Tuesday, July 17, 2012

BEWKETU SEYOUM Interview with poet SJ Fowler

Bewketu Seyoum is a young Ethiopian writer from Gojjam, southwest of Addis Ababa. He studied psychology at Addis Ababa University and published his first collection of poems, Nwari Alba Gojowoch (Unmanned Houses) in 2000, a year after graduating. Since then, he has published two further poetry collections and two novels, and has narrated short stories on CD. In 2008 he received the best young writer award of Ethiopia from the President. Some of his poetry has appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation (The Big Green Issue, 2008) and Callaloo (2011).
SJF: Your work encompasses spoken word and performance, and comedy. Do you think this fluency of style is important in contemporary poetry?
BS: In Ethiopian tradition the spoken word has been much more respected than the written word. Till recently poets didn't bother to put their verses on a paper. They would improvise in the presence of language- conscious audience who could in some extent participate in the composition. I believe some elements of this tradition is worth preserving.
SJF: You have often employed satire in your work to hold a mirror up to Ethiopian society. Do you think this is the responsibility of the poet, to be a voice of conscience?
I think satire doesn't fit well into my works. I am fond of melancholic humor. One evening I encountered a shabbily dressed guy rummaging through a garbage can in one of the streets of Addis. I came closer and asked "what are you up to man?" "I am only looking for some leftover for supper'' said the man sadly. Touched, I took out my wallet and offered him ten birr to buy bread. The guy took the money and made his way to the nearby shop. Soon, he returned with a candle and a match and went back to the garbage can to look for some leftover. This is a kind of stuff I like to include in my work.

SJF: You have even faced direct repression and violence for the content of some of your work. Has this affected your approach to writing and its consequences?
BS: Last year I was physically attacked by some guys who accused me of blasphemy. Should I stop exploring religious themes in my works? I don't think this is the right conduct for me as a writer. Will this incident change my approach? I have to wait and see.
In my country free speech has been attacked by tyrants and self- appointed guardians of tradition. Traditionally, poets wanted to make a living while still wanting to speak their mind. The compromise between silence and security has created a new form in poetry which is famously known as Wax and gold (the Ethiopian double entendre).Yes, what doesn't kill me makes me an innovator.
SJF:In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
BS: First, I would like to thank Poetry Parnassus for honoring me by inviting me to this historic festival. As a young a writer such an exposure is a source of encouragement. As a spiritual adventurer, meeting poets from different languages and cultures is like exploring the world in a week.
SJF: Poetry Parnassus is one of the largest poetry events to ever take place, over one whole week with over two hundred poets in attendance. The nature of its design means, to a certain extent, you are a representative of your nation and its poetic culture. How do you feel about that idea?
BS: We are a nation of runners. Now I should use this opportunity to show we have got also poets.