Former Miss National Teenager El Shaddai Gebreyes talks about poetry

Above: Former Miss National Teenager El Shaddai Gebreyes is
the author of a new poetry book called the “The Last Adam.”
(Courtesy Photo).

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: Monday, May 10, 2010

New York (Tadias) – You may remember El Shaddai Gebreyes as the first African-American to earn the Miss National Teenager title in 1997 – one of the longest running pageants and scholarship competitions for young women in the United States.

Since then El Shaddai has gone on to graduate from Yale University with a degree in Film Studies and a concentration in Anthropology. She was also part of the African-American National Biography Project, where she worked as the co-writer on the biography of artistic director Bill T. Jones. And most recently, she is the author of a new poetry book called the The Last Adam. Gebreyes is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Library Science at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

We recently interviewed El Shaddai Gebreyes about her new book.

Tadias: In “The Last Adam”, you mention that your poems are written through inspiration not perspiration. Can you explain?

Gebreyes: I don’t sweat the small stuff in my poetry. I try to look at the big picture. I just focus on the story of my life, which is interwoven with many others who inspire me, challenge me, and often remain distanced from me. When I capture a moment, like a photograph, and translate it into a poem, it brings that moment – and the people involved closer to me. It’s like an embrace. Poetry keeps me honest. It’s truth-telling. I’m learning to love the truth and not to embrace lies.

Tadias: In much of your work there seems to be recurring universal themes focusing on love, hope and spirituality. What is the primary message you seek to convey through your poems?

Gebreyes: Let your imagination go to work! Travel. Fall in love with strangers, but don’t go too far. Experience freedom on the blank page. Let love transform you. Not just romantic love, but love of history, heroism and glimpses of the eternal in the every day. Don’t be afraid to consult a dictionary even when you think you know the meaning of a word. Take advantage of your resources, like libraries, and be rooted in what you hold sacred.

Tadias: When did you know you wanted to be a poet?

Gebreyes: In high school, when I studied Latin I was influenced by Catullus and Ovid. I knew I wanted to be a poet when I realized the work of people who wrote centuries ago was being translated and studied as part of the cultural record. Poetry so often is a conversation with or about God or a lover…with oneself or something/someone more abstract. Often I’m deeply impacted by the most “chance” encounters and only when I’m removed from the situation through time, am I able to memorialize it. I’ve yet to figure out who my audience is, but I feel uplifted when I write poetry, like when things in your life are out of order and you need control or when everything seems fleeting and you want to sing of immortality. Poetry can be sung and I’ve yet to explore this possibility. But, I will, because music speaks to my heart and really whatever the Lord puts on my heart generally gets written and eventually becomes a poem. I find stillness in the written word and tried my hand at spoken word, but I prefer the printed page, bound and sold. However, I like to be in dialogue with people, so when I performed in my first poetry reading earlier this year and I connected with an audience, I knew I had made the right decision to share my life, my thoughts and emotions with people in this way through poetry. Poetry is an art and I have been criticized for not separating my art from my life. For me it is a thin veil.

Tadias: You graduated from Yale University with a degree in Film Studies and a concentration in Anthropology. How has your academic background influenced your writing?

Gebreyes: It has made my tastes more international and less contemporary. My academic background allows me to historicize, contextualize and enter into a discourse. My education has framed everything I see – culture, aesthetics – and the way I approach inquiry.

Tadias: You note in your book that your poems are “a film in verse”. What do you mean by that?

Gebreyes: Some people argue that in writing there could not be two forms more diametrically opposed than film and poetry. A film in verse for me creates a blending, a marriage of the two in form and content. The Last Adam takes the reader through a journey. It’s an adventure and the imagery comes alive in a cinematic form. I don’t write epic verse, instead I wrote a short story, a narrative, that not only contains elements of film like characters and dialogue, genre and pacing, but could easily be translated into a film. I’d like to do a filmic adaptation of my poetry in the future, so it will be easier to visualize.

Tadias: You were the first Ethiopian and the first African-American to be named America’s National Teenager. You write in the introduction to your book that you were conflicted about your identity at the time:

When I won a scholarship pageant in Tennessee in 1997, Miss National Teen-ager, my heart was divided. Was I Ethiopian, American (I dare not hyphenate!), Christian, Jew, Black, White or Asian? …What is worse when I won the pageant in Tennessee, Ethiopians put the news on the nightly news in Ethiopia. Who would claim me? Americans have brought me joy, but Ethiopians have brought me honor.”

