A Big Story Out of Small Pieces: A Conversation with Khaled Mattawa
Just as with poetry, conversations about poetry do not take place out of place, out of time. This conversation with Khaled Mattawa occurred against the backdrop of a conference on “Mobility and Movement” at The College of Wooster on May 20-23, 2018, a gathering of scholars and artists exploring the emergent science of Migration and Mobility Studies. Of course, such studies involve some of the most crucial and overdue discussions of our times, given the backdrop of a planet whose peoples are increasingly in motion due to the tangled forces of war and famine, of cultural distress and environmental disruption, of political oppression and economic imbalance. During both the conference and this conversation taking place on May 23, Mattawa discusses his own project to provide “lyric documentation” especially for the Syrian refugee crisis hitting both the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, to find the voice of those encountering both devastation in their own land and a hostile reception in the world beyond. It is an attempt to locate and rescue the human within a vast rubble of not only physical want and violence, but also the massive weight of both bureaucratic and populist indifference and denial on a global scale. As he says in the interview, “Official documents heap a lot of language on human suffering, and so the poet’s job is to remove all that unfeeling language. Poetry can perform acts of rescue as in an earthquake, to save the living word from the rubble of lifeless speech.” His work indeed tries to trace the voice of the individual in encountering the world around and within, an interface both lyrical and historical, complex and yet personal. Besides the following interview, we are also pleased to feature “Psalm for the Balkan Route” and seven other new poems of his dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis and the various fragile paths travelling across the Mediterranean or into Eastern Europe.
In the following conversation, Khaled Mattawa also references his own experience as a traveler and outsider. Born in the Mediterranean port city of Benghazi, Libya in 1964, as a teenager Mattawa emigrated to the United States. Since then, he has emerged as one of our most important poets as well as translators of current Arabic poetry. His collections of poetry include Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press, 1995), Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable, 2003), Amorisco (Ausable, 2008), and Tocqueville (New Issues, 2010). He has also edited
two anthologies of Arab-American literature, Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing (Kitab, 1999) and Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Arab American Fiction (University of Arkansas Press, 2004). As well as writing a book on the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, one of the major Arabic poets of the 20th century, Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation (Syracuse University Press, 2014), Mattawa has published a number of volumes of his own translations of contemporary Arab poets, including Adonis: Selected Poems (Yale University Press, 2010), Joumana Haddad’s poetry in Invitation to a Secret Feast (Tupelo Press, 2008), Maram Al-Massri’s poetry in A Red Cherry on A White-Tile Floor (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), Miracle Maker: Selected Poems of Fadhil Al-Azzawi (BOA Editions, 2004) and Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems of Saadi Youssef (Graywolf Press, 2002). The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize, among other honors, Mattawa currently teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan, where he is the Editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review. —Daniel Bourne, Wooster, Ohio October 30, 2018
Daniel Bourne: One of the questions I often ask writers in these interviews for the Artful Dodge is when did you wake up as a writer, when you realized that this was something that you needed to do, that you would be doing for the rest of your life?
Khaled Mattawa: I do have a moment that I could call an “origin story” which happened when I visited New York on Christmas Break in 1988. I had just been in a poetry workshop with Richard Jackson in Chattanooga. I took with me Lorca’s Poet in New York on this visit, and I’d gone there to visit a mentor of mine, George W. S. Trow who used to be a staff writer at The New Yorker. I’d taken a journalism workshop with him the previous summer. He was living in Brooklyn at the time. I remember going into a Middle-Eastern shop on Atlantic Avenue and finding volumes of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry being sold alongside the dry beans and the hookahs. I bought the Darwish books and some cassettes of Oum Kalthoum, and spent my evenings translating Darwish and reading Lorca during that stay. On that same visit to New York, I found a Yemeni restaurant called The Glorious Yemen Restaurant, Mat’am Al-Yaman Al-Saeed. There, probably the first time, I saw a community of exiles, surrounded by the commodities and oddities of home, poetry, music and food all in this small basement restaurant. I knew I needed to write this experience. Lorca’s Poet in New York was a challenging book for me then—it’s still a challenging book—but I also had the comfort of Darwish. I’d walk around the city during the day and then I’d return for the evening wanting to read and write. I recognized that this was an important moment, that this was a great position to be in. There were times when I let go of it—I mean the sense that writing is a significant thing—or it seemed to let go of me—but that “origin” moment remains a marker in my life.
In those early years I used get a feeling, something like jetlag, of living between time zones. I’d get preoccupied, and soon I’d realize that my mind is working on a poem. I loved being overtaken by words writing themselves inside me, where you’re looking inward in a sort of self-hypnosis. One poem that came to me in this state, “Letter to Ibrahim,” really held me and I loved being gripped by the process of creating metaphors and finding the right tone. All of this used to happen before I wrote a single word. I was given a kind of privacy that wasn’t solitude, that wasn’t loneliness, that wasn’t self-pity; a privacy full of learning and joy and expression, a serious, but deeply gentle interrogation of one’s feelings. I later found out that this is very similar to how the ancient Arabs described the process of poetic composition. But with time, I began to distrust the poems that came from this “self-hypnosis,” because many of them began to sound the same. So I ignored them. But every now and then, I get a poem like that. It writes itself in my head before I put it down to paper. I simply take it down.
DB: But this self-hypnosis was one that was open to a greater world? You weren’t just stewing about your own life?
Mattawa: Yeah, it was almost like being in a dark room, if you will, of your own misery, self-pity, and confusion, and then there is a hole in the wall through which you see a different perspective, which is also part of yourself. So, those poems kept coming, and a few months later, maybe by 1990, I was just writing poems all the time. That’s when I said, okay, it seems to me that this is what I really want to do. I’d rush home to write. It became challenging after a while, but the productivity of this privacy, this busyness of expression, was joyful. From ’88 to ’90, I was always rushing to write, enjoying that I was responding to the world and had a chance of imprinting something on it.
DB: You mention that a certain amount of “self-hypnosis” influenced your writing, but you came in time to distrust that. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Mattawa: I think those poems tapped into a sense of constant emotion— sort of like the glum resting face that we all have—that was very personal or autobiographical, a nagging sense of not belonging, or of exile or a melancholy stance about the world that predated exile. They were my private and customary feelings. That’s where poetry begins and such emotions remain central to the lyric, but I began to feel that my poems don’t have to convey only my personal feelings and experiences. So I thought I can be a sad, soppy person in my life if I wanted to, but I don’t have to be like that in my poems. So when the poems began to sound the same I said, oh no, that’s not the way. So when that canary began to sing…
DB: Put a cloth over its cage?
Mattawa: Yeah! But I think I’ve also learned to get into that kind of mood or hypnosis with poems that do not arise from personal emotion. My process is more like writing drama. I think about the voice and maybe even the character speaking the poem. I’m aware that it isn’t what Whitman called “the me myself”, but it’s a deep engagement with the capacity for selfhood, which is what drama is, I think. You work your way into the self behind the mask and believe in the mask and allow it to process the truth that can’t be said without it.
DB: You emigrated to the U.S. in 1979, the year I founded Artful Dodge, by the way. You were fifteen at the time, and I’m reminded of Charles Simic, who also came into English from Serbian—that’s one way of putting it, perhaps—at about that same age. And an old friend of mine, Nicholas Kolumban, who was a fantastic poet but died a few years ago, was born in Hungary, spent his early teen years in Germany, and ended up in the U.S. I was wondering—not just about coming from another country, another language into English, into America—but what was it like coming from that place to this place as a teenager?
Mattawa: When I left Libya, I was doing some of the things teenagers did, stealing the family car, getting into trouble, trying whatever drugs came my way. My best friends were failing at school, and went to the movies and soccer matches, smoking and hanging out all the time. I started smoking when I was twelve. Seriously smoking [laughs]. I barely passed my last year of school in Libya, but wanted to escape the oppression that was Gaddafi’s Libya, the propaganda, the public hangings, and the masculine, intimidating, closed-off culture. When I finished 9th grade my parents said you need to join your brother and cousins in America to get a real education. I wasn’t going to object to that. I landed in Mississippi at an ESL institute at the University of Southern Mississippi; my classmates were mainly graduate students. It was a grown-up world and I was as free as any teenager could be then. Then I had to go back and finish high school at a boarding school with other teenagers. I’d imagined a world of academic rigor and prestige, but many of the boarders were troubled kids sent away by their families, and here I was a Muslim kid joining them during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Needless to say, there was quite a bit of hostility and racism, and the teen superficiality, or at least that’s what it seemed like to me. I don’t think I really cared much for the “teen experience.” But I have had bursts of teenage behavior happening across my life [laughs].
