Efrem Seyoum Looks to the Past for Inspiration
Efrem Seyoum is considered one of Ethiopia’s greatest living poets. His fans and critics alike look forward to the release of each of his works, with copies being snapped up from bookshops and vendors very soon after they are published. His experiments with form and content have revolutionized the poetic landscape of Ethiopia, paving the way for countless young poets to revitalize the literary scene in Addis. The 39 year old is also interested in the country’s ancient poetic and literary traditions, an interest which informs his choice of project, which includes translations from Ge’ez to Amharic, as well as short stories and plays. EBR’s Menna Asrat sat down with Efrem to find out more about his process and inspirations.
Poetry is one of the oldest and popularly known forms arts in Ethiopia. In fact, there are many artists who mastered the form of literature. Of the many poets in the country, Efrem Seyoum is one of the most recognizable names. With works like Nu Gedgeda Inafris (Come, Let Us Tear Down Walls), which is widely circulated around the country, Efrem’s works have been a mainstay of the literary world for the last two decades.
Sitting at the terrace café of the Ras Amba Hotel around Kebena in Arada District, the Addis -born Efrem mused on his history as a writer. Looking out at the view of the city with his trademark thousand-yard stare, Efrem looks surprisingly ordinary, blending in with the other residents of the city. For passers-by it would be hard to identify him as the darling of the literary world.
From a young age, he found himself drawn to the traditions of church writings, and how ancient poets expressed the world around them, an interest which persists to this day. “Everyone has their own calling, and they come across it in their own way,” he told EBR. “I grew up in and around the church, which has always affected the way I work. I was also surrounded by books at home, thanks to my mother, so I was always drawn to literature.”
Exploring the world of Ethiopia’s master theological and literary writers from a young age led him to desire studying theology and philosophy at university. However, he slowly started to doubt whether that was the right decision. “I arrived at the decision in my own time that I couldn’t continue down that road. I started to write poetry and present it with some friends at the Russian Center for Science and Culture (Pushkin Center), and at the Alliance Ethio-Francais. We had a great response from the audiences,” Efrem explains.
Such warm response gave him the push he needed to start writing as a career, with his first poetry collection, titled Soliana, coming soon after, in 2005. The title itself was inspired by his fascination with the respect for the poets of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
“The word Soliana is used as another name for the Virgin Mary by the scholars of the church. When they were writing qene (a unique style of poetry from Ethiopia), and they needed a certain number of syllables to fit in the line, they would use alternate names. Soliana means ray of light,” he says.
Since his first collection, Efrem has written multiple poetry collections, short story collections, and plays. As with many creative people, he is asked by many people about his process, and where he gets the inspiration for his writing.
Ideas come from every direction for poet. “Anything that catches my attention can be the basis for my writing. I believe that ultimately, art is a spiritual experience. Art and creativity can be a showcase for visionaries,” Efrem told EBR. “I let the art take me where it will.”
But unlike some other artists, he doesn’t believe that pushing through times when inspiration dims is ultimately useful in creating good art. Efrem explains, “I think that creative jobs are like any other job. They need dedication. But art is like wine. To reach its full maturity, an idea has to wait for the right time, and be incubated for the right amount of time. Of course, there are artists who see a beautiful woman in a taxi and sit down and write a poem right there, but that kind of art is ultimately unfinished and hasn’t been matured. Something ends up being missing.”
The country has been going through many changes, both in the political and social spheres. The unrest and dissent that preceded Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power and reform agenda mirrored the unrest that spawned some of the world’s best pieces of art. Efrem is one of those who believe that unrest has the potential to inspire great art, especially in literature, explaining, “Art and artists tend to align themselves with opposition. Times of unrest and war also tend to give rise to complex ideas. It’s partly weighed down by propaganda but times of change are the testing ground for higher ideals and true politics.”
It was also this slow-building change that inspired the recent renaissance of the poetry scene in Addis. More venues are starting to host poetry nights, often backed by musicians and bands, where poets, both young and established can come and read their new and older works to audiences. “People are lining up to hear poetry. When we first started events like this, it was at Imperial Hotel and there were only a few people. We’re living in an age where art is experiencing a rebirth.”
Efrem’s own work has become a talking point in its own right. In fact, his poem titled Fikir Izih Bota Fegeg Bilo Neber (Love Smiled in This Place), describing someone who has been hurt by love, has raised much debate amongst Addis Ababa’s literary lovers. In fact, many readers have often wondered if Efrem himself has gone through the experiences that he wrote about, or what his views towards women are.
However, he laughs off the notion that artists must have gone through the things they write about. “Of course there are people that have been hurt by those they love, people of both genders. Both genders can be hurt. When people write about love, it tends to be about the good sides. But I think that the negative sides should be written as well. I thought what if I was in that position? That’s where the poem came from. It’s not from a dislike of women, as many people seem to think.”
The questioning and criticism of each of his poems speaks to the impact which Efrem’s works have had on those who read them. As for the work his fans can expect in the future, he has a lot planned. “I have worked on an experimental music CD that will be coming out next year. I also have some poems that I’m working on for my next collection, also coming out next year.”
The future of poetry in Ethiopia is looking brighter than ever, according to Efrem. “The younger generation is becoming more exposed to quality poems than before. There are so many more platforms for them to show their talents,” he says. “And thanks to the greater interconnectivity of the world, people are seeing that art is a career that can make a lot of money.”
7th Year • Dec.16 – Jan.15 2019 • No. 69