Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: An Interview With An Ethiopian Poet

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with the winner, Liyou Mesfin Libsekal, an Ethiopian poet whose fun poem revolved around the influences of tradition, modernization, and globalization on Ethiopia’s rapid development.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Libsekal: Writing is something that allows me to sort through thoughts and gain some sort of personal understanding. I’m inspired by what is happening around me, by my environment and my own experiences as well as those of others.

Liyou Libsekal

ABR: Your poem “Riding Chinese Machines,” which is a finalist for the Brunel African Poetry prize, juxtaposes motorcycles (‘mechanical beasts’) and lions (‘natural beasts’), to discuss the tensions of modernity and tradition. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and the process of writing it?

Libsekal: The inspiration for “Riding Chinese Machines” came from observing Addis Ababa at this moment in time; the poem is a result of living in a city that’s in the midst of an economic boom and immense transformation. There is overwhelming infrastructural change, with old roads being broken up, new asphalt roads being laid out, and much much more. So Addis has become a city of detours and congestion, of construction and ever-present foreign machines. That’s where the inspiration came from; from observing roads spotted with massive equipment, workers and operators, from noticing changes in lifestyles and landscape; it’s impossible to be in Addis and not be affected in some way by these projects and progresses and questioning the process is a part of it all.

ABR: As an Ethiopian poet, how has Ethiopia influenced your works, and what do you think the future of poetry in Ethiopia is? What ideally would you like it to be?

Libsekal: Ethiopia is one of the biggest influences in my writing. I’m really an observer so my surroundings are what I draw from. It’s fascinating to witness such intensely visible changes that the country is so rapidly experiencing; there’s a lot of progress and naturally, there are also a lot of problems, there’s so much hope and frustration at the same time. It’s a critical time in our history so it’s impossible to ignore.

ABR: Do you have any favorite African books/ books by African authors? Any that have particularly influenced you or that you just love for some reason?

Libsekal: I read a lot of poetry and Kwesi Brew is among my favorite poets, African or otherwise, simply because his poetry is such a testament to how powerful and relevant the medium is, or can be. I’m really drawn to his work and admire how effective it is in so many ways because his poetry is a reflection of his identity and that really appeals to what I value about poetry.


Liyou Mesfin Libsekal 
 was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and spent the majority of her childhood in different parts of East Africa. She earned a BA in Anthropology from the George Washington University, with a minor in international affairs and a concentration in international development. Liyou found her way back home to Ethiopia after spending a short time in Vietnam. She writes about culture and the changing environment of her rapidly developing country for the Ethiopian Business Review. She’s the winner of the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Find more of her work here. 

Ethiopia: Longing | Mengistu Lemma

The train hauled me out of London —
out of the smoke, the smog, the grime,
the filthy mix of soot and dust —
while the train spun fog from the fabric of steam,
clothing the land with its garment
of blessings and punishment,
Yizze kataf, yizze kataf, goes the powerful weaver.
Isn’t it amazing? Life’s a miracle:
coal smoke set free through the power of coal!

The carriage was big enough for ten,
but no one was brave enough to open the door
I’d shut fast to keep in the warmth.
Instead, they huddled in the corridor,
unwilling to share the warmth with a black man —
even though coal is black, even though
the wealth of England was forged by black coal.

The train whistled like a washint flute;
haystacks dotted the distant fields,
just like the straw roofs of houses in a village at home. And, in the blink of an eye, I turned into
‘a traveller of God’ in the meadows of England….

‘Greetings to your household’, I cried,
I am your “black”, your unexpected, guest:
your kindness to me will bring you God’s blessings’. ‘Welcome, come in!’, the head of the household replied. Then his wife brought a bowl of warm water,
and kneeling down happily to wash my feet,
‘Don’t be shy, my friend’, she said.

First my mouth blessed that tulla beer of Gojjam,
then a bowl arrived, and my empty stomach began to fill
as I licked the linseed oil of Gondar from my fingers;
next, chicken stew rich with curds. Contented,
I yawned. Sleep overcame me as I lay down
on fine cotton and was covered with wool….

Dimly, I heard the door slide open — but was fully awake
by the time it slammed shut. I jumped,
but then calmed myself down,
glowering at the reckless young man,
the brave one who’d dared to enter my den as I slept.
But his spotless shirt and neat matching tie made me laugh: he was so amazingly clean!

 

Mengistu Lemma (1928-1988) was a playwright and poet of the post-1941 period in Ethiopian Amharic literature.

 

Translated by Martin Orwin and The Poetry Translation Center. 

 

The African Book Review is posting a poem from each of Africa’s 55 countries over the next few weeks. Poem suggestions can be sent through the comments form below. ‘Like’ us on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr to read all the poems.