DB: Even recently, I bet. I have to admit to that too. Actually, I intended that question to involve more your relationship to language. When someone moves into another language when they’re five or six, it’s a relatively easy passage for them, but when that change occurs in your teenage years, your brain is certainly open to absorbing this new language, but you’ve also gained such mastery of your original language. Now you’ve got to retool, and maybe it’s that retooling of your language that might have, in turn, made you into the poet that you are today or in some way affected your poetic voice in English. Do you have any such memories of dealing with your switching from Arabic to English?
Mattawa: I’ve heard of people being thrown into high school as teenagers to learn the language this way; I’m glad that wasn’t my experience. By the time I finished at the ESL institute my test scores were higher than most of the graduate students. But it took some time for English to feel like my language. At some point in college though even writing letters in Arabic seemed less natural. But I had an accent and a name difficult to pronounce. I don’t really tell people how to pronounce my name because I know that if I were to say KHALED the way it’s pronounced in Arabic, there would be all sorts of possible outcomes and I’ve experienced them all, so it’s just a matter of people treating your name with respect.
DB: Let it be.
Mattawa: Yeah, you don’t push it, still the accent and the foreign name were obstacles, if you will, but they were part of who you were, and you weren’t about to give them up. And when you’re being subjected to racism and xenophobia— stuff like “go back to your country,”—you wanted to speak English well to answer back and to be quick and smart. It felt like you were constantly arguing—literally and often subtly and silently—with people who think you’re not worth anything.
DB: Right, right.
Mattawa: Most of my early years in America were in rural places, very few Muslim or Arab-Americans or even international students. So I felt my being an outsider quite keenly, and feeling defensive. In that case speaking well becomes your defense.
DB: I remember from my experiences in Poland how often I was treated according to my ability to express myself. I got better with Polish over time, but especially early on, if I could only express myself as a child, I was treated as a child. Even when I had learned to pretty much keep up a conversation in Polish, I remember getting into an argument with this guy, who didn’t know any English at all, by the way. I had just published a couple poems about Poland in translation in this Polish literary journal Odra, and showed them to him as evidence that I wasn’t totally clueless about my surroundings, that this was the thinking I was capable of. So this guy reads the poems, and his response is: “But do you know what they’re saying there? Do you know what they’re saying there?!” as if I wasn’t the one responsible for the original poem. “Of course,” I said, shouting maybe for the first time in Polish. “I wrote that. I wrote that!” Finally, the light went off in his head. But I was there in that foreign language by choice, and I knew that I would be able to go back to the U.S. in several months. I can handle such dysfunctions for the short-term, but there are people living in these other languages not by choice who have to deal with that same situation. It’s very sobering.
Mattawa: There are lots of assumptions thrown at you. Some of the things people told me in high school make me wonder now why I didn’t just punch these people in the face. Stupid things about camels and the Arab body, really vulgar and racist stuff. But I’d respond saying, no, that’s not how it is. That’s not right at all. I wasn’t a pacifist; perhaps I should have been more of a violent teenager then [laughs]. The idea was to talk people out of their misperceptions, and to assert dignity. But to your specific point, I was riding in an airport shuttle in Los Angeles once with an Iranian driver. The passengers were just not listening to what he was saying and openly mocking his English. So he began to enunciate each word—he walked them into respecting him by slowing down, by making sure they understood him and he controlled the pace of the conversation. Language is a place where that respect can happen. I think many ethnic Americans know what I’m talking about as they often need to code switch or switch registers to make sure they’re being heard and to show mastery of the standard code. So moving into poetry was another chance to say, “I can do this, I can tell a story or convey an idea well.” But before poetry the work with language was already an expression of dignity and the times when I made errors were a great source of embarrassment and shame.
DB: A friend of mine who is both an Amish farmer and nature writer was talking about how he became a writer, and it had to do with the fact that he had a very profound stutter. Early on in school—the Amish go through the eighth grade, by the way—he saw the alphabet, and he suddenly realized that by writing things down, he could control language in ways that he could not do through speaking. It was this “otherness” he was feeling, because of the stutter, that really drew him to writing, because he could now use language in a way that made it a source of power rather than frustration.
