Poetry Centre

Episode 17: Chris Beckett talks to Niall Munro

  • Chris Beckett and Tenderfoot

    In this episode, the poet, editor and translator Chris Beckett talks to Niall Munro about his latest book, Tenderfoot. Chris discusses growing up in Ethiopia and questions of privilege, perceptions of Ethiopia and a responsibility he feels to write about the place and its people. Chris also talks about how he portrays his nascent sexuality and how he reflects on Ethiopia then and now after numerous trips back to the country in recent years. You can read more of Chris's thoughts about writing the book in his blog entry for the Carcanet website.

    Chris has published two collections with Carcanet, Ethiopia Boy in 2013, a sequence of praise poems about his childhood crush Abebe, and Tenderfoot in July this year. He co-translated and edited the first ever anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry, Songs We Learn from Trees, also out from Carcanet earlier this year. Chris’s partner is Japanese painter and sculptor, Isao Miura. Together they published a book of drawings and poems in 2014, Sketches from the Poem Road, after Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North which was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and led to a wonderful exhibition of sculpture, paintings and paper installation at the Glass Tank in 2016 at Oxford Brookes University.

    'Good Bread', 'Inglizawi Negn!', 'When I Was Ten, I Started Watching Men' and 'In the Lion Gardens' are all © Chris Beckett and reprinted with the permission of Carcanet Press from Tenderfoot (2020).

    Do tell us what you think of the podcast by e-mailing us or getting in touch via social media - we’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Thank you for listening!

  • Good Bread

    for Abebe i.m.

    Still warm and spongy    almost wet
    a circle of injera on the mesob
    sits in my mind’s eye and goes with me
    reaching its gentle hand into my head

    it makes me think about the day
    your father took us to a market
    in the hills    that red-eyed roadside boy
    furiously begging to be fed…

    do any of us really understand, Abebe
    how finger close a boy can be
    and still have nothing    nothing
    of the world’s good bread?

    Inglizawi Negn!

    Sometimes he stands on the balcony in his blue pyjamas
    and sees it through the eucalyptus trees 

    slips out when day is lapping at the dark
    and stands there looking over garden gates and walls

    over tin roofs clicking in their shadows
    down a track that wanders into the evening

    out towards the faintly green distance of hills
    already stirring with bats and the idea of pumas

    he can hear bells and bits of conversation   someone far away
    banging a nail   knows himself to be small and foreign

    standing on the balcony of a big quiet house
    that holds him up   holding him like a hand under his feet

    but never feels unwelcome in the semi-dark
    if someone hails him from the track he will call back Selam! 

    if someone asks   where are you from, little boy?
    he will answer proudly   Inglizawi negn!

    he doesn’t really know right now where English is or what
    but is not troubled by the things he does not understand

    while his eyes follow silhouettes of long-tailed birds
    and he feels this moment stretch almost forever

    When I Was Ten, I Started Watching Men

    Some walk into a sunbeam
    and their heads catch fire

    some smoke an arm around their friend
    or saunter hand in hand with him

    others keep their shyness like a torch
    inside the pocket of their trousers

    unzip themselves against a wall
    and whistle as their boiling water flows

    many have the necks of swans
    that suddenly swing round to look at you

    hundreds every day are causing bushfires
    to break out    boys’ tongues to parch

                be my boy wife!

    one calls    but hotly    not in words
    from the beautiful jet coals of his eyes

    In the Lion Gardens

    Old men sitting by the apple trees

                  can you hear me?
    I am an old man too    we’ve shrunk inside our shirts
    our coffees are so strong they may outlive us 

    I look for Tagesse    who’s he?    a boy
                who I imagined in the famine
    when we both were boys    Tagesse shouting at it    scraping by
    in it    grieving and enduring    like the meaning of his name

    he must be getting on    an old imagined man
                  no, I did not send him
    to another famine or the Eritrean war    I did not forcibly
    resettle him in Illubabor    I could not write more suffering


    says Tagesse and rises from a bench of smiles
                  because he made it through
    his being here is blessed!    he comes towards me    autumn eyes
    and winter hair    a courteous old man of Ethiopia

    but do I clap him on the back when I had food
                  and he did not?    his life and mine
    his acre of the mountains    worlds apart    Tagesse, sit with me
    beside the cages    old lions have such splendid manes!

    tell me your story from the start
                    not its surrendered facts
    but every feeling just as you remember it
    we’ll sit here for a month, a year    the apple trees won’t mind

    until my ears are bleeding and my heart has stopped…
                 my joy in boyhood filled
    a thousand fizzy bottles    kicked at sadness like a mule
    but now I’m liverish, light-headed    old stomach trying to digest

    the plate of misery it missed    just as your happiness
                  will always be half-starved
    by wants and horrors which I heaped upon you years ago

                  open your eyes!

    you shout at me, but not unkind    so I stand up
    and look    at you, at me    and feel that I am falling

    by Chris Beckett