Ethiopian-American poet Mahtem Shiferraw won the 2015 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript, Fuchsia, now published. She spoke to us about her poetry, unique sensory experiences, war and fruit.
It was a pleasure to read Fuchsia, your poetry collection. I was intrigued in the foreword where Kwame Dawes states, "This collection offers multiple versions of blood as color – proposing different shades for the blood of different animals." Which is true, yet it also seems your poems go beyond that, giving colours to fears and undefined spaces. Perhaps you could expound on how and why you've brought so much colour into an art form that is being expressed with black words set upon a white page.
MAHTEM: I think what Kwame did here was point at the specificity of colour used, particularly as it pertains to blood, I think, mostly because it might be unusual to use blood as colour (though it comes natural to me). I have been told I have a different way of understanding the world and my surroundings: synaesthesia, which is a way of experiencing the world and remembering things using multiple sensories at the same time. I discovered this a few years ago, after a lecture, when someone asked me what language I first think/write poems in (because I speak multiple languages). I said, poems come to me in colours, which, until that point, I didn’t even realise! That said – I do not see poetry as black and white, quite the opposite in fact! The black of the ink and the white of the page are only mediums for poems to inhabit this world, a world where we can see them with our naked eye, and feel them, and touch them. But like many art forms, I suspect, poetry is not made to stay on the page. Words always have a way of carving their own spaces; depending on the type of poem, the reader can be transposed into a different space, time, into a different reality, perhaps to a specific moment, or experience, or more. The possibilities are endless. But to answer more directly, I do not necessarily bring colour to poetry, as much as the poetry creates itself in such a way.
is the unsafe silence of bathrooms walls, and their
morbidly cubic nature.
Your poetry often shifts between every day actions, such as peeling fruit, to broader themes, such as war. This is unusual in a global society that tends to classify necessary daily activities as "women's work", like cooking and cleaning, and separates them from male dominated work like military engineering, which is often classified as "important work". Did the shift between the two spectrums come easily to your poetry? Or was it a deliberate threading?
MAHTEM: This is an interesting interpretation of the poem (How to Peel Cactus Fruit). The first thing to know is the context of it; it’s not so much taking place in a militarized place, but rather in a time of war (in the last years of a 30-year war). I think this specific poem operates on many levels, but it’s important to note that women were (and still are) at the forefront of war & conflict zones, and they are as much participant as men are (I don’t know why we are still making distinctions). As a consequence, the community as a whole experiences war in different ways; perhaps beles, cactus fruit, was a way of exploring the subject of war more intimately. If you think of it metaphorically, the fruit itself is dangerous, because its skin houses small, sharp thorns, so if you don’t know how to eat it, you will bleed trying to do so (of course, here in the US, fruits come already snatched of their original forms). Even the texture of it, its very nature, is quite symbolic of a war; when it ripens, its shade is the colour of fire, its temperature cool, its juice bleeding instantaneously. A fruit you eat primarily in days of war is more than just fruit; it has the senselessness of death attached with it, and it’s difficult to separate that.
Cut the small thorns adorning its coat, or snatch
them right out of the skin – some get stuck
in the bellies of fingernails, or other nest in the palms.
– How to Peel Cactus Fruit
A common thread in your work is gender, from the biblical Adam and Eve to a deliberate change of gender identity. People seem to crave labels, from what we do to where we come from. But as your work often demonstrates, much of what we try to define is beyond absolute definition. Thus, are these labels helping grasp fluid concepts? Or do you think these definitions are causing harm in their inability to be fully inclusive?
MAHTEM: I must disagree here! I think it’s the opposite, at least in my experience: people are tired of being labelled constantly and continuously, because labels are a way of constraining our nature, our talents, our selves, our very being, into the dark kingdom of the specificity of things. This is demonstrated in a very simple way: as a reader, you often encounter lists of great writers of so-and-so talent to read. I find it disconcerting to read labelled things; women writers, black writers, African writers, etc. These are not bad labels, they are just limiting, that’s all, and they set a different set of expectations for the reader. As an artist, you try to navigate these waters carefully, because your art will suffer terribly if you are not producing it in complete freedom. But getting back to the text, Dialectics of Death is a poem that witnesses the death, or dying, or attempt of death, of different people, real and imagined. So this stanza attempts to capture a grief untold, a kind of mourning that comes in the absence of death, in the absence of our first “selves”. I notice too, that a lot of my poetry, and my creative work in general is focused towards capturing grief seen and unseen, visible and invisible. I am the keeper of sorrows. And this stanza ties in with the Adam & Eve story as well; the first mourning of the first man who tries to reconcile the thought that part of him was used to create a woman; it makes him incomplete, but regenerative too, because he has already had the privilege of inhabiting the woman’s body, and when he is in love with her, he is also in love with himself. It’s the second love story unrequited (the first being God’s love for man), the first tragedy told.
She says the little girl in her
died; she can't recall when.
She will come back home
Her father won't understand.
– Dialectics of Death
Following that, do you think belonging to a group ever truly possible? Because it often seems that despite the many ways people interact and create community, including Facebook, it is commonplace to feel isolated and lonely.
MAHTEM: I think, after reading my poetry, it is obvious that I am not the right person to answer that question! I truly have no way of belonging, not in a romanticized sense, but in quite a practical sense. The search of what it means to “be home” is a truly fascinating one for me; I’ve heard people say they feel most at home when they are reading or writing, some feel at home with their families and friends, some identify home as a physical space – a house, a city, a country, etc. I suspect, there must be a way of truly and fully belonging to a group or community, but that is different from finding a home with oneself; the distinction could be frail, but vital. One can be part of many communities and still feel isolated. Or lonely. Which are not the same thing, right? As writers, we often crave the quietness of solitude to nurture our writing, but we are never truly alone; we have our characters, our memories, our thoughts, our poems, etc.; we are already so populated with the beauty of things, it’s quite hard to become disenchanted from them.
I don't know how to fit, adjust myself within new boundaries –
nomads like me, have no place as home, no way of belonging.
– Talks about Race
Stories come in a variety of art forms, including oral, painting, sculptures, photographs, novels and memoirs. What is it about poetry that makes it the right vehicle to transport your tales?
MAHTEM: Ha! The answer is: it’s NOT! I often joke and say, I write poetry because I cannot paint, but it’s sort of true. The thing is, I see poetry everywhere I go, everywhere I am, things bloom into creation right in front of my eyes, so my role as a poet is to give shape to poems that are already in existence. It’s fitting that you ask this question because sometimes poems come to me not in the shape of poetry, but in different forms; dreams, memories, scents, and of course, colours, and when they are finished, when they come out complete, there is a clarity that happens, a sense of awe and bliss, of heightened emotional tension. Not all poems come out like that, of course, and I’ve explored this on my website too. But some poems have their own way of being, they need to inhabit our world in a very specific way; I am currently working on a series of visual poems created through erasure of documents released by the government, and these poems can exist only through that specific format, I could never write them out, because that is not their real form. Writing, truly, is about creation, isn’t it? And you create not according to your desires, but according to your art, which is then transposed through your experiences. I think that’s why there are so many of us (writers, artists); given a specific subject, theme, topic, etc., we all create radically different things. We are vessels, vessels of the truth and of bleeding things. Our aching, we hope, will produce beautiful things.
We all remember these stories
because we want to remember you;
– Dear Abahagoy
On Mahtem's Bedside Table
So many things! I love love Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria, it’s a must. I am also reading Tatu, the latest collection from the African Poetry Book Fund, with so many wonderful new poets from the continent. I am also excited to read Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis.
Mahtem Shiferraw is a native of Ethiopia and Eritrea and now lives in Los Angeles, California. Her work has appeared in Mandala Journal, Callaloo, Luna Luna Magazine, Cactus Heart Press, Blast Furnace, and Mad Hatters' Review.
Editor's Note: The author has requested we keep the American spelling of colour when quoting from the collection, both for the poetry and the foreword.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie