Songs We Learn From Trees

By Chris Beckett: This week, Chris Beckett reports on a recent poetry trip to Addis Ababa. The collection, Songs We Learn From Trees, is due in May and can be pre-ordered here.

Songs We Learn from Trees is the first ever anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry in English, and with my co-editor/translator Alemu Tebeje, we are waiting breathlessly for its publication in May! We have just received permission from the brilliant California-based artist, Wosene Worke Kosrof, to use one of his paintings for our book cover. All he wants in return is two copies of the book, one to read himself and one for the library of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington DC, which makes me so proud! Meanwhile, we are busy organising a UK tour in early June, with Ethiopian poets coming from Addis Ababa, Paris and Washington as well as London. We will be coming to a hall near you, in London, Cambridge, Leeds, Manchester!

Color of Words IX by Wosene Worke Kosrof

But while we plan and fund-raise, my thoughts keep going back to my wonderful trip to Addis last September, right in the middle of the keremt big rains, to track down our anthology poets, including relatives of the dead ones, and secure their permission to publish.

My best friend in Addis, Zerihun, lent me one of his enthusiastic brothers, Anania, and we set off to visit an ex-president of the Ethiopian Writers Association, Tibebu Bellete, who now runs Ahadu Radio and seems to know and have been to school with every writer in Ethiopia! If a poet is dead, he knows their widow or their brother, if a poet is alive he knows their mobile number or the number of their best friend. I already knew quite a few of the poets in our anthology, but when I walked out of Tibebu’s office, I felt connected to Ethiopian poetry in a completely new way: electronically, telephonically, resting on my thigh!

That afternoon, Anania and I zigzagged to and fro across Addis. Dodging an enormous rainstorm, we dived into a bookshop opposite the National Theatre to greet the widow of Abe Gubegna, who lost her husband when they were both still young, with very young children.

She happily sold us a copy of his complete works for 150 Birr (about £3.50) and chatted to us about her memories of Abe.

Abe’s poem ‘Old age’ complains

Is it wise to get old,
so your back creaks
like a staircase
and your tongue cannot utter
not even stutter
the words you once knew?

but meeting his lovely elderly widow made me realise that Abe’s poem is that of a young man, possibly already ill, and I wish he had lived to grow old gracefully like his wife and write more poems for us to enjoy.

We were also invited for coffee in the Piassa by Daniel, brother of the late Johannes Admassu, the first 20th-century poet in Songs. Daniel gave me a wonderful drawing of his brother Johannes together with another brother Yonas and their friend Yoftahe Negussie (also in the anthology) whose biography was written by Jonas. I was so touched, and the drawing now hangs in my study, not far from the photo of my father being presented to Haile Selassie in 1963 (below).

The following day we were invited to the house of Mengistu Lemma where his son Alemayehu now lives. Alemayehu is not very well at the moment but spoke quietly about his famous father. His good friend, the broadcaster and poet Teferi Alemu joined us too. Later, we dropped in for tea at the flat of Engineer Tadelle, a friend of Kebede Mikael, another great of 20th-century Ethiopian poetry who fell on hard times in his old age. Tadelle has been important in Ethiopian life in many guises, scientist, writer, reformer etc, and he supported his friend Kebede through thick and thin, shamed the government into housing him and had a bronze cast which stands proudly in the hallway of his flat (below).

Since Kebede left no family, I asked Tadelle’s permission to publish our translations of his poems, to which he answered, “Kebede Mikael belongs to the world!” Like Daniel Negussie and Alemayehu Mengistu, he was thrilled that a serious anthology of Ethiopian poetry was about to be published in English. We were not always so lucky at tracking down our dead poets! For example, we visited the Gebre Kristos Desta Centre, a gallery funded by the Goethe Institute to house paintings by GKD, famous for his art as well as his poems.

Anania brought his girlfriend Melkam (which means “good” and she really is!) and we spent a rare quiet hour looking at the paintings which are experimental but also very moving, just like GKD’s poems. Here is one titled Flowers 5 (right) which I really like. But we drew a blank on how to contact the artist/poet’s relatives. Hopefully, someone will contact us in due course…

The next morning we sped off to a bustling café-restaurant near the university at Siddist Kilo to meet Bedilu Wakjira.
Bedilu is one of my favourite modern Amharic poets, his poems dense with historical and personal perspectives, wit but also tenderness. Like many Ethiopians he is soft-spoken but his voice is full of character and charisma. To hear him speak always makes me think of the paternal narrator of his long poem ‘Awnet malet new, yene lij/ The truth is, my child…’, a voice that is simultaneously a doting father’s but also that of Ethiopia speaking to its people. I invited Bedilu to join us for the UK tour we are planning in June and was really delighted when he said yes!

We then popped over to the old Ras Hotel to meet two of the founders of Tobiya Poetry & Jazz, Mihret Kebede and Misrak Terefe, who were busy getting ready for the monthly performance of traditional music, jazz, azmari minstrels and poetry in front of a packed crowd.

Misrak Terefe

Both Mihret and Misrak were brand new discoveries for me, two women writing about difficult subjects in an unblinking but not strident way. I am so pleased to have some of their edgy, unusual poems in the anthology! Misrak will be joining our UK tour, and before that, two of her poems are due to appear in the Spring issue of Modern Poetry in Translation.

My last 48 hours in Addis this time were also my busiest ever! We met one of the bubbliest, most prolific Ethiopian poets, Ayalneh Mulatu, at the Ministry of Culture where he works. He signed a copy of his book T’eget lam/ The milking cow for me and read us some poems in his office with colleagues and visitors all sitting around. We also met with Awulachew Shumneka, an old friend of Alemu who promised to help us organise a big anthology launch in Addis this autumn. I cannot wait!

Then Alula Pankhurst and Wondwosen Adane, both so knowledgeable and generous with their time, put us in contact with the amazing Seifu Metaferia, who invited us to his home and sat there reading his poems to us. He would not be photographed but I managed to snap his fingers holding one of his many books.

Seifu is a giant of Ethiopian letters, he taught literature at Addis Ababa University, then fell out with the authorities and has only recently been reinstated to his professorship in his eighties. His poem ‘A world created by the powerful’ is one of my favourites in the anthology, so simple, and such an indictment of power structures everywhere:

They say “come here!…go there!”
with a gun
to emphasize their words

My last morning saw me huffing and puffing up the stairs of the Amba Hotel to get to its popular roof-terrace café with views over the whole town. Anania is younger and fitter than me and accustomed to the altitude, lucky man! This was our second attempt to meet Ephraim Seyoum, another star of the Addis poetry scene whose last collection (Feqir ezzih bota fegeg bilo neber/ Love smiled in this place) sold an incredible 40,000 copies! When Ephraim arrived he looked a bit dishevelled, rakish, full of fun. The figure he cuts in the book is a bit of lone wolf, disappointed in love but often on the prowl, never giving up, always noticing when a pretty wife’s husband is away…He also loves playing with words and titles, treating his poems like toys in the games of love. When I asked him who bought all those thousands of copies, he just smiled and said “women!” He also suggested that we work on a full collection of his poems in English and Amharic, and I agreed straight away: I too am under the spell of Ephraim Seyoum!

Ephraim Seyoum

** In light of recent circumstances, we’ll be moving the tour online and will share details in the coming weeks. **