Mattawa: And that awareness of language is a gateway to poetry. Charles Simic talks about learning French and English in quick succession as a teenager and he was constantly comparing the two languages to his native Serbo-Croatian, but I imagine also preoccupied by the variations in his outsider status. In the case of your friend I imagine that being Amish with the background of the German they spoke and their religious identity were additional pressures and may have created a greater need to be in charge of the conversation or to control the language, the writing being a kind of rehearsal for what you want to say or how to speak to the outside world.
DB: One of my favorite early poems of yours is “Growing Up with a Sears Catalogue in Benghazi, Libya,” a poem from the imagination of a young man thinking not just about sex, but about an entire life lived somewhere else. I don’t know if this is a fair or unfair question, but could you imagine a naïve but perceptive boy born, say in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, or in Bloomington, Indiana—places where you’ve lived as a young man in the U.S.—trying to imagine himself in the Libya where you grew up? What would be some of the images? And it’s not about exoticism, it’s just about him trying to imagine himself in this other world.
Mattawa: You know even at an early age we’re given some knowledge about various parts of the world. It’s often in the form of stereotypes and clichés, but these powerful imprints are difficult to dislodge. And with America being involved in wars in the Middle East, I bet there’s a kind of folk knowledge being created by the people who served there, knowledge about the topography of Iraq and Afghanistan and their people, based on the soldiers’ experience. This knowledge is shaped by the global politics of the country and it seeps into the culture. But again I was just reading a piece titled “Cairo: A Type of Love Story,” by Peter Hessler in The New Yorker. The writer with his wife and daughters lived in Egypt for four or five years. When they returned to Colorado, the girls kept saying that they were Egyptian. So if you put an American kid anywhere in of the world, that place won’t be a place of alien or different people, but could be home. The hang-ups and the stereotypes come later. What I’m trying to get at is that this imaginative exercise, even for a kid, hardly ever exists outside the political subtext that had been already established about these foreign places.
But back to Libya, some of the images would be about proximity to nature, to farming, hens, ducks and sheep, little plots of tomatoes, mint, okra, and fava beans. Lemon, fig, pomegranate, peach, almond and olive trees. We lived in the suburbs of Benghazi but when mulberry season came along we knew where to go to pick them. The red dirt and the hot, ghibly winds in the spring; the dust creeping under doors and through closed windows. Images of boys playing soccer or marbles, girls playing hopscotch on the street. The cold rain in winter, the white, hot sun, and the breeze of the trade winds in summer. The nights, before the coming of air-conditioning were great times to watch the sky, and the scent of jasmine at dusk. Oh and the picnics! The family gets in the car and takes their food, and as a kid you start running and playing in what looks like scrublands, with a few trees here and there, surrounded by the scents of wild sage, thyme and pine, foraging for wild artichokes. These picnics were one of the most joyful experiences. Sometimes it’s only the men and boys of the clan, and these masculine figures, who’d never step inside a kitchen, would be chopping onions, stirring pots, making sure the food tastes just right. Food you’d never eat at home. The last few years I’ve been going to Greece and traveling around a bit there. I think I keep returning to small town Greece to see traces of the life of my childhood.
DB: It sounds like a marvelous world.
Mattawa: Isn’t it? I don’t have a sense of that life being boring for a child. By my teenage years things settled down in a way that was not that exciting.
DB: I know to some degree that your poem “Growing Up with a Sears Catalogue in Benghazi, Libya” might have been a satire on the contamination of Libyan culture through American pop-culture consumerism, but it also seemed to be a truly interesting depiction, told with irony and humor, of the imagination of a young person. It’s an attempt to try and figure out this other world that might be out there. I know this is a bit of a leap, but I also felt that your long-poem Tocqueville was also an attempt at cultural exploration in a way that also highlights the role of the imagination in such an endeavor. Could you talk a little bit about the story behind your decision to write Tocqueville and the form that it would have?
