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So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets (open now!) We've revived our interview series about publishing the first book. This week, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with 2015 Sillerman prize winner Mahtem Shiferraw about shaping her first collection of poems, winning the Sillerman, and what's next.

1.     Describe the process of making the manuscript. How did you conceive of the poems together?

The poems were conceived in different times, each in its own way. I cannot say each poem was written with a collection in mind because my poems tend to demand their own individual space. However, once the poems were revised and edited and near completion, the collection came together as a whole.

2.     How long did the process of making the manuscript take, from beginning to put it together to the moment you submitted and won the Sillerman?

The whole process of the manuscript took at least five years, most of which was spent trying to understand what each poem’s message truly was and revising it to accomplish its truest form.

3.     How did you hear you’d won the Sillerman prize? What did you do immediately after you’d heard?

I received a phone call and I thought it was some sort of prank. It was not just winning a poetry prize that stunned me, but winning one for African poets. This was unbelievable to me because it gave me permission to finally think and place myself as an African writer, which is an honor to be, and an identity I am still grappling with.

4.     What was it like to work with editors and bring the book to press?

It is wonderful! I didn’t know how others could care so deeply about my poems, and in such refreshingly new ways. The whole process has enlightened my writing in general.

5.     What do you wish you’d known about constructing the manuscript before you won?

I wish I had the courage to understand each poem as it is. My writing process, both prose and poetic, comes from a deep consciousness not completely awakened, and as a consequence, my work almost always needs deciphering. I suspect I inherited this innate sense of secrecy from my culture, especially from the languages itself, and in particularly from Amharic. Amharic is a very soft-sounding language, and it’s so richly provocative too; one sentence, or phrase, or even one word can carry with itself multiple interpretations, all completely different in their nature, their scope and tone. Therefore, with Fuchsia, deconstructing each poem for what it is, what it could be and what it accomplishes in its current form, are some of the things I learned after the Sillerman.

6.     What’s changed since you’ve won the Sillerman? Do you think of or approach your work differently?

Absolutely! Bringing Fuchsia to publication through the Sillerman has been very enlightening. I pay closer attention to why certain poems belong to one collection and the arc that ties together individual pieces to each other and into a full-length manuscript.

7.     What are you working on now? 

Book #2 is a full-length poetry manuscript (that will be partially published in chapbook format) and the major unifying arc is the recurring theme of war; whether literal or imaginary, war makes distinct appearances, sometimes in the shape of a stranger, or a foreign land, or an unsought touch, or black skin.

Book #3 is a novel that follows the story of a character that goes through the woes of trauma and mental illness and finds redemption through faith and perseverance. It has been finished for the past two years, most of which I spent trying to understand its purpose (because it changes every time I read it). The few people that have read it also seem to agree with this notion of it being a transformative work, meaning not that it changes you (which I also hope it does, somehow), but that it changes on you. The multi-faceted element of each story I write hunts me and prevents me from being a pragmatic writer.

Book #4 is a novel in stories. Through the spirit of the Nile and the magical realism that inhabits Ethiopian folktales, the stories are connected to each other, from a small village in Gojiam, to a peninsula in Bahr Dar, to various neighborhoods in Addis Ababa. One of the stories, The Monk of Zege, was published last year, so I’m in the process of submitting the rest.

Although I always work on multiple projects at the same time, winning the Sillerman and in general going through the process of Fuchsia, have transformed the way I approach my own work, which is usually with fear (perhaps that’s why I still can’t read some of the poems included in Fuchsia without breaking into pieces, “Questions for Your Mother”, “Kalashnikovs”, etc). Though I still do not plan my poems or outline my novels and short stories, I am alert to what happens beyond the page and the only way I can do this is by distancing myself from the work.


Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Eritrea & Ethiopia. Her work has been published in The 2River ViewCactus Heart Press, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Mandala Literary Journal, Blackberry: A Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander Press, Callaloo Literary Journal and elsewhere. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full length poetry collection, Fuchsia, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. Her poetry chapbook, Behind Walls & Glass, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She holds and MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can find Mahtem online here: http://mahtem-shiferraw.com/