Mahtem Shiferraw's newly released book of poetry FUCHSIA is the winner of the 2015 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. Shiferraw joined the Otis Community a few months ago as a staff member in the President's Office. A native of Ethiopia, her work has been described as "magical, raw, bittersweet" and that the "...personal history and emotional architecture of Ethiopia and Eritrea reside in every portentous poem here" praised celebrated American poet Yusef Komunyakaa.
FUCHSIA was published as part of the African Poetry Book Series by the University of Nebraska Press. The official release was at this year’s AWP Conference, where Shiferraw participated in a panel reading of New-Generation African Women Poets. A book release event will be announced in June. FUCHSIA has been featured in several reading lists such as 25 New Books by African Writers You Should Read (Lit Hub) and Books by Black Authors to Look Forward to in 2016 (The Root).
Excerpt from FUCHSIA...
"And then, you ask, what is fuchsia - and there's a faint smile,
a sudden remembrance, an afterthought in hiding, forgotten smells
of wildflowers and days spent in hiding, in disarray. And mulberry
daisies carried by phosphorescent winds into the warm skin of sleeping
bodies; moments spent between here and there, pockets of emptiness -
without sound, without reckoning."
When did you write your first poem?
I read a lot as a child, so I think it came naturally. I don’t remember thinking about poetry specifically, but I know that one of the first poems I wrote is from when I was 9 or 10 years old. I grew up in Eritrea, at that time there was war, so the poem was about the sounds of war. The sounds of bombing and of people screaming; when you are a child you don’t really process those things for what they really are – you grow accustomed to them. But when I read it now, I think ‘my god, a child wrote this’ but at that time, it was simply my experience.
I also wrote fiction and science fiction as a child. Poetry came a little later, but since I attended an Italian school, I learned to write mainly in Italian. It wasn't until I moved to the States that I really started exploring English in my writing.
Do you approach poetry differently based on the language?
Poems come to me in colors and shapes, so I do not necessarily think of them (or think of writing them) into a specific language. But when it is time to transpose them into the page, the transition happens naturally. The two languages from my home countries, Amharic (Ethiopia) and Tigrinya (Eritrea) are quite different from each other (even though they both come from Geez). Amharic is softer, like murmurs in your ears - it's a very poetic language. Tigrinya has more guttural sounds. And Italian - it's very intricate, very rich, there are multiple ways of saying the same thing. And English - it has a way of becoming the language of specificity. So depending on the type and nature of the poem, I approach languages differently.
What inspires you to write your poems?
Inspiration can come from anywhere, it can be the way some tilts their head when laughing, or a story from the evening news, or a fleeting dream. I get inspired by the chromatic world in general, by seasons, cities, architecture, biology. I also get a lot of inspiration from reading in general. Reading untangles the brain from its ordinary tasks, so whenever someone says they have "writer's block", I say read! Read anything. And the "blocking" comes undone because words have a way of breaking our psyche.
A lot of inspiration comes also from quotidian conversations; I suspect because everyone is a poet, they just don't know it. But whatever it is, wherever the inspiration comes, I have to write it down immediately. If I don’t catch it right away, it can fade. I’ll be in a meeting and hear something that’s very poetic and I make a note in the corner of the page. One time I heard something on the radio, but I was driving and in the middle of traffic, so I jotted it down on my steering wheel.
What was the process of getting published like for you?
The truth is I never thought about being published, it was never a goal of mine as a writer. That sounds bad, but my main goal is just always to write, and to have a space to write, a room of my own per se. This is important especially for female writers; we must find a way of carving a space for our art.
I started thinking about publishing while working on my masters. I had to put together a collection for my thesis, and that became FUCHSIA. They say that the best compliment you can get as aspiring writer is when the professors, who are published themselves, say to you “you should send this out.” So I sent it out (first single poems, then the whole manuscript). It was difficult, as it never really felt “finished” but at some point you have to let it go, and see what happens. I think that's. more difficult to do with poetry because poems are more personal, while fiction you can hide yourself within characters and plot points, but with poetry it’s hard to mask things without exposing your vulnerability.
In the process of researching contests and places to submit, I found the African Poetry Book Prize, which lead to FUCHSIA. I don't think there is nearly enough diversity in the writing world (both in academia and publishing), so I took the liberty of putting together an informal reading list filled with authors from Africa across all genres (available on my website).
Do you have advice for young writers?
Reading helps me a lot, so I would say read read read! And if you’re a poet, don’t read just poetry. I would say read different genres, different authors from different backgrounds and cultures. A lot of things in publishing are very black and white, there is a lot of labeling, but I think you will get a lot more as a writer if you have a broader exposure to different work. The second thing is: people say "don’t be afraid”, but I say BE AFRAID – have the fear so you can hone your craft. Otherwise there is a sense of arrogance that comes with being an “artist” or wanting commercial success – it can change the way you think about your own writing. It can change your relationship with your art. And I think that’s worth protecting, I think that’s what produces beauty and that’s what people will appreciate most in the long run. Especially if you get published young or you get a lot of praise early-on it can make you arrogant. So keep the fear alive and when you are working on something new, you will be motivated to keep perfecting it, polishing it, asking for others advice.
Also the best advice I got was to be stubborn. As an artist you have to be stubborn in general, you have to continue to advocate for your work, continue putting yourself out there, and you can’t take things personally. A lot of poetry is personal – so if you get rejected it can feel like you are getting rejected not the poem, but if you have no expectations like me, you will take the rejections in stride.
What are you currently reading?
I usually read a couple things at the same time, but Between the World & Me by Ta Nehisi Coates is required reading. It is so devastatingly relevant; he writes in the form of a letter to his son about race in America and I have to read it slowly because the sorrow and can be overwhelming. I just discovered Aracelis Girmay's Kingdom Animalia and Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. I'm also reading Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus, a volume of poetry about black female bodies throughout history, it is illuminating and yet it takes a toll on you.
Did you specifically want to work in a creative community like Otis?
Absolutely – the first thing that attracted me was the creative community and not just the students, it’s everyone - faculty and staff. When you walk onto campus I get mesmerized by the art and all the classes, and the creativity is inspiring. And the colors! The elevators, the chairs, the art on the walls, all the colors - I thought - I love this place, and I am very inspired by that. I love the fact that people working here have these double-lives, they are ordinary people with extraordinary artistic and creative talent. It’s also a very realistic way of viewing artists; people think of them as lone individuals wallowing in solitude, but really but really they are hard-working people with jobs that do these amazing things.