ANNOUNCER: This is a production of Cornell University.
MARGO NATALIE CRAWFORD: Welcome, everyone, to spring semester's "In A Word" conversation. I thank the Zalaznicks for their support of this event and invite you all to attend the reception in the English Lounge. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is the author of Open Interval, National Book Award finalist, and Black Swan, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, as well as Poems in Conversation and a Conversation, a chapbook in collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander. Her work has appeared in such journals as African American Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and in the anthologies Bum Rush the Page, Role Call, Common Wealth, Gathering Ground, and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. She is currently at work on a third collection, entitled The Coal Tar Colors.
As a scholar of African-American literature and culture, Dagmawi Woubshet works at two pivotal intersections, between African-American and sexuality studies, and between African-American and African studies. These overlapping areas of inquiry inform his scholarship and research, including in his book, The Calendar Of Loss: Race, Sexuality and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS, Johns Hopkins University Press. Woubshet is the co-editor of Ethiopia: Literature, Art, and Culture, a special issue of Callaloo. His work has also appeared in Transition, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Art South Africa, and African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies.
He is currently working on two new book projects, Here Be Saints: James Baldwin's Late-Style, and New Flower: A Memoir. In 2010, he was named a young global leader by the World Economic Forum. In 2014, he was named one of the 10 best professors at Cornell.
Let me now do the warm-up for the act of love and translation you are about to witness. Dagmawi Woubshet and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, you are my magnitude and bond. Gwendolyn Brooks writes, in the poem "Paul Robeson," "we are each other's harvest: we are each other's business: we are each other's magnitude and bond."
Professor Woubshet has given us these very words, the poetics of compounding loss, in his space-making book, The Calendar of Loss. I want to lean into the poetics of compounding love as I introduce this scene of translation and love that is about to happen. Gwendolyn Brooks says, "we are the last of the loud." The loud in Lyrae's poems is the last of the quiet. We woke up like this, just as loud as we are quiet.
This compounding love sounds like Lyrae's hand flutter as she makes words slow down, as if she is teaching us how to sound this whirlwind out. By choice and desire, Dag, we are black, and this love compounded. Thank you for sounding out all that choice and all that desire. Lyrae, this black woman's work really is an interval that we might call open. I say, we need new grammar. Lyrae, you say we need new punctuation.
This love has always been such a lush practice of translation. Dag, who says lush in the lush way you say it? Love compounded might be love unsounded until Dagmawi and Lyrae meet in the compounding and just start sounding and sounding. As Lyrae writes in her poem, "Migration," go with your ratchet. Go with what moves you. Please join me in applauding Dagmawi Woubshet and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon.
Let me also say, this is Dag's last lecture at Cornell.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: We might disappoint you after that introduction. Thank you.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Thank you, Margo Natalie. I wrote a poem for Margo Natalie.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: All right. So we're going to start with a reading, some translation, and then have a conversation.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Do you want me to start with Axum?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Yes.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Do you want to talk about it or just read?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Let's set it up for them.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: OK. So, in 2010, we took a trip with the literary journal Callaloo, to Addis Ababa, and to Lalibela, and to Axum in Ethiopia. You want to tell us about Axum?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Axum? Axum is the ancient Ethiopian city. It's where Christianity took root in the fourth century. And it is one of the oldest cities in the world.
At its height, that's where all the Commerce of the Red Sea-- it was the hub of empire. And it is where Ethiopian civilization found root. And Lalibela is a medieval city.
And so, after we spent time in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, we traveled north to these ancient cities. And we both had an extraordinary experience, especially in Lalibela, that not just underscored, affirmed and sealed our friendship in one of the most beautiful architecture--
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: One of the seven wonders.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Seven wonders of the world.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Bet Giyorgis church, St. George's Church, is one of the rock-hewn churches, hewn out of the side of a mountain. And it's one of the seven wonders of the world. And, yes. We were visiting.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: And we received-- just us. We happened to go back to the church after we did a tour with the group, the two of us. And we found the priest of that church. And he gave us a blessing.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Just out of the clear blue sky. We were just together. And we went back to the church.
And the priest was there at the church. And he had a bag of dirt from the church, from the sanctuary, that he wanted to give to us. And he just started, in Amharic, giving us this blessing.
