Knowing and Unknowing Performance with Nick Makoha

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If you have attended any poetry festivals or events this summer there is a good chance you may already have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Nick Makoha.  Much of his poetry paints pictures of protest and exile stemming from his experiences in his native Uganda and is woven with a peaceful, lyrical musicality that has uplifted audiences around the world.

Nick says: ‘We all have our own point of view, both in art and in general. Our own way of seeing the world can become so entrenched so as to detach us from those around us. But art is something able to connect us all - try as you might, you cannot fail to have an opinion on art. Art can involve everyone, making it cosmopolitan and open for all’.

Nick asks us to cast off our blinkers and try to see the world in a new light. I was delighted to interview him after seeing him perform one of his Mixtape shows at the recent Cheltenham Literary Festival.

How old were you when you started writing poetry, and why did you start?

There are many parts to this answer. I wrote my first official poem when I was 6 in primary school. My mum had the poem framed and it hung in our flat in the front room for years. The first poem I wrote that got published was in boarding school in Kenya. I wrote it for my maths teacher Mr Patel. He died of a sudden heart attack. He was like a father figure to me. His passing crushed me. I think leaving my homeland at four years old activated what I call the ‘poet mind’.  

Do you get nervous before performing to a big crowd, or even to a small one?  How do you prepare yourself?

I do get nervous. It is a space of knowing and unknowing. A good performance/reading demands a vulnerability and intimacy from its reader. The nerves are a function of our resistance to this process. I keep having to learn to yield to the process.  

You have achieved some highly significant accolades and won some impressive awards.  Is winning things something you specifically strive for, or is that just part of the journey?

I am not sure I know how to answer that. As an artist I am working towards sharing my best work. One can never envisage how that will be received by the reader. 

You have an exceptionally good voice for poetry performance.  Do you work on things like tone and your delivery technique?

I don't work on voice in isolation. Poetry and the reading of it are like different sections of the orchestra. They work best when they complement each other. But I would say that poetry has musical elements to it. So it is just as important to pay attention to that as one would pay to form, lyric etc. Art is a device for communication and requires that the gestures we make with our art (in my case poetry) connect with the reader/audience. 

As part of Spread the Word's Complete Works programme you were selected to be mentored by George Szirtes.  What has this experience been like for you, and how do you think he felt about it?

George Szirtes was a pivotal part of my development as a writer and human being. He is still a person I trust with my work. He is more than a mentor he is a friend and ally on the journey as a writer

What's next for you Nick?

Roger Robinson and I are currently on the last leg of the Mixtape Tour. There seems to be a lot of interest so we are thinking of doing some more dates next year both in the UK and internationally. I am currently working on a play called The Dark with Fuel Theatre and Director Roy Alexander Weise. It will showcase at The Tobacco Factory in Bristol and Ovalhouse in London this November before we do a nationwide tour next year. As of right now I am off to The Ake Literature Festival   and The Lagos International Poetry Festival in Nigeria.

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