Q: You are one of Africa’s towering literary icons. Kindly tell us what sparked your interest in literature.
I was lucky to have grown up in a literary home. My father was a school headmaster in Gambaga in the Northern Region, and he loved books. I grew up and had my formative years in Gambaga. I attended the school where my father was the head. It was a unique school where the 500 pupils were encouraged to recite the Lord’s Prayer in their own languages. And we all participated in whatever language was chosen. You can imagine the pride I enjoyed when fifty or so years later, I chanted parts of the Lord’s Prayer in Yoruba to an amazed audience in Lagos, during the presentation of my poem, Fanfare for Oduduwa. The northern Ghana of those days was a paradise. It was a pristine, natural environment where people led a natural life. The people got all their needs from nature – from the food they ate, to the drinks, to the clothes they wore, to the materials they used to build their houses. It was for them a life of total self-sufficiency. Nothing was imported. My school had a great library with many books, this allowed me to read to my heart’s content. That type of environment not only nurtured but also inspired me to be creative. I was lucky and blessed indeed.
Q: You were a member of the Ghana Society of Writers (precursor to the current Ghana Association of Writers), you even became an official at a very early age. Can you tell us the story? What was the literary scene in Ghana like in those days?
The literary scene was blossoming in those days; it was vibrant. I was a member of three libraries – the British Council Library, the American USIS Library and the Accra Central Library, in addition to my secondary school library. I wanted to find out as much as possible about poetry. I read widely and I wrote prodigiously. I became a member at age sixteen, when it was founded in 1957 – I was the youngest member and then at the Accra High School. It was quite an exciting time in my life. Imagine as a young boy, being surrounded by so many books, and being in the company of literary giants like Michael Dei-Anang, J.H. Kwabena Nketia, Efua Sutherland, Kofi Awonoor, Crakye Denteh, Kwesi Brew, Geombeeyi Adali-Mortty, Cameron Duodu and many others.
Another kind mentor was Madam Dorothy Padmore, the wife of George Padmore, whom I visited at their home. On some evenings, I would sit by her under the skies as she critiqued some of my published poems while her husband, Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s famous friend and colleague, sat by reading foreign newspapers.
Q: You went to study in the former Soviet Union, what informed that decision?
I was on a mission to research and fashion a new kind of poetry that my people would be able to relate to. I discovered Russian poetry, which answered my needs.
Therefore, when the then President Kwame Nkrumah, came back from his tour of the Eastern Bloc in 1961 and announced that he had secured one thousand scholarships for Ghanaians in various disciplines, I applied for a scholarship to Moscow and was successful.