And he's counting on the knuckles of his fingers all of the ways in which our friendship would be blessed and we would be blessed in knowing each other, and all of this-- just counting it for us. It was the strangest, most amazing thing to be there at this church, and having this man say, essentially, you're meant to know each other. And these are all of the ways in which you're going to be blessed in this friendship.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: And finally, he put the dirt of the church in our mouth, and--
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Beneath each of our tongues, yeah.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: So, Axum is a poem that's going to be in this collaboration. So that's the northern city. There are other poems on Lalibela that would also make it. So, Axum.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Axum. I imagine the dead, cities beneath the teff. When fields give up their stones, the gift is mine. Stand one upright, construct a shed to protect ancient carved words from rain.
And I will fly 8,000 miles to gawk at what I can't read. Children gather, offer up some coins, the fields tender. What do I know about a life of plowing? The donkeys keep their eyes down as I pass.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Axum. [SPEAKING AMHARIC]
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: The idea for this project-- oh, well, we wanted to read the other poem and then talk about that?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Yeah. Sure.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: OK. Let's talk about that after. OK, so this second poem is called "Mercy." And it's got two epigraphs, one from Gwendolyn Brooks and one from the abstract painter Julie Mehretu.
Mercy. "Art hurts. Art urges voyages. And it is easier to stay at home." Gwendolyn Brooks.
"When it becomes inevitable, when the painting is yearning, when I cannot resist." Julie Mehretu.
"Beneath a silver sliver, the beauty we walk through says dark unto itself, brushes us with mean this, simile, smog, gods, a whisper on the shoulder tomorrow we will miss. So line our eyes with meaning. Gorgeous.
The sound of prayers on canvas, layered cartographies. In English, the X marked ha. An eyelash. An explosion. The very air smudge. How-- sing it.
[NON-ENGLISH] A rainstorm. Fermata. Firmament. The seasons' askings strung together, [INAUDIBLE] and hallelujah.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: [SPEAKING AMHARIC] Gwendolyn Brooks.
[SPEAKING AMHARIC] Julie Mehretu.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: So the idea for this project came out of-- we were at another conference, a Callaloo conference in London. And Mukoma's dad, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, was there. And he'd given this really wonderful talk.
And he asked the question in this talk, what language do you want your work stored in? And it just struck me while I was there at that conference, that question. I just couldn't stop thinking about that question. And I knew immediately, as soon as he asked it, that I wanted my work stored in an African language.
And when Dagmawi and I were talking about it, the whole idea of your work stored in the language of your best friend just took on kind of more and more and more life for me. And it's one of those things that we're kind of always thinking about and talking about, between the three of us, amongst ourselves and amongst our students too. The way that the life and the work are not supposed to be these separate things from each other. That the life is the work. That the major poem or the major work of art that you're creating really is your life. And that your work should grow out of that interior space, and this notion of-- I was thinking about it today.
Because in this book, in Dagmawi's book, The Calendar of Loss, in the acknowledgments, you say, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is the reason why I call Ithaca home. And that, I was thinking about, in terms of language and where I want my poems held and where I want them to be. I want my poems to be in the language of my friend that I have.
And it's an African language. But it's not using the normal roots of how people would think about identity in terms of putting your poems into an African language. It's a choice that is based solidly out of friendship, and out of the fact that the friendship and the academic work, literary work, whatever production that you're making in your life, that that would be the space where you would want that held.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: And for me, very similar motivations, of the chance to have the work of my best friend, and also a poet I admire immensely and I treasure, the chance to translate that work and make it available to Amharic readers. The sense that somehow, Amharic readers are bereft of your poetry seemed, you know, obscene. So there was that excitement. And then, I would say, again, to come back to Ngugi's challenge, imperative, that he's issued to us all, and for many years now, many decades now, to translate works into an African language. That excitement for me, in part, it's also to translate your work in a script and in a language that predates English.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Yes.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Right? So, the Ethiopian from Ge'ez into Amharic, that archive is close to two millennia old. And for a work like a contemporary writer who writes in English and a new world poet to have a home in the old world, I thought, that's also another way of shoring up, for instance, the connection between Africa and its diaspora.
The other excitement for me also was, we've had some great poets in a European lingua franca who've come to Ethiopia and have written about Ethiopia. So, Rimbaud lived in Ethiopia the latter years of his life, and in fact married an Ethiopian woman. His work has been translated, his Ethiopia poems, into Amharic.
Someone like [INAUDIBLE] came to Addis for the founding of the African OAU-- Organisation of African Unity-- it's been rechristened to the African Union now-- in 1963, and wrote this extraordinary poem on Addis Ababa. And then it's been translated. So, also, it was to add to that repertoire of poets including African diaspora poets who have written about Ethiopia in their work. It's now part of that archive.
So, in addition to the friendship, there was that excitement, and to return to my own native tongue through you, Lyrae. To discover new things about that language that was so formative for me growing up, and remains formative. And that's been, I think, one of the great pleasures of this project, is words that I have lived with, that I didn't know were-- for instance, whisper is [AMHARIC] And I realized it's an onomatopoeia. Right?
And I've lived with this word-- and it's a simple word, whisper, right? But I made that-- that epiphany came in the process of translation. So I love what your poetry has afforded me, to go back to this ancient tongue and begin to discover all its-- some of its resources.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I also wanted to point out, Axum is the place where-- what did we call Lucy?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Dinkinesh.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Dinkinesh--
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Yes.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: --is the 3.2-- how many years? 3.2-million-year-old-- where all of us come from-- Axum is that place. And so that's the thing that I also kind of wanted to be thinking about with the poems.
But also, that dislocation at the same time as the location, of this is only my home via love, you know? By way of love, I get access to this beautiful history. History. Yeah. Yeah.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Well, let me ask you this, Rae. When you look back at these poems-- because-- so the [AUDIO OUT] poem that I read is from last summer, in 2006. I spent last academic year in Addis Ababa. And I was curating a show by an Ethiopian-American artist named Julie Mehretu, a preeminent abstract painter.
And we had a symposium. And for the symposium, I asked-- commissioned-- a poet who writes in Amharic, Bekele Mekonnen, a great sculptor and poet, and also Lyrae-- two poems inspired by Julie's paintings. So the second poem is a recent poem, and in part inspired by this painting.
But I wonder, now that-- you first went to Ethiopia in 2010. But Ethiopia has been with you, we could say, since 2006, since we met in that close way. I wonder how your relationship, maybe through writing about it, has changed?
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: It's become-- I'm more and more interested. So I'm planning to travel and learn Amharic, and have been trying to teach myself, which is harder--
--and practicing with Dag, and getting pronunciation help and all of that. But I'm in love with Ethiopia. And this last trip, especially.
Because it's in this state right now-- Addis Ababa, the city-- is in this state of constant flux, where there's just construction everywhere we went. And you don't know what the city is going to look like six weeks from now, much less six years from now. It's so interesting to me.
But then there were these kind of strange parallels because of the hills. You know, Ithaca with the seven hills and Addis with the hills. And I just fell in love with the city more and more over the years. But it has taken on this kind of spiritual aspect to it, which we were talking about on the way here. Do you want to say the thing about agnosticism that we were talking about on the-- yeah.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: On the way here, I was saying that, in terms of-- just anticipating this conversation and the way in which our friendship has changed me. I think when we met 10 years ago, I was at best an agnostic. I mean, I grew up orthodox Christian. Grew up in a household where my father was very Christian. Not moralizing. But, you know, we have a-- you've seen it-- a prayer room in the house.
And so I grew up in a strict Christian household. And over time, in fact, if I could date two coordinates, it would be coming out and-- or wrestling with my own sexuality-- and discovering The Fire Next Time, that gave me the chance to say, I could put it aside. I don't have to be a prisoner of the tradition that I have inherited, in that sense.
But because Christianity is so formative of Ethiopian civilization, you cannot escape it. It structures the calendar. It is in our very tongue. It's in the very greeting, even if you are a secular person. So even when I considered my agnostic, it was still part of my tongue in that sense, right?
And then, I think via our friendship, I have returned to Christianity in a way that I can't even begin to explain to myself. And in a fundamentally changed way. And that hadn't dawned on me until I was reflecting on this conversation and the way in which your friendship has fundamentally changed me.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: We were talking about the way in which, in the book, there's so much talk about the way that the secular and the sacred rub up against each other, in the literature that you're thinking about, and in mourning, in AIDS loss that's in the book. But it really struck me when I was thinking about this conversation, the way that Ngugi's question kind of forces you to think of your death next to your life in a way. And that kind of seemed fitting to me for the way that we tend to interact with each other and live.
We believe in living. People who know us know, we believe in living, living. Like, all of the life in all of the ways that we can get that.
But the ways in which that, as sacred, became so much a part of the way of thinking about making work, and about making art, that that way of living, but also acknowledging-- we have a tendency when we're together to talk about, if it's tomorrow, we had a good time. It was good. You know?
Yes, that's fine, I want to live do it to a ripe old age. But also, if it's tomorrow, then that's OK. Because this living thing, you know, we've been fully engaged with that. Fully engaged.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Well, let me skip there, Rae. Because we're going to get to this. And we posted it on the description. Of being serious about the sensual life--
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Yes.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: --in all its variations, or iterations, right? I've always loved the quote in The Fire Next Time, where Baldwin says, to be sensual is to be fully present in what one does, from the act of making love to the act of breaking bread. And we can go on and think about even the uses of the erotic, where Audrey Lorde talks about it as a well that replenishes itself and it is powerful, and I think, just by temperament.
But one thing that we've been vigilant about is to live the sensual life and to draw ethics from it, to draw a certain kind of, even a political character from it. And so, maybe we could concretize it. Because I don't want to trade in too much abstractions.
So we've had tongue many times. But three times. So if I said, describe-- or, if you want to talk about the sensual life first. But, tongue.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Tongue. And I love how then it ties together with the translation and the work that we're trying to do. Because it's there in language. When you think about tongue, and you think about translation, it's there.
But tongue, if Dag says tongue to me, the first thing I think about is Paris, and being together in Paris. And we had gone to a restaurant on a recommendation of someone. And there was a chef in there.
And it was one of those-- the dishes that he was making, if you came in there and ordered-- I think he appreciated the way we ordered. Because we were like, we want the tongue, and the sweetbreads, and all of this kind of stuff. And the waiter brought us out some tongue that I swear, whoever was in that kitchen was back there practicing the black arts. It's like, I [INAUDIBLE] say it. And I was just like, bring that chef to me, which is a thing that I-- oh.
I love the way we license each other. This is a thing he loves about me. And I love that about him-- is that-- I said to the waiter, bring that chef to me. Because I have to kiss him. Because whatever he did to this tongue is like, he practices some otherworldly stuff back there with this tongue. And he has to come out here.
And the chef came out to get his kiss. He was quite pleased to--
--come out from the kitchen to get his kiss. Yes. But then this past summer, tongue--
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Tongue is one of the dishes in Ethiopian cuisine. So we went to a great Ethiopian restaurant and had this sauteed tongue. And so I cook a lot. I cook a lot of Ethiopian food.
And so Rae said, when we go back, I want you to cook this dish. And it's never been in my repertoire. So in the fall, I went to the piggery and got some tongue.
Now, it's funny, when you eat it, it's so much smaller. Because, you know, it stretches all the way-- just the shape of it, to see it. So, you know, I cooked it. And it's a commitment. Because it's something that you have to cook at least for five hours. Because otherwise it'll be chewy and inedible.
So, with some leeks, some onion, some garlic, some spices, drew up in a broth, cooked it for six hours. And then it comes out. And it's like a sole. You know, it looks like a foot, actually.
And you peel the cover, that texture that's on the tongue. You peel that. And then you have all this very tender meat, which then-- and this is where the decadence resides. You cut that up. And then you saute it slightly in some clarified butter.
And that was one extension of the way in which we're food. All the senses, to be present in the world, in that sense. Right? From what one tastes, what one does, how one touches. And to do that, not just in the privacy of our home, but how to take that into the world.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Right. And it brings me back to that blessing that the priest gave us at Bet Giyorgis, where he's taking the dirt-- you know what I'm saying? I'm not-- well, I am. I was raised Pentecostal. So I am really, really, kind of ridiculously religious in some ways that would translate to some people and not to others.
But this notion of taking this dirt out of this sacred space, that that was the thing that he was going to put under our tongues to bless us with. And that we would take that dirt of Bet Giyorgis into our mouths. And the conversations that we've had about Bet Giyorgis and about, how was that thing even made?
I remember walking to campus and having that conversation with Joe [? Gaither. ?] And he was just like, a lot of people probably lost their lives, was how that thing was made. You know, that people were laboring to hew that church out of the stone.
And kind of the costs of things being right there, present, the life and the death, and the sacred and the secular, rubbing right up against each other when you're making things. And to have that always present in your mind, to be thinking about that, as you're making art. But as you're living your day-to-day life, and as a matter of fact, that the making art is the living of your day-to-day life.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Absolutely. It's funny, one of the kinships between Ethiopians and African-Americans is the way in which the sacred and the profane or the secular are so enmeshed that in many ways they're inextricable. Right? And that's one connection.
So in terms of, I think about, in translating your poems, what's been guide to me is one, it's that. Right? Repurposing-- you know, how the two rub against one another. And then the other is a kind of generosity. And maybe this is also what the sensual life demands.
And in your poems, I've always found, Rae, that your poems are very complex. But it's not complexity for its own intrinsic value. So there is generosity towards the reader, that the reader could come in and inhabit that space. You demand the reader to work. But it's not a kind of complexity that is off-putting. And I found that generosity to be another guide in helping me translate these words.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: This is a thing that comes out of both the past decade of knowing each other, but also having arrived here by happenstance. You know what I'm saying?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Yes.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: It's one of those things-- I can't remember not knowing him. But we've only known each other for 10 years. But to arrive here at this place, and then we had amazing mentors. When you talk about that, I immediately start thinking about Ken McClane. About Ken McClane, who's retired from here, who was our amazing mentor when we got these jobs, you know, back when we were young. I'm still young in some ways.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Yes. Yes.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: But back when we first got here. And generosity was something that Ken talked about and said to us, kind of all of the time. And then it's a thing that I feel like is your defining feature as a human being, is generosity.
And I feel like that's a blessing to me to be able to pass that on after looking at three of my students here in the front rows, in this row right here, and how many times that I say in class, be generous. Be generous in terms of the way that you make the poems and make openings and entryways for as many people as possible. Be generous, be generous, be generous. But even that is just growing out of that love and care for each other and the love and care that we received from our mentors when we were here, which is kind of amazing. Where there, again, it's like there is no separation between how the process of the art being made and that. Yeah.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Let me ask you this. If you could-- how have we licensed each other, Rae?
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: So many ways [AUDIO OUT] each other. One of the things that I'm struck by, even as we're sitting here talking, though, is when we talk about the sacred and the secular and all of that, and we keep talking about how they rub up against each other. And every time I say rub up against each other, I think about us.
Because we're always somewhere dancing to some ratchet music. As often as often as we possibly can, we are somewhere, literally rubbing up against each other to some ratchet music. And fully and proudly owning that, and not putting that aside as, oh, that has nothing to do with your academic pursuits or anything like that.
Like, no. You dance. And that shit shows up in your work. You know what I'm saying? And that is the way that that is supposed to work, I feel like. Yeah.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Absolutely.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Yes. [INAUDIBLE]
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: You know, whew. But, again, that notion-- this is something, again, I was thinking about in anticipation of this conversation. You know, to be self-possessed in the best way of that idea. That you have ownership of your body and your desires.
And I think that kind of ownership is one way you could bridge the gap between your private and public life that is so-- those lives are so divorced for far too many people. You know what I mean? And I think, in your company, I'm vigilant to be self-possessed and not to have that chasm. And I think it's in that chasm where you see hypocrisy.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I agree.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: But that self-possession of the body entails the ratchet.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: For some.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: For some. For some. For some. And, yeah. So there's that. And then, I think about, to be more courageous in the world, Rae.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Mm-hmm.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Because there was an incident when we were at Oxford University in 2012 or '13. And this was a time-- actually, at that very trip, we were in the same hotel room. I woke up that day. And all these death threats were being issued.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: It was when the thing got put on the internet of, is Dagmawi Woubshet the first openly gay Ethiopian professor? And that had just gotten all over on the internet. We're sharing a hotel room. I woke up. And here's my best friend. And he's like reading these death threats.
And he is shaken-- I hardly ever see Dag shaken. And he was shaken that morning. I remember. Before-- you left ahead of me to go to the conference.
Yeah. I'm sorry. Go ahead.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: And so I'm giving-- on a panel in the afternoon. I'm still shaken. And I said something about it. And then, in the Q&A, someone gets up and begins to issue more threats, and starts to scream at me.
And Lyrae got up. And I thought, in that instant, I said, man, you better sit down. Because she is about to take you out. You are about to lose a limb.
And that was the second time. In this very building, you did the same for me, in public, once, where you stood up and defended me. And friendship is tested in these moments. Right?
Do you have a courageous friend who's going to stand up and protect you. Right? And that, to me, your courage in these public ways, but also privately, is something that has truly emboldened me in these last 10 years.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I feel like that license-- again, it becomes like a feedback loop for both the work and the friendship. Because I feel like that comes from you. In that moment, when this nutjob had nerve enough-- that's the way I think about it-- to be-- like he knew what had happened in the hotel room this morning. He didn't. But I feel like it is the job of people to conduct themselves in such a way that you're not spreading hate in the world.
And he has nerve enough to stand up in this conference, and Dag is clearly shaken. He's at the podium. And to start to spew hate from that moment-- and all I could think in that moment was-- like, I stood up to get my body between his body and your body. Like, uh-uh, buddy. No way-- like, no way.
But then that other thing, that anger, I feel like, is also something that comes out in the work and gets put to use. And I feel like one of the things that happens with my friendship with you is that gets put to use in constructive rather than destructive ways. That anger that I feel, I can make something with that, rather than go upside somebody's head, which is what I feel like doing half the time.
I'm southern. It's in there for me to just really feel like I'm going to take you out. But also, instead, to be like, I'm going to make something with that. Because part of what I want to make is to make my friend proud, and not just be creating destruction in the world.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: And by the way, he did-- she stood up and said, sit-- he sat down. Grown man. And then he realized his action, and was so shamed by his own inadequacy, then he got up again to start again.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: How are we for time?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Maybe one exchange and then we'll open it up.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I wanted to ask you about tizita. Because we were talking about tizita last night. And we were listening to Kassa Tesema last night. And the thing that you said about owning one's own desires.
And you've got this really great essay where you write about tizita in the context of starting to think about James Baldwin's late style. And pointing out the way that tizita, one of the meanings of tizita is "to be longing." And that kind of idea or notion of kind of living with and in one's own longing, and how that comes through in tizita music. And what part-- can you find the question in there? Like, what-- yeah.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: You know, I think part of it-- it's by temperament, too. Ethiopians are just melancholy people. Right? The pursuit of happiness was not part of our national character, or was not something to aspire to. To be melancholy is.
That's a very different orientation. So if melancholy is not policed publicly, then you know how to sit with it, to finger it. You what I mean. And so that sense of, "to be longing--" you like the "to finger it?"
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: You know I did.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: To be longing, in that sense-- as a state. Longing as a state. And this is actually-- tizita is a song-- it's a genre of nostalgia. It's like the blues. It's a song of longing. But nostalgia is key to it.
But, you know, nostalgia as an idea is, it could be reparative. Right? It's longing and home. That's what the word conjoins.
But in the Ethiopian iteration of nostalgia, though, it is about longing and not so much about belonging, right? You are forever longing the lover who is gone. And you know clearly that that lover is not going to come back. So in that sense, the consolation is in the singing, in the longing, and not in restoration that's going to happen in the future. Right?
And, yeah, but again, in terms of kinship, Rae, it's amazing that for me, why I feel at home in African-American life-- Margie mentioned this. Because I use this phrase of how I'm Ethiopian by birth but I'm African-American by choice--
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Choice.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: --and by desire. Because there are a lot of African immigrants in this country who-- for me, for instance. I grew up in an all-black country that had no colonial history. So race was a concept I picked up at age 13, in a real way.
So, and you know, I know Ethiopians who believe themselves to be African and Ethiopian. But the sense of a race how it functions in America, as a black American, they have a way of disavowing it. For me, one, it allowed me to be.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: The capaciousness of blackness you talk about.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: The capaciousness of blackness.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I love that. Yes.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: The capaciousness of blackness. And we often lose that. And I think about that. I think about that.
If I, a 13-year-old foreigner, immigrant, African, who had our own ethnic issues or religious issues that rend Ethiopia up, right? But race is just not one of them. And if I could adopt African-American culture and mine it for its riches, it's hard for me to see why Americans, other Americans, particularly white Americans, have yet to be able to do so. Right? Or other Africans, in fact, who disavow with black life.
Because then you're seeing that culture, always, through the filter of the white gaze. Right? But you cannot see it for the riches that it affords. And thank heavens that from the jump, I didn't have that kind of relationship to black culture.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I think about that in terms of thinking about that notion of tizita and "to be longing," to always be longing, in terms of the translation project. Because it's also that thing of inhabiting between spaces, which is a thing that I am obsessed with in my work. And that's why it's got those gaps and the crazy punctuation and all of that, of being in those between spaces.
And to be always longing, I feel like putting the poems in Amharic is to enact that, always to be longing for my friend's home and my friend's voice. Then it gets down on the page. Is that making sense? That then to get that notion of to be longing onto the page, that I'll never be-- Amharic is a language that I'll always be learning. And I love that I'll always be learning it.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: I love that. I love that, Rae. You know, of the many things you taught me, one is how in your poetry, to use your phrase, the reach towards the ineffable.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Yes.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Right? Translation is that. Because you can never reproduce Axum as it is in English. But translation, if it can reach towards the ineffable, then I think you can make something. You can maybe translate something resonant in the original, in the new tongue.
And, I mean, this is the thing. So I'm still tinkering with these poems. Part of the difficulty, especially with the new poems, where, if you all have read Open Interval or the new work that Lyrae has been doing, like "Migration," is how experimental she is with punctuation and syntax. So I'm still trying to figure out--
I feel like, finally, I have the language. I've used my ear, in many ways, to conduct the translation. So I get the language right.
