook, and music. I work at the dining table, much to the annoyance of my wife.
Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook?
King of Myth
Back when you were taken from our lives like
the son of God ascending into heaven at the barricade
to another life, policemen on their motorbikes
named you King of Myth. You danced to tossed grenades,
all part of the charade in their fire ritual. In a restless air
we surrendered our weapons – axe heads, shanks, short rope,
blades, some poison and all its animal understanding – now fair
game to the enemy with our world in their scope.
They came down hills during the blackout, phantoms
from a fallen sky with years of practice at soft landings
onto roofs in darkness, like a spirit slipping into skin.
The voice of their guns kept the violence from escaping.
A disturbance in the trees is easily mistaken for wind.
Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me – as the radio sings.
Why did you choose this poem?
One of Uganda’s great poets is Okot p’Bitek, and the poem he is known for is Song of Lawino, an epic poem written in rhyming couplets. My poem is not as grand but also uses rhyme as its engine in the form of a sonnet. I am impressed by Okot’s narrative strength.
This book but particularly this poem is an homage to him and that poem.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?
Chapbooks are like trailers to a great films. With that in mind there are several poets I like Inua Ellam’s chapbook Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales — it led on to a wonderful theatre show called The 14th Tale. Anything by Jay Bernard but you can’t go wrong with The Red and Yellow Nothing. And my fellow East African Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us. You might also like sugah. lump. prayer by Momtaza Mehri or Safia Elhillo’s Asmarani. There is a new generation of writers whose work is so exciting in the way it bleeds into other art-forms.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
Rather than obsession I would use the word enquiry. I realize that the Idi Amin war was my event horizon. My identity as a writer comes from having to define my African experience in a Western world. The impact of this event is what the core of the book is about.
What’s your chapbook about?
Resurrection Man is about life. My life and the other Ugandans that form my birth nation. It looks at how life is infected by war. War tests all aspects of the human condition. If you read the poems my hope is you will see that the world I present before you is tangible.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The title poem “Resurrection Man” and “The Self” are the oldest poems that look at identity. “Resurrection Man” places you in the heart of Uganda, and “The Self” places you at an interrogation at Heathrow Airport. I knew when I was arranging the order that the poems would echo the moving away from Uganda and entering a new world.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you?
“Kingdom Of Gravity.” I wrote it when I was at Caven Canem. It speaks of the River Nile, which has its source in Uganda. This poem acts as a bridge between the world of the reader and the world of the writer. If they can follow me along the Nile to the source, then they can look at themselves in the river and not just see my world but more importantly themselves.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I do not know if “misfit” is the word I would use, but I can say that the poem “Language We Cry In” is the only poem in the chapbook that did not make it to the full-length book Kingdom Of Gravity. My editors and I set a high bar for the poems that qualified for the collection.
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
Revising is not an easy skill to master. As far as strategy, the aim is to arrive at the best version of the poem. Part of that process requires critical feedback from people you trust. You also have to have a hibernation period.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The editorial experience had three layers to it. First, it had to be read by Robin Coste Lewis, as she was the judge for the Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Cave Canem Chapbook Prize. I was notified by Cave Canem the day before Christmas that I had won. At that point, Jai-Alai Books took over. They read it several times cover to cover, individually and as a team. They gave four editorial suggestions. I was okay with all of them, as they did not disrupt the flow of the collection. The cover design was out of my hands. That credit goes to Seth Labenz. What I like is that it gives nothing away about the narrative, but at the same time exposes us to two elements of the world, smoke and darkness.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
Resurrection Man (2017) and The Second Republic (2014) form the core part of my first full collection Kingdom of Gravity. It is a cinematic portrait of Uganda during the Idi Amin regime. My lens focuses on the people of Uganda hopefully without bias as they struggle to hold on to the values of life in the extreme context of war.
The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man (2005) is my first chapbook and the title is a nod to Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. It looks at how my Ugandan identity renders me invisible in a Western space. It is my first look at what it is to be a writer in exile.
What are you working on now?
Currently I am working with Fuel Theatre and director Roy Alexander Weise on a play called The Dark. It charts my mother’s journey as she smuggled me out of Uganda during the fall of the Idi Amin dictatorship. I am also embarking on a national book tour with my fellow writer Roger Robinson. The tour is called Mixtape and will fuse all the influences that helped create the poetry we write.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Take it seriously in the good times and the bad. Good writing is a function of good reading. These two elements are part of a process and although we may all have different processes to achieve our writing, we must find ways to keep these processes alive.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
If you could not write, what would you do with your life ?
Nick Makoha‘s debut collection Kingdom of Gravity was shortlisted for the 2017 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and nominated by The Guardian as one of the best books of 2017. He won the 2015 Brunel International Poetry prize and the 2016 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize for Resurrection Man. A Cave Canem Graduate fellow & Complete Works alumni, His poems appear in The New York Times, Poetry Review, Rialto, Triquarterly, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri.