Transreading Ethiopia

Transreading Ethiopia

Explore how the study of a proud and independent poetic tradition can liberate our own approach to poetry!

Chris Beckett grew up in Ethiopia in the 1960s. In the Preface to his first Carcanet collection, Ethiopia Boy, he wrote that ‘only when I started reading as much Ethiopian poetry as I could find, and after I had a go at translating some Amharic poems myself with the help of a friend, did the real voice of my boyhood come stuttering back to the surface and start to write its own sort of poems’. Beckett’s re-learning of Amharic and translating Ethiopian poetry were a project essential to his own writing. But in the process, he also learnt a great deal about Ethiopian poetry and with his friend, Alemu Tebeje, put together for Carcanet the first ever anthology of Ethiopian poetry in English: Songs We Learn from Trees, ‘packed with all the energy, wit and heartache of a beautiful country and language’. 

In this course, Chris will introduce us to the little-known world of Ethiopian Amharic poetry, starting with its vibrant tradition of Folk Poems written largely in 12 syllable line couplets, in a variety of witty, boasting, or complaining styles, including the strategic ambiguity of ‘Wax & Gold’. He will also discuss some major 20th Century Amharic poets like Gemoraw and painter-poet Gebre Kristos Desta, looking at the tug between outward and inward impulses animating their poems while Ethiopia, proudly independent in its mountain kingdom for centuries past, finally opened up to the modern world after WW2. We will then look at a range of contemporary Ethiopian male and female poets writing, both inside and outside the home country, in Amharic but also in English, including the well-known Ethio-Brit Lemn Sissay and Liyou Libsekal, who won the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. 

Students will be encouraged to imitate Amharic styles and techniques; to translate short poems from Amharic to English (via literal translations) taking into account their different sound systems; to tackle some of the main themes such as love and hunger and truth, trying to infuse their work with some of the Wax and Gold wit and seriousness of Amharic poetry. 

 5 fortnightly sessions over 10 weeks. No live chats. Suitable for UK & International students.  

To apply for a concessionary rate, please send relevant documentation showing your eligibility for one of our concessions to [email protected] Conditions of eligibility are detailed here. If you have any questions or wish to be added to the waiting list of a sold-out course, please email [email protected] For more information visit our Online Courses page. 

Image Credit: The Colour of Words by Wosene Worke Kosrof

About Chris Beckett View Profile

Chris Beckett is a poet and translator who was born in London but grew up in Ethiopia in the 1960s. He won the Poetry London prize in 2001 and his first Carcanet collection, Ethiopia Boy (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2013), was described by Julian Stannard in Poetry Review as a series of dazzling vignettes… a love letter to the country and his childhood friend, Abebe. His new Carcanet collection, Tenderfoot, came out last year and explores his memories of hunger and inequality in an Ethiopian setting. With Alemu Tebeje, he translated and edited Songs We Learn from Trees, the first ever anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry in English, published by Carcanet in May 2020. Sketches from The Poem Road (after Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), a collaboration with his partner, the Japanese painter and sculptor Isao Miura, was published by Hagi Press in 2015 and shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award. 

'The Poetry School courses have challenged me intellectually as well as poetically, and introduced me to wider dimensions of poetry and poetic thinking than I would ever have imagined.'

- Autumn 2021 Survey

Related Courses