Prof. Dagmawi Woubshet (left) and Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (right)

May 4, 2017

Cornell Profs Celebrate African-American and African Culture Through Poetry

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The bonds created by poetry are limitless, according to award-winning poet Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and scholar of African American literature and culture Prof. Dagmawi Woubshet.

During an “In a Word” event in Klarman Hall, Van Clief-Stefanon and Woubshet discussed their latest project, which consists of translating poems by Van Clief-Stefanon into Woubshet’s native Ethiopian language of Amharic.

“I wanted my work stored in an African language,” Van Clief-Stefanon said. “I wanted my poems in the language of my best friend.”

Their time spent together in the ancient of cities of Ethiopia, including Axum, served as the inspiration for the project.

The talk began with readings of two of Van Clief-Stefanon’s poems “Axum” and “Mercy” followed by translations of each read by Woubshet. Afterwards, Van Clief-Stefanon and Woubshet discussed their friendship and the pleasure of having the opportunity to translate her work into Amharic.

“In addition to the friendship, there was that excitement to return to my native tongue for you, Lyrae,” Woubshet said. “To discover new things about that language that had been so formative for me growing up.”

Woubshet also complimented Van Clief-Stefanon on her ability to make her “complex” work accessible for all readers, which helped him with his translations.

“I found that a type of generosity that allowed me to translate those words,” Woubshet said.

They also discussed Woubshet’s connection to African-American culture and the “capaciousness of blackness” that is often overlooked by Americans.

“I grew up in an all-black country with no colonial history,” said Woubshet, who immigrated to the United States when he was 13. “If I could adopt African-American culture and mine it for its riches, it’s hard for me to understand why Americans can’t do so.”

For Van Clief-Stefanon, who is trying to learn Amharic, the project will not end when all of her works and translations are published.

“Amharic is a language that I’ll always be longing, but I’ll always be learning,” Van Clief-Stefanon said.