Mattawa: Tocqueville took over two years to put together. One license that I got to write the way I did was from Küçük İskender, a Turkish poet I found in an anthology of contemporary Turkish poetry*. He wrote a book called Soul Jam, and, in it, he jams together, and jams on a lot of things—the disparate elements of the soul, if you will, moving from one idea to another, one tone to another with great intensity. C.D. Wright’s Doorstep Come Shining was helpful earlier as a model for my poem “Tuned” in Zodiac of Echoes. I thought of how people watched TV, moving from one channel to another, and reordered the poem to simulate the quick movements between images, between channels, but also coming back to these same channels, or the anchor stories, that the viewer/narrator cannot let go of.
DB: Almost like a narrative collage.
Mattawa: Yeah, yeah. I wanted to write about Egyptian soap operas and World Cup soccer, about my father’s odd relationship with television, the time my cousin and I stumbled upon an Italian porn show, or the coat hanger antenna inserted into the little TV, also the public hangings that Qaddafi’s regime broadcast for days to frighten the population. I wanted something mixed up together and chaotic, devoid of commentary, trusting that the reader would process this protracted experience. The consumption of culture, or TV, is deeply personal and reflective of one’s personality—especially of our boredom, which is also very personal and varied. So “Tuned” was a precursor to Tocqueville, teaching me to trust my intuitive shifts. In Tocqueville there are these “Dear A,” “Dear B,” “Dear C,” letters written to American poets as meditations about our shared status as middle-class poets. It always bothered me that American poetry has allowed itself to be a form of expelling the outside world. I think it’s something that Americans value about their poetry. That’s how Emily Dickinson was first presented to me—as this person who was thinking in isolation, a private poet engaged solely with spiritual matters. But when I read her now, and I come to her often, I see that she’s aware of geography and the whole planet—”the mail from Tunis”—did she ever see the sea? She’s thinking about transport and movement around the world. It’s in her metaphors and images and they don’t feel gimmicky at all. I think this image of Dickinson—probably by the New Critics—was a way to justify the isolation of poetry and discourage political engagement. That’s how art should be, it was argued, and this view of poetry has been an important aspect of American poetry. It was the kind of art that the CIA supported around the world, by the way. It was an individual-sized rationalization for American isolationism. We have a whole universe to ourselves in America, a self-sufficient world of anguish, joy and spiritual crises, and there’s no need for the rest of the world. Poetry’s task was to face the agonizing emptiness of the universe and to seek joy and meaning in the diversity and beauty of life around us. That’s still a strong current in American poetry. With Tocqueville, globalization was happening, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going on, and many of us were facing these wars alone. I just couldn’t stand this comfortable sense of being American. I was living in a nice house, we were having a daughter pretty soon, and it seemed the restlessness and exile were finished, and we were supposed to be happy and comfortable now in this American way. No way.
DB: And you were using Tocqueville as a trope of that very static, isolationist, almost anesthetized America.
Mattawa: Yes, I needed to shout through the isolation, the neglect of the world we’re destroying by our politics and our daily habits. Our isolation and exceptionalism are forms of repression. We’ve been a country steeped in global violence. I wanted to bring all these things together in a big, fast poem. I don’t know, maybe it’s not a very successful poem. Tocqueville weaves various stories together, and in the middle of the weaving takes lyrical tangents. One student, Doron Bloomfield, at the University of Michigan back in 2010 made the poem into a play. He figured out there were various conversations going on and he made scenes out of them. He was brilliant, really got how the poem was structured. The lyric passages break into these discussions, sometimes desperately, sometimes to change the conversation or to pull it together.
DB: In terms of time and in terms of the complexity of vision, there is a long leap between “Growing Up with a Sears Catalogue” and Tocqueville, but in both of those poems, and in so much of your poetry, there’s this cultural interrogation going on. I’m wondering if you’ve been aware of that purpose of your poetry from the very beginning, or close to the beginning?
Mattawa: No, but I think the circumstances bring that forth. In the beginning, like first coming to the United States, you are confronting your cultural difference, other people’s reaction to what they perceive as your culture, and you’re also noticing how a different cultural setting operates on people. Your awareness of these differences becomes how you experience the world. We might be coming up to war with Iran now, and Americans are slowly being mobilized into war—which we’ve seen several times before—then you think, how do they do it? How does the government do it? How are people conditioned into this? In the late ’70s and early ’80s in Libya Qaddafi wanted to send people to Chad to fight his wars, but everybody tried to escape the army. Everybody was trying to run away. He wanted to put women in the military, and people took their girls out of school—part of that was conservatism, but also real resistance to his tyranny. People did everything not to be involved in his ventures, and this was in a dictatorship. How is it that the freest country in the world can just somehow, by a magical leash, drag so many young people to willingly fight a war?