But in terms of what you do with space on the page, I'm still trying to work that out. And I love just how much you've taught me about poetry, Rae. Now, I read a poem, lyric poem, immediately, I think-- again, this is something Lyrae's students would appreciate-- what is the relationship between sentence and line? So, immediately, I can find my place in a poem.
And another thing, why you're-- and Margie so eloquently mentioned it, too-- more recently, because of the punctuation, I think, how you manipulate time and slow down so that each word is its own world. And that lends to translation in Amharic that has such a rich soundscape. So that you could say a word and that could stand on its own, for its own musical composition, in the way in which that I've learned reading and rereading you, but also hearing you read, where, ah. That attention to word, to each word. Open it up?
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Do you all have questions--
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Questions.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: --that you want to ask about-- [? Amaretta? ?]
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Questions. Yeah. Let's open it up. Because we could go on and on and on.
AUDIENCE: Here's a request. Would you all mind reading the poem and translation again? They're short enough that [INAUDIBLE]
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Mm-hmm.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: With pleasure.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Mm-hmm. "Axum. I imagine the dead cities beneath the teff. When fields give up their stones, the gift is mine. Stand one upright, construct a shed to protect ancient carved words from rain.
And I will fly 8,000 miles to gawk at what I can't read. Children gather, offer up some coins, the fields tender. What do I know about a life of plowing? The donkeys keep their eyes down as I pass."
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: "Axum." [SPEAKING AMHARIC]
AUDIENCE: How do you try to balance literal and figurative meaning, like connotations that certain words have in Amharic and also English, how do you [INAUDIBLE] out of your [INAUDIBLE]
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: So, on the one hand-- again, this is the thing that I'm really appreciating about the translation, where you're trusting all your senses. So it's not simply you're governed by a kind of literalism. In a sense, semantic meaning, but also sonic meaning, you're after. So in that sense, your sense is so acute. So it will guide you what to choose.
And then there are certain terms where you also take license, a certain kind of creative license. And I would also-- I was telling Rae that sometimes you also just-- again, discoveries. That so fortuitous that work in the poem. So beneath-- the first line, beneath--
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I imagine the dead cities beneath the teff.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Beneath in Amharic is [AMHARIC] Root is also [AMHARIC] Right?
So in Amharic, that line, [SPEAKING AMHARIC] it's beneath, but also deep in the roots. Right? So, and then maybe that will guide where the next word-- how you cull the next translation. But again, the ear has been a guide in a way that I didn't anticipate.
Corey. He his hand up.
AUDIENCE: So, wondering if you'd talk more about the difference between self-possession and punctuation. [INAUDIBLE]
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: [INAUDIBLE]
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: What you trying to do to us, Corey?
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: That's why I love him. No. That's why I love him. Yes.
Self-possession as a bridge. Fan-frickin-tastic. Well, for me, part of the thing that I was obsessed with in Open Interval was this notion of Lyrae-- you know what I'm saying?
Am I really that word that is a pulsing variable star and also means "of lyric poetry" in Latin? But also, am I this thing, which is matter and made mostly of space, but also is going to-- death, we keep coming back to, kind of this notion of life and death rubbing right up against each other. Because if I'm just this thing, this thing is going to decay and be gone. You know?
And so, where is the light? Where is the space? And that being the thing that's driving the poems that I'm trying to make, makes it so that I have to think about that in terms of the life that I'm trying to live, too. Because I'm obsessed with identity in so many ways.
And I'm just kind of like, who is that? And trying not to be pretending. Because it's taxing to be pretending. You know, I don't want to be pretending for anyone.
But then, also, that kind of takes on all kinds of political connotations. Because I'm a black woman in America. And I'm obsessively talking about the ways in which that is not supposed to be an identity. That's an identity that the founding fathers disapproved of and wrote about disapproving of.
You can't be no black woman poet now. Come on. Like, not in America. Not in our notion of what America is. And so, I always kind of trying to create that self by being myself, is how the bridge is working for me. Yeah.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: And I would just add that, you know, punctuation's such an individual gesture, right? And I think about, now, the em dash, I think Lyrae. Or that the thing that Rae does with the bonds of the colon and the two em dashes. That's a signature punctuation. Or, that's a punctuation I cannot confuse with no other person.
That's a kind of self-possession. Right? You can give me, out of any page, just a short, maybe two or three sentences of a Baldwin sentence. By punctuation alone, by those hyphenated commas, you know that's a James Baldwin line. Right?
And I think, in that sense, at least on the page, one way that we aim for self-possession may be the way in which we accent our own individual voices. Maybe-- it might be too literal for you, Corey. But that's what I would say.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Carol had her hand--
AUDIENCE: Hi. How has it been on this trip with [INAUDIBLE] Such a joy to see such beauty coming out of that. [INAUDIBLE] But I wondered if you [INAUDIBLE] at all two things. [INAUDIBLE]
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Yes.
AUDIENCE: I thought it was, for me, one of those moments. And, of course, I did ask them about [INAUDIBLE] So it's-- the entire thing is so rich with all kinds of things that I know it's [INAUDIBLE] But I wanted to also ask the question of translation as another text. Because I know that's what [INAUDIBLE] once you start translating, it becomes [INAUDIBLE] your work then becomes almost independent poems. What would you say [INAUDIBLE] about that?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: So, a suite of poems. So, definitely, we're going to include-- and that's why, I mean, we've only shared two. Because when it comes out, we want y'all to be surprised and get the chapbook.
But, so, the suite of poems, again, that she did on the first trip, and again, on this latter trip. So we'll definitely include all of those. And translation as a text-- yeah, Carol, it's amazing. Because I've translated from Amharic into English. For instance, in The Calendar of Loss, the epistles orphans wrote to their deceased parents.
And when I first translated the first poem, it takes-- the amount of time-- I was so excited. The first poem, Axum, I started it exactly two summers ago. And I sent Rae a picture of a draft of it, and just sat with it, that kind of thing.
But that summer, I was working on a translation from Amharic, a novella from Amharic into English. What's been wonderful here is just the text to see-- it looks, it feels new to me. And it's its own entity. Because she has me writing in a language I have not written in, or I don't trade in, right?
Even though I speak Amharic, or when I go to Ethiopia, I lecture in it. But I don't write in it. English is the language I write in. So to come back to Amharic and to have this material thing on the page, just that alone feels-- I don't know, seeing it in another tongue makes it material.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: For me, it always feels to me, whenever I hear anybody talking about Amharic and the little progress that I've made with Amharic, this idea of wax and gold being in the language, that this is a language that is for poetry-- Amharic feels to me like the language I've been longing for. Like I had been wanting this language and then didn't know it.
And that it's a language that comes out of a-- I'm not having to wrestle with it the way that I have to wrestle with English. Because it's not trying to erase me all the time. And so that has been huge for me, too.
AUDIENCE: Hello. [INAUDIBLE] statement and then a question. First of all, I really enjoyed the conversation. It took me back to a conversation between [INAUDIBLE] and it was called, [INAUDIBLE] It's the Spanish term, you would say, well, living, right? I don't think it as anything to do with living. It's just-- it's called [INAUDIBLE]. [INAUDIBLE]
And I guess what I'm trying to say is that you took me back to that time. That's a way [INAUDIBLE] Fantastic poet. And the second statement [INAUDIBLE] really kind of [INAUDIBLE] was at the beginning when they said that this is going to be your last lecture. What does that mean?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: It just means this is my last lecture. Exactly that. It's just because this is my last semester here at Cornell.
AUDIENCE: That is very sad.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Isn't it?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: [INAUDIBLE]
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Are we out of time? Thanks, [INAUDIBLE] Is it time? Yeah?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: One last question.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: A little louder.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] Amharic [INAUDIBLE] and I'm wondering how this project and this statment [INAUDIBLE]
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Wow. You know, I wrote that-- I think that's an essay from-- it's been a while. And maybe this project is-- I love that line that Phoebe says to Janie at the end of The Eyes Were Watching God. My-- what is it? My tongue--
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I'm putting my-- yeah. My tongue is in your mouth.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: My tongue is in your mouth.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: In your mouth.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Right? After she shared the whole story, to say, oh, my mouth is in your tongue. And I think maybe I'll have a very different relationship with the English language that, because, maybe now, you know, she's in my tongue.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: And vice versa.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: And I'd like to think, you know, she'll be-- right? You'll have that same relationship to Amharic because--
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Mm-hmm.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Yeah. Because I'm also in your tongue.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: All right.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Thank you all.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Thank you all for coming out. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Something about a reception? There's a reception--
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Oh. There's a reception upstairs. So please join us.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Thank you.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Thank you. [INAUDIBLE] Thank you. Thank you. Wow. Wow.
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Poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and scholar Dagmawi Woubshet collaborate for the In A Word series May 3, 2017, part of the Cornell University Department of English Program in Creative Writing.