Emerging Poet in Residence Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes

Red Room Poetry news

The Emerging Poets Residency is a new initiative which encourages the creative trajectory of emerging Australian poets with the support of the Adès Family Foundation and Moonrise on the River. Here's our chat with one of the two inaugural recipients of the residency, Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes.

Congratulations on being selected for the first year of the Emerging Poets Residency on Yuin Country (Bermagui)! Can you tell us a bit about what you hope to work on while you’re there?

Thank you! I plan to work on my bilingual poetry collection called Teret Teret. Teret teret is an Ethiopian traditional style of storytelling. Teret is equivalent to ‘tale’. The narrator changes the world into a tale. Everything such as the wind, the tree, the mountain, the air, the moon and more can speak, feel, and tell powerful messages about life. I grew up listening to so many terets that continue to inspire me to write poems today. I am hoping to create new poetic terets using Amharic and English.

Is connecting to place an important part of your poetry practice?

Yes. For me, place is alive. It has agency. It has irresistible power that compels me to feel, be inspired, and connect to things that are bigger than me. In our culture, the name for God is Egziabher (literally ‘lord’ and ‘place’). Egziabher is a place that holds everything. We are also places. The heart is a place. I hold so many places in my poems and memories. We exist on places but also carry places within us. Places that hold nature and beauty connect me with memories of places that I’ve held in my heart since my childhood in the holy town of Lalibela, Ethiopia. I am excited to see what happens when the two places meet: the Yuin Country where I will be emplaced physically and the landscapes of Lalibela that I carry in my heart.

Who are some poets you are inspired by?

The poets who inspire me are Ethiopian but most of them are not even published. They study an indigenous poetry called qine and compose poems in a style of Semna Worq, which means Wax and Gold. Wax is the surface meaning of the poem and Gold is the inner mystery that is hidden behind the wax. Since childhood, I attended many qine performances. I remember many poems but sadly not names. Poets and writers trained in the traditional system don’t claim to be owners of their creations. They say it is a gift from Egziabher and they are mere messengers.

However, if anyone wishes to look up some inspiring Ethiopian poetry, I would recommend the late Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, a truly legendary poet. When I was in university, I used to read African American poems. Recently, I am reading the collected poems of Langston Hughes.

What is something you are curious about in your practice at the moment?

About ways of unknowing. What are the ways in which we can unlearn the many unhelpful things we have been learning about ourselves and the world?

Do you have any special writing rituals?

I compose poems when I am close to nature or sit by the fire at night. I sometimes invent poems by singing them while walking. Recently, I’ve been at Princeton University for research. Almost every morning, I used to walk to their library composing poems in my mind. Sometimes, I stop to scribble the words on a piece of paper. My poems seek to speak truth to power, express injustice, sadness, and beauty. My wife is a great motivator, excellent thinker, and a flawless writer. I wouldn’t be able to write the English translations without her. Our philosophical and academic conversations trigger poetry such as one I wrote recently about capitalism being a way of living in the belly of a monster.

Find out more about what Yirga is up to via Twitter @YirgaGelaw