DB: The “volunteer” army.
Mattawa: And they are completely unjust wars. You read the history of America, and from the beginning, America has been warring all the time. I don’t know if there’s a year in which America wasn’t involved in a war.
DB: Certainly not in the 19th century when the Native American genocide was going on.
Mattawa: So you think, what’s going on with these people? It was very clear for me, even when people are insulting me for being Arab and Muslim, or when the nice people were paternalistically sympathetic because I come for a war-torn region, etc.—they still do that by the way—it was clear that I was interacting with products of a culture, not necessarily with independently minded people. That’s a part of how I viewed the world from early on, and it still seems to me that Americans are a much more conditioned people than they think they are.
DB: You’ve mentioned how the synecdoche process is at work in how literature argues—that this one story represents a larger “truth,” but these individual expressions being part of a larger, wider picture shows the underside of this process.
Mattawa: Yeah, because people end up saying the same things over the years, the same language, the same words. So it becomes impersonal because people are not speaking as persons but from their cultural conditioning. You know I lived in the South for a long time, in Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. It was tense, but sometimes a short conversation could turn people around. My brother was excellent at this. People would have these hostile attitudes, and he would just talk to them, making up stories, telling them that Libya was close to Tupelo, Mississippi—Elvis’s hometown—among other fantastic stuff. So with a bit of charm and with outrageous, funny lies he could diffuse the situation. Yeah, he was smooth [laughs], but that was his way of taking control of the conversation.
DB: Maybe that personal touch is a product of Southern culture.
Mattawa: People were hostile, but once they broke through that conditioned hostility, they were very generous. Some Libyan friends really got into the culture, going deer hunting and getting along very well with their Southern friends. This one guy married a rural woman from Tennessee, and they got into a fight, and she shot him. Her family was angry with him, but he had this whole other side of his in-laws who took his side. They visited him in the hospital and stayed by his side, even smuggling in barbequed squirrel meat for him to eat while he was recovering. He was this complete Othello figure; a brown guy, thick accent, very curly hair, you know? And they just took him in. He just got into kind of a Hatfield and—who were other clan?
Mattawa: McCoys! His wife was from the Hatfields, she shot him, but his family, the McCoys [laughs]…
DB: They had his back.
Mattawa: Then you dig deeper into American history, and you see that this story about my friend was less than twenty years after the murder of Martin Luther King. It makes you feel that maybe these attitudes are not that deep, but of course they are, and you feel lucky in retrospect, that somehow, that this hatred has bypassed you. But now a lot of that hatred is back, and you think maybe we’ve just a kind of respite.
DB: Speaking of feeling lucky in being bypassed by violence, you’ve referred to “the lack of incidents in my life that allows me to do this work.” Could you talk about positionality a bit? Do you feel that you’ve lived in a goldilocks zone close enough to the physical and mental violence going on, but not close enough to be consumed by either violence or hate? What other ways do you see yourself as being in the right place to bear witness in a way that only you can?
Mattawa: I think that comes from a degree of agency and what’s been called political subjectivity, which is the ability to speak, to have access and mobility as well as sense of being somehow protected. Like many Arab and Muslim Americas, I do sometimes suffer the burden of my difference, but as an academic and a member of a privileged class I can argue back and pursue what America and the rest of the powerful world promises in terms of equality and justice. There are, of course, many exceptions; like Steven Salaita, of persecuted Arab American intellectuals. So what you’ve called bearing witness comes not from certainty that these rights have to be fought for all the time. I can’t be complacent; my sense of being an eternal refugee is always on. So being a witness is because I always feel that I’m barely a step away from a political or legal abyss. But then there’s the sense of having tools, writing being of one of them, and so the desire to see, to act and create comes naturally.
DB: Given the existence of this conditioned society, do you see your work in poetry, in literature, as a kind of counterweight? Can poetry change things? In one of your poems, you even talk about yourself as a poet who “labor[s] to rephrase /with healing, the nations’ inflamed contract.” What you’re talking about here is different than the notion of writers giving voice to those who are silenced. You mention a re-phrasing, which sounds a lot like translation. