Poetry of the Human Body: A Dialogue With Mahtem Shiferraw

Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Ethiopia & Eritrea. Her work has been published in The 2River View, Cactus Heart Press, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Mandala Literary Journal, Blackberry: A Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander Press, Callaloo and elsewhere. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full length collection, FUCHSIA, was published by the University of Nebraska Press (2016). Her poetry chapbook, BEHIND WALLS & GLASS, was published by Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweet-spot of Gaborone, Botswana and the  yellow-hot of Los Angeles, USA by Email.

Gaamangwe: Mahtem, I found your reflections of your poem “Blood Disparities” on Poetry LA, quite striking. You said;

“I am very interested on the human body. The way it works, on the very small or simple level. Like the cell, and what it does. I find that there is so much poetry in the human body, and the way it also works with the mind. And the body of the mind or the mind of the body. So there is a lot of exploring to do.”

Let’s start here, on your fascination of the human body, and the poetry you are unpacking and discovering in your exploration of the human body?

Mahtem: This is a great question. I think a lot about the human body, and how it moves in the world. How we, as human beings, are affected by the things we experience, and how differently our bodies react to our experiences. We know the body as an inherently biological element, but what do we know about its psychology? And how does the body inform the things we do, the way we react to certain things? These are all fascinating things to think about. The body is filled with small poems, whether you’re thinking about flesh and blood, or the resilience of scars, or the magnitude of certain organs … I can go on forever!

Gaamangwe: I have never thought about the psychology of the body! Just fascinating.  What ideas do you have about the psychology of the body?

Mahtem: Memory comes to mind. The first thing I know about the body is: it remembers things. The mind does too, of course, in a logical sense. But the body has a memory of its own; as do parts of our bodies. A simple example: hair remembering how to curl or uncurl under a toothless brush. Or the body refusing to fall asleep because of a quiet distress, the body sweating in fear. The thing is, we are accustomed to the body and mind being in synch; but at times, they’re not, and we, are left in the middle, questioning our decisions. These bodies remember everything: the sound of a specific laughter, the smell of a new season, the rumbling of a dropped bomb. They can distinguish between the fear of longing, the fear of anticipation, the fear of death. How many times do we actively think and categorize our fears? We usually don’t. But the body does that for us, among other things. It labors quietly to help us exist in the world as we do.

Gaamangwe: I am now thinking of the way the body also exists in spaces of dis-ease, constrictions and violence. How the body contains grief and sorrows, which are some of the themes that you explore in your poetry.  What griefs and sorrows within the body are you interested in exploring?

Mahtem: Exactly! I write a lot about grief-stricken bodies, it is a fascination of mine. Not because I take pleasure in the aching, but because I am marveled by the beauty and perseverance that occurs within our bodies. In Ethiopia, when a loved one dies, we show our grief explicitly: women shave their hair, wear black for at least forty days, they turn their netela upside down. These are all things that signal grief. But the mourning, although communal to some level, is also quite private, personal. In times like these, the body moves as it ought to be; although our mind is shut down from trauma, the body gets up, fixes things, prepares food, arranges the wake, etc. The body shows up; while the mind meddles in sorrow. I think I’ve said too many times that I am the keeper of sorrows, which is a pretty grim profession. But I consider it to be worthy, mostly because a lot of sorrows go by undocumented, and some fester within us without our knowing. How can then someone claim to be a poet, and not bear witness to such things?

Gaamangwe: As I grow older, I understand how wise our ancestors are, in the way that they have created and kept what might seem as elaborate and unnecessary cultures of grieving. These long days of mourning that seem to be for communal purpose, yet on closer inspection one sees how this communal practice of funerals allow us to individually integrate our loss, to move from shock, to not crumble. On cultures, do you also marvel at how bodies react and navigate different geographies; countries and lands that hold our greatest joys and greatest pains?

