Mahtem Shiferraw has published work in Callaloo, Mandala Literary Journal, and elsewhere. She founded black lioness press & studio, but she came to wider attention last year when she received the 2015 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. Her debut collection, Fuchsia, was published earlier this year as part of the African Poetry Book Series by the University of Nebraska Press.
The book is deeply sensual: full of color, sense memories, and small details of life. Places, though, are rarely mentioned or invoked; instead Shiferraw will talk about “mulberry / daisies carried by phosphorescent winds” or how cactus fruit tastes like “honey and caramelized autumn leaves” or “the color of sheep’s blood, without the musty smell / of death attached to it.” It might be easy to trace this approach to Shiferraw’s biography. She is Ethiopian and Eritrean; she speaks and reads multiple languages, but she is not interested in writing a story of migration—instead, she is interested in writing about how grief and loss and sorrow are intrinsic to the human condition. She described her profession as the “keeper of sorrows.” We spoke about what that meant, assembling her first book, and her project The Book of Exodus.
The Rumpus: Have you always been writing poetry? Have you always written in English? Do you write in Amharic or how do you work?
Mahtem Shiferraw: Yes, I’ve always written poetry, since as long as I can remember.
I think I first started writing in Italian, which is unusual. I learned Italian in school, and it is such a rich and evocative language; it invites poetry into its realm very easily. I did write in Amharic too, though it was mostly prose poems, or small prayers for my church group. Amharic was my second language—after Tigrinya—so I don’t think I ever quite felt comfortable writing poetry. And you must know: it’s one thing to write in Amharic; it’s another thing to write poetry in Amharic. It’s almost as if it’s a completely different language, a very empirical, enigmatic being, almost always difficult to decipher. In fact, writing Amharic poetry is as much trying to understand or decipher the multitude of meanings it can offer. I didn’t start writing in English until I was in college; suddenly, I found myself reading a lot more, and poems started shaping themselves in English.
Rumpus: Fuchsia is your first book. What is the difference between writing a poem and assembling a collection of poems (because they are very different things)?
Shiferraw: Writing a poem is a very anomalous process, for me at least. Sometimes a poem comes to me in the middle of the night, and shakes me into waking. Other times it is a fleeting thought, and I have to stop everything I’m doing and try to catch it. At times it’s a glimpse: the tail of a laughter, a leaf, a dream, the shade of a strange fruit, a lost gaze. So writing a poem is an act of running and catching, and setting things free on the white page. It’s very odd. When I write a poem, everything is about that specific poem. But when I am assembling a collection of poems, it’s about the language they have, the link I can establish, the overarching theme, and how the poems relate to each other to convey a multi-faceted language and way of being. So assembling a collection becomes a more contemplative act—though you still have to go through the grueling process of revision.
Rumpus: You have a poem titled “Synesthesia” which people might think of when reading some of your poems because color plays such a vivid and central role in some of your poems. Are color and language tied together for you?
Shiferraw: Yes, in the sense that color is a language for me. I would even say, it is the main language I use to understand the world and to communicate things. Color is also a way of being, of existing, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot get myself to unhinge from this kind of existence. We are taught these languages in the traditional sense–English, Amharic, Italian—and then there are the languages of the world we learn by living: the language of sorrow, that of joy, the language of nomads. These are more sensory, more tangible languages we carve out of our experiences. Then we have the language of color, or that of music, or that of poetry—these are tools to help us understand the beauty and aching of the world, that help us to make sense of things, no matter the circumstances. Perhaps that’s why in difficult moments in our lives, we find ourselves reaching out to these languages; we find that is easier to turn to poetry, or to music, or to art, books, etc., when facing a difficult time; it is perhaps the only act of honesty we allow ourselves in the midst of trying times. So if you think about these languages as “learned experiences,” color is the thread that is thinly embedded in and between them. That’s why it is difficult to separate color from language; because color is a language in itself.
Rumpus: There’s a playfulness to your language, but after reading the collection a couple of times I keep thinking about sorrow and grief being the key emotions of the book, which isn’t really what one might expect of a book titled Fuchsia.
Shiferraw: Perhaps that’s because we have been trained to associate specific colors with certain emotions. That’s different from your mind interpreting colors filled with emotions. Fuchsia is actually more complicated in itself—not the color, but the whole experience. If you think of it strictly as a color, it comes from a world of uncertainty: it does not have the bright light of pink, or the dark blue of plum; it has not the blood of purple, or the yellowish of magenta. And yet, it is a combination of all of these, and none. This kind of unique sensory experience creates something unique in my brain, perhaps without my knowing; it carves its own way of being, thus its own way of being remembered. While “Fuchsia” is the title of a poem, it is also what captures the array of poems in the collection, I think.
Rumpus: I mentioned grief before but the book has a lot of poems about displacement. Except for a few poems, there is no specific place being described—instead, the descriptions are of bodies, feelings, colors, flavors, which was a really interesting choice. I wondered if you could talk about that?
Shiferraw: All of my writing attempts to address displacement, one way or another. Being in a constant state migration, I find the notion of displacement to be quite familiar. I am a woman with many lands, and yet with none to claim as home. This is the plight of the nomad, I’m afraid: the constant worry of being out of place, not belonging, or belonging too quickly for the sake of survival. We often talk about the physical displacement of ourselves—traveling from one place to another—but we often neglect what happens inside the self, what the continuous moving and shifting does to our minds, our bodies, our strengths. It is an invisible scar, but a deep, deep one. It cannot be mended, if always unseen. It cannot be heard, because our voice does not know how to acknowledge its existence. This kind of invisibility we carry with us everyday, and though our bodies might be stagnant, the shifting always happens within. The movement of the nomad is both documented and undocumented; we are uprooted from one place to another, and our minds, our bodies, know, because we instantly change our language (speaking English), and the way we conduct ourselves. But. There is also the displacement that occurs within—from Ethiopian, to African, to black, to African American, to immigrant, etc. These are new identities we inhabit here, and this newly acquired knowledge, this notion of different selves, is shifted forever. This kind of displacement also affects our new lives, and the way we understand and move in the world. So I think, in a way, Fuchsia darts in and out of continents, time, and space, in an attempt to capture this continuous and exhausting moving and shifting within and out.
Rumpus: I also thought of the poem “Talks About Race” and how you end the poem, “nomads like me, have no place as home,” and the precision of detail to people and objects, and sensual experiences being so key.
Shiferraw: Even after all these years of writing that poem, the last line still gets to me; every time I read it, I am shocked anew. This poem talks about the moving and shifting of identities I mentioned earlier, but also the ignorance that comes with having inhabited only one, perhaps unknowingly. You cannot live in America and not talk about race, especially when you are a new member of that community. What is an Ethiopian to America? No one, really. But an African, that is something that can be grasped, understood. So this poem grapples with multiple issues, but at its core, it’s about seeing. No one sees this. This shifting. No one knows my Ethiopia, my Eritrea, because they don’t have to. It is a kind of erasing of my existence—my body, my mind, my history, my heritage—done very simply, unequivocally. This is what happens when we fail to see: we erase somebody completely, whether intentionally or not. Knowing this breaks me every time. We must do better. But as a nomad, as an immigrant, I keep experiencing this over and over again. And the breaking is always new, always harrowing.
Rumpus: “E for Eden” and “Plot Line” feel like the two poems that define your book, in a sense. They make it clear that you’re not just writing about displacement, but also about loss and sorrow, and that these things are fundamentally part of the human condition and how we think about ourselves.
Shiferraw: It’s so interesting you bring that up. I’ve once described myself–or my profession–as the “keeper of sorrows.” I am very much interested in the ways people persevere through loss and sorrow, the ordinary things they do in the midst of devastating situations, and the ways they find strength with each other, or within, or without. My culture has taught me that sorrow can be overcome, conquered, survived; it is a must, our default condition because we are raised to be strong. There is no question about that. This is an admirable quality, of course, but a heartbreaking one, too, at least for me. We are so terrified of sorrow, of becoming undone, that our only purpose, our only goal, becomes to survive it, to surpass it. Sometimes, we don’t even show it. Moments like these define who we are, whether for better or for worse.
But regardless of any cultural upbringing, every human experience of loss and sorrow is different; we all have our ways of coping (or not), our ways of surviving. It doesn’t occur to us that we can wallow in such sorrow; we do not allow ourselves to become undone, because we have been taught otherwise. Even a simple manifestation of sadness, such as weeping in public, is often taken as a sign of weakness. But that kind of weakness eats away parts of us slowly, slowly. So part of my writing, both poetry and prose, is also about giving permission to wallow in sorrow—to myself, my speaker, my character, and in a way, to my readers as well. To the soul that is trying to cope with loss, I always want to say, it’s okay, you can stay in this place of sorrow without judgment, without the fear of breaking yourself beyond recognition. This kind of permission, I find, is quite liberating. So yes, loss and sorrow are fundamentally part of the human experience, because we are very intricate and complicated beings, and the world contained in us is as important as the world we are trying to survive.
Rumpus: Going through the process of editing and publishing the book, did you learn anything new about your work?
Shiferraw: I did—and didn’t like it! I was lucky to have an amazing editor, Kwame Dawes, who saw and understood each poem for what it was, even when I couldn’t. Sometimes as writers we try to hide ourselves in our writing, whether intentionally or not, and we might not always like the vulnerabilities we are exposing. Going through the editing process exposed me to each poem, to each experience, again and again, and though the outcome was polished pieces, the method was grueling, and by the end of it, I was wrought. Reliving each poem, each line, was like feeling deep cuts into my flesh, over and over again. And with each revision, each wound was sewed, though not shut, though not bleeding either. It sounds horrifying, and at times, it is, but it’s part of writing, and at times, it isn’t. I learned that I don’t have to like my work to advocate for it. I learned that I am not my poetry, though sometimes I see myself reflected back in bits and pieces of it. I learned that once out in the world, these poems would exist within their own realm, independent and detached from me. I also learned not to defend myself, my work; I learned I didn’t have to explain my poetry any longer, because my editor understood more than I ever did. I had never had that before, ever. It’s very freeing.
As for publishing the book, it was amazing to see so many people respond and react to it; when I write, I often don’t think of an audience, or being published. So it was wonderful to discover the different ways readers interpret the poems, and the collection in general. I am very, very humbled to have had this.
Rumpus: I know that you’re working on a few other projects and do you want to talk a little about them or The Book of Exodus?
Shiferraw: I’m trying to polish a novel of sorts, and writing more prose than ever—though I don’t know it would fit into any specific genre at the moment. I am in a constant state of writing and rewriting.
The Book of Exodus is a special project, one that attempts to document and capture the migratory stories of the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. I am especially interested in the stories of our elderly: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., who were uprooted for one reason or another, and found themselves in a new land, learning a new language, walking new paths. Everyone has a specific way of remembering their story; even members from the same family have a tendency to remember things differently, because they are affected differently. The Book of Exodus is mainly a poetry project (multi-volume), but I am also collaborating with other Ethiopian and Eritrean artists to fully realize it into the multimedia project it can be. As a writer from Ethiopia and Eritrea, and as an immigrant, this is my duty, my ultimate responsibility: to give voice to these amazing stories of strength and survival, to document these lives and immortalize them for everyone to read. This, I hope, will bring more visibility to their movement, to their shifting.
Author photograph provided courtesy of the author.