Ethiopian poetry is a pretty well-kept secret! Thriving within its own country (poets regularly print 1,000 copies of their books and sell out fast), it is virtually unknown outside, except in the Ethiopian diaspora in USA and Europe.
Most anthologies of African poetry have only a few (if any) examples from Ethiopia, and there is very little available to read anywhere in English or other foreign languages. As one poet told me in Addis Ababa: “Chris, we suffer from never having been colonised!”
It is a telling point: Ethiopia has always gone its own proud way and this shows in the self-confidence of its poets, who draw on multiple traditions developed over centuries and from many ethnic groups. Amharic is the main language of written expression, even though many of the poets have other roots (there are over 75 different ethnicities in Ethiopia). There are perhaps two main poetic styles: a folk or praise poetry such as cattle praises, warrior boasts, funeral chants or protests against, for example, famine or corruption (often both!), and the improvised songs of azmari minstrels; and a scholarly, intricate, priestly type of poem which is called q’ene and plays with the double meanings of words. It often introduces words from Ge’ez, the ancient Semitic language from which Amharic derives, now only used in the Ethiopian Orthodox church. So a q’ene will have a surface (wax) interpretation but also a deeper and richer (gold) meaning, giving it the title semenna worq (wax and gold).
The wonderful thing for me is that Ethiopian contemporary poetry is a hot brew of all these traditions. Often, the reader hears a voice which is playful and intricate while simultaneously shouting like a warrior! All poetries seem to rhyme (it is easier to do so in an inflected language like Amharic than it is in English, so more startling when an Amharic poem does not rhyme). The most common line is 6 or 12 syllables, which also throws any variations into sharp relief. For example, Bewketu Seyoum’s lovely poem ‘Mogn feq’er’ (‘Fool’s love’) starts with the achingly simple line
lesu (for him)
and ends with the echoing keswa (from her).
So far I have worked on three wonderful and important contemporary poets: Bewketu Seyoum, Zewdu Milikit and Fekade Azeze. But I recently visited Addis again and came back with the names and books of many other poets, including Meron Getinet, Mekdes Jemberu, Seifu Metaferia, Tagel Seifu and Getinet Eneyew. Eventually I would like to publish an anthology of modern Ethiopian poetry in Amharic (the script is so beautiful!) and English translation.
So if anyone reading this would like to be involved in this exciting project, please feel free to contact me (a knowledge of Amharic and willingness to work long hours for no money are essential…).
Meanwhile, in this posting, I want to try and give your eyes and tongues a taste of both the traditions behind contemporary Ethiopian poetry and of the contemporary poets themselves.
I would also point you towards Bewketu Seyoum’s slim pamphlet ‘In Search of Fat’, published by Flipped Eye in 2012 to coincide with the Poetry Parnassus Festival in London, where Bewketu was invited to represent Ethiopia. Naturally, he was a great success with international as well as Ethiopian audiences.
Do make time to read Bahrnegash Bellete’s excellent article on translating Amharic poetry (which first appeared in the Callaloo Journal and is included here with kind permission from John Hopkins University Press): it is rare to find such an expert and deeply-felt reportage from the rock-face of poetry translation!
Meanwhile, I will go back to my stack of Ethiopian poetry books and my trusty dictionary. As they say in Ethiopia, Ayzooh! Be strong!
Chris Beckett grew up in Ethiopia in the 1960s and his acclaimed collection of praise shouts and boasts, ‘Ethiopia Boy’, was published by Carcanet in 2013. The book of his collaborative project with artist Isao Miura, ‘Sketches from the Poem Road’, has been shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award 2015.