In 2011–2012, I worked with Samson Sahele on his collection of poems. Samson is a poet, journalist, teacher, and refugee advocate. He came to New Zealand from Ethiopia in 2000 and works for the Wellington Refugees as Survivors Trust.
Samson asked me if I would edit his poems to publish in a collection. But it wasn’t just an editing job. It turned out to be a long journey together to discover what poetry was in Ethiopia, and how it was different from poetry in New Zealand. Samson had grown up with poetry that often talked about the big picture, in general ways. For us, the detail, the specific, is very important. But we didn’t know that we each had a very different view of poetry, so we talked past each other for quite a long time.
Then one day it became clear. It was over a street scene that Samson described to me in wonderful detail. I said, Write it down just like that. So he wrote it down, and it all became large and general. At that point we started to talk about what had just happened, about poetry, and what each of us meant by poetry, and then we were on the way.
Samson was clear that he was writing for New Zealanders. So detail was important. Poem by poem, line by line, we reconsidered, discussed, he wrote or rewrote. We were revisiting painful and difficult things for him, but he just kept at it. And finally he had a new collection ready to go to print.
This project may have been about poetry, but for me it was also about having a window opened onto an extraordinary story of suffering and courage.