Mahtem: Our ancestors were SO wise. I think a lot about my ancestors these days, connected, inherited, longed for – all of them. They have woven intricate ways of living so we could continue to survive.

Navigating different geographies is a source of joy and sorrow for me, which is why I think and write a lot about the immigrant experience. I just wrote a poem about our bodies being maps – each limb part of a land we crossed and uncrossed, each organ hiding a different flag, these feet used to running and running. Ultimately, our bodies just want to be – whether in America or in Ethiopia or in Botswana. But the lands we cross have an anatomy of their own – they give us different names, they place us in a specific social strata, they expect less from our intellectually driven minds. By this, our bodies come close to disintegrating. How can we not? But something keeps us going – a glimmer of hope, whether in the shape of a loved one, or lost ones, or, the will to live and make something of ourselves over and over again. This hope does not let us wallow in our sorrows. And so our bodies know this, and they learn to muster sorrow or grief or longing or whatever is thrown our way, and adjust to move within new boundaries. It’s as if they protect us from the ugliness of a world that chooses to see us as destructive. And this, I take to be a gesture of grace, learned from ancestors, from God, from others.

Gaamangwe: On speaking about the anatomy of our lands, cities and countries and world bodies, I am also vigorously learning to seek and find the poetry here. Because as you said our bodies are so endowed with a beautiful grace, and if we think about the sources of our sorrows, these things that try to disintegrate us, and how they enable us to see this beautiful grace, perhaps then there must be poetry in them?

But I speak as someone who knows only a small fraction of the immigrant experience, but I do wonder if you find poetry in all the countries you belong to? If your body has created a magnificent poem out of existing in different geographies?

Mahtem: That’s a very interesting thought. I never really considered myself as belonging to any particular land, though I develop strong attachments to each, for various reasons. I would hate to romanticize it too much because the experience of the immigrant is turbulent at the least, and continues to be so. Meaning, the experience does not become suddenly pleasant because you have set roots in a different land; the journey is not the only harrowing thing. Some of us adjust better or more quickly than others, some don’t. And I’ve heard different versions about the immigrant who belongs to many lands, and therefore is better because of it. Although we are better for having been traveled, we have also to be realistic about these experiences. I think I’m one of those few who don’t really feel the belonging, and always seeks for it. I belong more to water than to land, which is to say, belonging has nothing to do with physicality. The first time I was kicked out of my birthplace, I felt betrayed, I mourned for the white city. And refused to set roots elsewhere because I did not see myself anywhere else. Thus, the body must have been in mourning. But I can see how bits and pieces of the body must belong to different lands; my hair is from Addis, my chatter from Asmara, the food I cook from both, my first poetry from Rome, the blue I crave from San Francisco, and so forth. And by leaving pieces of itself in different lands, the body becomes a geography of its own; a map of our collective histories.

Gaamangwe:I can’t imagine what that betrayal must have felt like, and still feels like. How is the feel or color or texture of this specific mourning? I say this because I imagine that mourning for something that is inaccessible but still exists, and still could possible become accessible someday, is different from say mourning for something that is gone forever?  I am wondering about the kind of space or emotion the body occupies in this kind of sorrow.

Mahtem: I don’t think mourning can be completely gone from the body, at least not without leaving traces here and there. Perhaps the body hosts that emotion and decides to store it somewhere so we can move forward, somehow. It’s very dense, a liquid kind of mourning that continues to scrape your surfaces many years later.

Gaamangwe: You once said “there is a kind of silent existence in the body”, which I have never appreciated before. But then I also started thinking about different kinds of silent existences, beyond the human body.  I thought about silent existences of lands, that we don’t take note of. I resonated with your “Talks About Race”, poem, especially when you said;

“And how to cradle, and contain the disappointment that is

rekindled whenever someone does NOT know

my Ethiopia, my Eritrea.”

I have also experienced that kind of disappointment about my Botswana. In the way that I have to always explain about my country’s existence. Much like the way we disregard the whole poetry of the body, my Botswana, and your Ethiopia, and your Eritrea and many other lands all over the world exists on this silent existence. I am interested on knowing a bit more what is beneath the silent existence of Ethiopia & of Eritrea. What don’t we know and witness about them?

Mahtem: The silences we practice when we leave our birthplace or home are many. But these depend on us always remembering fondly our lands, our traditions, our culture. It’s one thing to be an immigrant and have to explain where you’re from (which is a natural curiosity of people, I assume), but it’s a completely different thing when your countries are erased completely and simply replaced by “Africa” or “African”. It’s sort of an implicit sense of entitlement westerners have; we and the other. Geography was not my favorite subject, but I knew the existence of 50 states in the U.S., the capital city of Venezuela, the ancient Greeks and their city-states, I had a pen-pal from Uruguay, and dreamt about the islands of Malaysia. I don’t know all the countries in the world, but at least we learn the continents. You have no idea how many times I’ve had to correct people about Africa being a continent and NOT a country. This kind of continuous erasure comes with arrogance; and over time, you learn to deal with it. This doesn’t mean I have anything against being called African; I find that very humbling actually. But it’s still disturbing to know  we don’t get to learn our origin stories; Ethiopia was once one of the greatest kingdoms in the world, and yet, I never learned about it in school. Why are our black monarchs any less important than the Romans or Greeks? These are the thoughts that occupy my silences.

Gaamangwe: This is my daily narrative. The way that our histories have been made to disappear is deeply disturbing. Sadly, this erasure is also so prevalent in the continent. Our education systems are deeply Eurocentric. We know far less about our countries and our own neighboring countries.  We have adopted so much that is not ours, and the systems (education and politics) seems to not be bothered by this de-valuing of our experiences and histories. It makes you wonder, who will become the custodians of our existence? What will say we once lived here?

So I am always trying to unsilence myself. I wonder, for you, do you have ways that you try to defy this erasure? How do you un-occupy these silences?

Mahtem: This is such an important question. Our first act of defiance, I think, is our mere existence; we continue to live and exist despite a multi-layered system that seeks to erase us and our histories, one way or another. We continue to question the status quo. We continue to be vocal and reassert ourselves in the history books. Because we matter, because our stories matter. And our elders have bestowed the most important element for our freedom: along with our languages and cultures, oral traditions play a vital role in our shaping. I might not have read books about my kings and queens, but I’ve heard stories about them. I might not have read about folktales, but I know plenty of Aleka Gebrehanna stories to tell my children. And as human beings, but especially as artists and writers, we have the obligation to bear witness to these stories, and continue the tradition of storytelling. By choosing to do this, I un-occupy the silences a bit less.

Gaamangwe: I absolutely agree. Storytelling has this surging outward and inward, physical and psychic flow, that refuses and defies and protest the things that try to make us disappear. When we witness our silences and sorrows, and the world’s attempt to erase us, we can and the future generation can un-occupy what has been done and what is being attempted to be done.

I am given even more energy and faith by this powerful line, from your poem “A Secret Lull” (in your book Fuchsia);  “Now who’s to say / their roar’s strength / does not lie in their sorrow?”

So much power here Mahtem! I live for this line, and mumble it in days when it feels the world is almost winning. So, thank you for this poetry. What else do you hope the readers of Fuchsia discover about human strength, histories and sorrows? 

Mahtem:  I’m so glad to hear that. Many people think sorrow and hopelessness go hand in hand, but the strength of our sorrow is also important. Fuchsia is complicated on itself, but through it, I hope to connect with readers and their unique experiences, I hope to tell the immigrant story, the story of the nomad, and document the loss that comes from such experiences. Thank you for this wonderful and thought-provoking conversation! I do hope to bring Fuchsia in person to Botswana one day.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful! I would love to have you and read Fuchsia in Botswana! Thank you so much for joining me in this space.

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