Interview with Brunel University African Poetry Prize Winner, Liyou Mesfin Libsekal

Photo Credit:  R. Belay

Photo Credit: R. Belay

Brief Biography: Liyou Mesfin Libsekal was born in 1990 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and grew up traveling with her family, spending the majority of her childhood in different parts of East Africa. She earned a BA in Anthropology from the George Washington University in 2012 with a minor in international affairs and a concentration in international development. Liyou found her way back home to Ethiopia after spending a short time in Vietnam. Since January 2013 she has written several articles relating to culture and the changing environment of her rapidly developing country for a monthly business magazine, Ethiopian Business Review. Liyou recently won the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you remember about your first poem you wrote?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: I can’t quite remember the contents of my first poem but I remember feeling overwhelmed (as one often does as a preteen), grabbing a notebook and just letting it all out. What I never forget is the absolute relief I felt by the end of it.

Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Addis Ababa yet spent most of your childhood in different parts of East Africa? How much of these experiences do you bring to your poetry?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: I think poetry, when it’s honest, is such a reflection of who the writer is and how they view things and our experiences contribute to that. So my experiences do impact my poetry sometimes in ways I can pinpoint, sometimes not. Because it’s part of my nature to be observant, I draw so much on observation, so I think experiences inevitably find their way into my work.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: Yes, I do write on a computer, but I also keep a notebook around so I don’t forget some ideas before I get to my computer!

Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to write a poem?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: I would’t be able to say accurately because it really varies. I hardly ever write a poem and leave it at that, I come back to different poems all the time, I’m always playing with things I’ve written. It helps me to leave things for a little while and come back to them so I can read them with more perspective. I’m not focused on finishing, I don’t say “ok, this is good, I can not touch it again” because I feel I can always make it better with a fresh set of eyes. I have poems I’ve written years ago that I still go back to; that’s the most enjoyable part of writing for me, revisiting something, understanding myself better through it, and transforming it.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever written a poem when you were angry?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: Most of the time when I write, even if it’s a subject that is agitating or really intense for me, I’ve gotten in the habit of stepping out of it in a way; it’s an analysis of sorts for me, so I tend to be calm when I’m writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you consider winning the Brunel University African Poetry Prize a huge turning point as a writer?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: Definitely. The competition was pretty much the first public thing I did with my poetry and it’s really been such a great experience. Being shortlisted for the BUAPP also gave me the opportunity to send in some work to the African Poetry Book Fund, and that resulted in the opportunity to publish a chapbook as part of next year’s New Generation African Poets series, so the competition really has impacted me as a writer.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me how the idea for writing Riding Chinese Machines came about?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: The inspiration for that poem came from observing Addis Ababa at the moment. There are a lot of infrastructural changes happening, and as positive as that is, there are of course, negatives as well. The poem came from observations, and really just thinking about how inescapable the environment has become, how everything is affected by this rapid development.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you addicted to short poetry?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: I wouldn’t say addicted, my poems just end up the way they do, I hadn’t really thought much about that aspect. They do tend to be relatively short so maybe that’s just what is natural to me, at least at the moment.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any special factory for generating words for your poetry?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: Not really, initially I just try to write without putting too much pressure on myself, and just welcoming whatever words come. I then go back and tinker with the words but a lot of poems that I really love have come out of me initially being able to really let go, which I still find difficult at times, but that is part of what I’m learning to do as a writer.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you read a lot of poetry?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: I do read a lot of poetry, I love finding something I feel connected to, it’s inspiring for me to read something honest and moving. Reading poetry like that motivates me to be unafraid to really explore what I can do, it urges me to be better.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you enjoy reading your own work?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: I don’t read my work specifically for enjoyment because it is difficult for me to read something I wrote without looking for ways to make it better. I read my poetry in an effort to improve my work, make sure it sounds the way I’d like it to sound.

Geosi Gyasi: If I were to ask you to name just one writer you admire most, who would it be?

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: It’s so hard for me to pick one because I really love so many different works and different writers. In fiction, I really enjoy Joyce Carol Oats. If looking at poetry, I love Kwesi Brew, Lucille Clifton, and most recently I’ve really been captivated by Henri Cole’s work.


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