Sometime in 2007, the British-born, Ethiopian-raised poet Chris Beckett faced a challenge: he could not find the kind of poetry he wanted to read. “I was trying to find Ethiopian poems to inspire me when writing about my boyhood in Addis Ababa in the 1960s,” he tells Open Country Mag. “I felt I could not get to the heart of my experience with normal English types of poem e.g. sonnets, which have no place in Ethiopian literature.”
In his attempt to reconnect to a place he held fondly in his heart, he bought The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, a 1984 anthology edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier. But within the pages of the book, Beckett still did not find what he sought. “I was disappointed,” he says, “then really angry, to find that it did not include a single Ethiopian poet!”
But there was a small victory: “The Stranglehold of English Lit.,” a shots-fired-at-Jane-Austen poem by Felix Mnthali, one of the three Malawian poets—others are David Rubadiri and Jack Mapanje—included in the anthology, captivated him. “[It] really inspired me to dig into Ethiopian poetry!”
A decade later, Michael Schmidt, the founder of Carcanet Press and co-founder of PN Review, approached Chris Beckett and asked him to put together an anthology of Ethiopian poetry. Beckett reached out to his friend Alemu Tebeje, an Ethiopian poet and journalist who left Ethiopia in the early 1990s and now lives in London, for assistance. Tebeje, who, Beckett says, “grew up reading the great 20th century poets like Gemoraw and Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin,” agreed to come on board.
Beckett and Tebeje started work. They founded Tamrat Books, with the mission “to bring the beauty of Ethiopian poetry and letters to an English language readership.” Then they focused on finding poems for the anthology.
“The first decision we had to make was to limit ourselves to Amharic poetry,” Beckett says. “There are over 80 languages in Ethiopia, but Amharic is the most common at least in printed poetry—and we are anyway not qualified to translate any of the other languages/literatures.”
Beckett also found folk poems translated by Ethiopian and foreign academics in Journal of Ethiopian Studies, edited by Richard Pankhurst, as well as in books by poet-researchers like Fekade Azeze. Later, he and Tebeje sent the translated poems to a few magazines in the UK, including Modern Poetry in Translation and PN Review, and they were published.
They sought guidance from Wondwosen Adane, a poetry lecturer at Addis Ababa University. Adane gave them a list of 13 important contemporary Amharic poets, including Bedilu Wakjira and Mekdes Jemberu. To this, they added another six, mostly women living in Ethiopia, including Misrak Terefe and Mihret Kebede, and then nine from the diaspora, including Lemn Sissay, Kebedech Tekleab, and Hama Tuma.
“I spent many happy hours trawling the Piassa district in Addis packed with bookstalls, where you say the name of the poet and they hunt through piles of books to find what you want,” Beckett tells us. “I also spent weeks meeting poets or their family members to talk to them about the book and ask their permission. We could have added many more poets and would have loved to include the original Amharic script of the poems, too, but that would have been too big and expensive.”
The anthology that Beckett and Tebeje produced, Songs We Learn from Trees: An Anthology of Ethiopian Amharic Poetry, is the first of its kind. It is divided into three main sections: folk and religious poetry, twentieth-century works, and verses by 30 contemporary female and male writers, some living in Ethiopia, others in exile. Carcanet Press, under its imprint Carcanet Classics, published it in May 2020.
The poems, Caranet Classics describe, are “packed with all the energy, wit and heartache of a beautiful country and language.” They “ask what it means to be Ethiopian today, part of a young fast-growing economy, heirs to the one African state which was never colonised, but beset by deep political, ethnic and moral problems.”
The question is also being answered by a generation of Ethiopian novelists, such as Dinaw Mengestu and Maaza Mengiste, who was last year shortlisted for the Booker Prize and this appeared on the January cover of Open Country Mag. A few Ethiopian poets have also gained public profiles, like Liyou Libsekal and Hiwot Adilow, who both won the Brunel International African Poetry Prize.
Beckett is excited about the anthology. “We see this book as just a first step towards bringing Ethiopian poetry to outside attention,” he says. He also hopes that “Oromo and Tigrean and other Ethiopian language poetry anthologies will appear soon, and that there is no ‘Stranglehold of Amharic Lit’!”
Picking the poems was a matter of “choosing the most representative poems, ones that ‘sum up’ in some way what you feel is the core of a poet’s message and way of writing, or maybe just which translation succeeds best since a great original does not always make a good poem in translation.”
Beckett sees Songs We Learn from Trees as only an introduction. “There are so many differences in sense, sound, history, culture etc. between Amharic and English that I’m sure we did not always do the originals justice in our translations or even our editing,” he says. “But again, we do not think of our efforts as definitive. If people just hear the words ‘Ethiopian poetry’ and prick up their ears, we will have managed something rather new and worthwhile.”
Watch Alemu Tebeje and Alemtshay Wodajo read from the anthology:
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