Interpreting the world through poetry

First Wave scholar Hiwot Adilow explores identity and contemporary life through her poetry.

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Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science

For Hiwot Adilow, words are vehicles. They take her back to her hometown of Philadelphia and transport her to Ethiopia, where her parents are from. They’re what brought her to UW-Madison and what she uses to explore and understand the world.

While Adilow began writing and performing poetry as part of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement, being a part of UW’s groundbreaking First Wave Spoken Word and Hip Hop Arts Learning Community has given her new respect for the power of words. Participating in the program that brings together artists from around the country and beyond to live, study and create together is a declaration that her art is as important as her academics.

“First Wave is a step of asserting to myself that art isn’t just a hobby,” she says.

Through First Wave, a communications internship at the Multicultural Student Center and courses leading to a degree in anthropology and a certificate in African Studies, Adilow has probed complex issues, from politics, immigration and sexual assault to family and relationships. In her writing, she digs deep into personal experiences with the hope that her honesty and openness can touch others.

“A lot of my writing is tied to love, but in terms of interpreting and understanding the violences that can sometimes arise,” she says. “So many things have been done in the name of love. I’m really paying attention to people who leave and the different ways people survive.”

Adilow’s work has been featured in a range of publications and on CNN, National Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television. She is a 2016 Callaloo Poetry Fellow and a recipient of the Thomas W. Parker scholarship, given to high-achieving UW-Madison students majoring in the humanities or social sciences. Throughout her time on campus, she has excelled in bringing an artist’s approach to the classroom.

“I try to make every class I'm in a space where I can be my most creative and free-thinking self,” she says. “That would work with any major, but I think I chose anthropology because I wanted to learn how to best listen to and interpret the world around me. The fact that being an artist, or working to be a great artist, requires a very concentrated type of empathy and attention to detail is similar, I think, to how anthropologists would ideally approach their work.”

Adilow is considering pursuing graduate degrees in African studies and creative writing after she graduates. Whatever her next steps, she’ll continue to harness the impact of words to lead herself and others in making sense of the times in which we live.

“I want to talk about living people,” she says, “and what living people have to say about themselves.”

The Night My Father Was Robbed

I ran downstairs with a hammer & turned on every light.
I said I hate this country & spat on the ground where I was born.
It isn’t this country the Black cop said, writing down the facts
of theft. Back then I didn’t know History’s names. I couldn’t
drop knowledge bombs. I didn’t know Osage burned
around the corner where I was bred & breastfed.
Everybody with the last name Africa was bombed
by the first Black mayor. Complex. & I didn’t know Goode
or Rizzo or my own father’s youth, soaked in red & wringing.
The Amharic word for Terror rhymes the English “shiver.”
Fear evokes movement, even if it’s just a solitary tremble,
quiet shifts back & forth. I look behind me
& name Ethiopia the promised land.
I still relay its myths, nod along to dead prophecies.
I read half a halfverse about Rastas & thought,
if someone calls a country heaven it must be so.
Who first called the country I was born in paradise?
Who first referred to America as a dreamscape?
Who said, I’m lucky to be here galloping over all this vast blood?
I trot across the bones of people stolen & people stolen from.
Every heaven kills its citizens when they don’t sing.
Alarms cross at the forearms & scream.
My mouth tears meat from bone,
gleams wet over flesh & kisses in hunger. 
My lips quiet so they won’t cry out.
My father asks what I have there, 
in his country. His question is 
an answer in itself. A wound heals off-hinge.
I pour all my money into the ocean to sit
still. Gallons of red trundle under earth & I don’t move.

– Hiwot Adilow

This poem was recently published as part of an anthology from The Blueshift Journal