Do you still struggle with this issue of cultural identity? If so, how has that affected your feelings on who you are as a poet?

Gebreyes: Well, I’ve tried to resolve the inner conflict by realizing I’ll never be who everyone needs me to be. I’m Ethiopian. I’m American. I hope to write more in Amharic as a poet. I’m not really an American poet. I’m more a religious poet. If you’re a monotheist, you’ll probably appreciate my metaphors. More and more…I write for clarity and understanding. If anyone else experiences a duality of always already both, yet not one or the other, they’ll hopefully be able to relate to me and my vision. My biggest concern is with language. I’m getting more comfortable with Amharic and the idea of competing with myself in the grander scheme. Just trying to be a better person tomorrow than I am today, better today than yesterday.

Tadias: U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins once said that poetry is the oldest form of travel writing, both imaginative travel as well as geographical. Do you agree?

Gebreyes: Yes, many poets are like cultural treasures who do not travel much but who get to know the character of a people in a place that resonates with their soul as home. One example is Anna Akhmatova. She wrote of her life in Russia and she has left a legacy without borders. Poets can define the times and often possess a stillness. But, I believe, there are some words you won’t know, until you know their opposite and other words that are more on the level of essence. Some things you have to compare, so why limit yourself to one location? If you think you know freedom, visit the oppressed. If your idea of essence is placating, maybe it’s time to experience a blessed unrest.

Tadias: One of the first poems in your book is written at a Chinese restaurant in Addis Ababa. Could you please describe the scene to our readers and what inspired you to pen that particular poetry?

Gebreyes: I chose to label the poem as a Chinese restaurant, because when I last visited Addis I craved Chinese food. This is unusual for me and reveals my curiosity. Are there Chinese restaurants in Ethiopia? The initial poem reveals that which is not far from what could have been and is somehow what was. Technically, I did not eat Chinese food in Ethiopia, but I had a nice cheeseburger at the Hilton. I am such a tourist!

Well, when I wrote the poem I was referring to my friend, Richard, who took me to a Vietnamese spot in Virginia. It was American life I was describing: black is night, the color of the noodle is the color of his skin. Both shined that night. The rest of the poem was like swimming in a sea of memories and it evokes many associations. I’d rather my reader embed him or herself into the story and identify with parts of it as a creation myth and other parts religious doctrine – reflecting on what faith allows and does not allow.

Tadias: How do you use poetry in daily life?

Gebreyes: Daily life influences my poetry – people, places, things. Right now I think I’m too heavily reliant on words. I think of myself as hidden in Christ. I let reality unfold and I co-create my art with others. Everyone who’s touched my life has inspired me.

Tadias: What other poetry-related projects are you working on at the moment?

Gebreyes: I’m taking a break from poetry to focus on graduate school. I’m studying Library Science. For one of my finals, I wrote a poem explaining changes in my professional life. It was intense performing that for my class and being supportive of my classmates with the same assignment yet different choices.

Tadias: Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?

Gebreyes: Don’t be afraid to open or close a book. Your story continues. I read a children’s book called A Magical Doll and the Doll Magical School by a young Ethiopian girl, named Berhan Nega Alemayehu. She skillfully told a story at the age of 11 and I admire her gift of prose. I hope that anyone who can relate to this need to tell stories and publish will take advantage of the opportunities today to become an author or an artist.

Tadias: Where can people buy your book?

Xlibris, which is where I self-published. The book is mainly available as print on demand through online stores, like or Barnes and Noble. But, if 1 million people or so bought copies of my book after reading this interview, maybe then you would miraculously see my book on bookstore shelves. It’s not too late for me to reach the New York Times bestseller list, but I need your help. Act fast! The Reston Used Book Shop sells new copies but mostly my books are print on demand.

Tadias: Thank you El Shaddai and good luck!

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13 Responses to “Former Miss National Teenager El Shaddai Gebreyes talks about poetry”

  1. 1 Mame VA May 10th, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Selam El Shaddai,

    Betan Tiru Zena (Good news!) I am not surprised. You have always been very bright and destined to do big things. This is just the beginning and can’t wait for your films to come out as well.


  2. 2 misgana a.k.a chuni May 10th, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I know EL Shaddai from a while back through a family relation (Etye Almaz, Atherton CA). I just wanted to say I am so proud of you Elshu and keep doing what you are doing. And I am def. going to order your book before i see it out on shelves :)

    p.s Begna (ur brother) knows me well so he can remind you who i am if in case you forgot.

  3. 3 Misrak Belachew May 11th, 2010 at 1:22 am

    I have not read the book so I can not say if it is good or not, but I can see from your language that you do embody the spirit and intellect of a poet in the making. I am especially struck by your inner glow of confidence and discipline that obliviously emanates as a result of your well-groomed background. Children are always a refection of their parents and their home. So we should always pay our respects to those who provide us with hard earned privilege to be who we are today. With these words, I would like to honor your parents, who were once my employers. Your father, Ato Gebreyes Begna, has my utmost respect as a role model successful businessman and entrepreneur as founder of “Ethiopia Amalgamated Ltd” and other enterprises focusing on importing fertilizers and mechanized farming equipments to Ethiopia. Much respect!

    Kudos to you El Shadai!

  4. 4 Genet May 11th, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Congratulations Elshaday! I can not wait to buy and read your book.
    Berchi! kojie!

    Genet Metike

  5. 5 Marline Khalil May 11th, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    El Shaddai has been a member of the same Coptic Church we attend. We’ve learned so much from her input during out discussions of the Bible and the meaning of scripture as it relates to our lives. Beyond her notable intellect, her contributions are heartfelt and authentic. Her poetry is only a glimpse of how conscientious of a person she is. Those who know her best find her to be accepting, kind, driven and of course free-spirited. We thank God for El Shaddai and pray that her talents continue to be honed and recognized. We love you & are very proud of you!

    Small Group

  6. 6 Banchi Dessalegne May 18th, 2010 at 2:51 am

    Hi Eleshu,

    I am happy to see this. Please continue our contact.


  7. 7 shomen Jun 3rd, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Great to see such a writer. I have a question. Have you read poetry written by other Ethiopian poets?

  8. 8 MENELIK Jun 9th, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Wow you are a symbol to Ethiopian youngsters,who strugle to make life better.

  9. 9 Tesfaye Yemane Jun 21st, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    I was among a few observers who believed that Ethiopia’s backwardness may be attributed mainly to two causes, namely :

    1) Lack of cultural intercourse with the outside world for centuries, and (2) Lack of imagination of its people. As a result, our contribution to world philosophy and literature is minimal at best and non-existent when subjected to critical analysis.

    But observing the range and depth of thought that my friend’s daughter, Elshaddai, is capable of revealing and exposing is amazing and a joy to behold and a hope for the lost Ethiopian generation in the diaspora. Carry on, girl !

  10. 10 Bergude Jun 24th, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Being born and raised in Ethiopia, I hardly say Ethiopia is a backward country. Ethiopia has its own beauty and unique culture. Every Ethiopian should be proud of his talent, intelligence, and judicious outlook. Yes, technologically not advanced. I think, as far as in human thinking Ethiopian are advanced; only what is lacking is harmonization and collaboration. Ethiopia has considerable natural resources if properly handled and utilized. I am also proud of the young generation. As to the culture I uttered the following verse:

    Our Culture

    A moderate
    A respectful touch
    A sensational
    A sign of humbleness
    A base of unity
    A source of sincerity
    A guideline to growth
    An expression of love
    Exemplar to youngsters
    Invite it to your heart
    Hold it tight
    Not to miss it
    Your entity is your dignity
    Will keep us from wrong direction
    Will help us to remain in harmony
    We all be proud of our culture

  11. 11 Hailu Shewangizaw Jun 26th, 2010 at 10:41 am

    El Shaddai Gebreyes is a shining symbol of the dynamic new generation of Ethiopian-Americans. To the contrary – they are very far from being lost. In my humble and old opinion, the generation that is lost are those who are in charge of Ethiopia today and those who were in charge of the country yesterday. In fact, I do sincerely believe, this new generation will restore Ethiopia to the glory days of their grandparents. One of the most under-reported story of our day is that we are ushering in a very assertive, astute, alert, exceedingly intelligent and quite serious generation of Ethiopians abroad who are highly protective of their heritage. In fact, this new generation represented by El Shaddai announces a new day for Ethiopia. You can witness it in their art, in their writing, in their films, music and speeches – those are the measuring stick of where a genartion is headed. If you just listen, they are saying to all: “Good Morning…it is a new day, a new life…” They are bringing Tsega to Ethiopia!

  12. 12 abush Sep 1st, 2010 at 4:30 am

    i am so proud of you …………keep it up ……..we all love you

  1. 1 DigEthiopia Trackback on May 11th, 2010 at 12:24 am
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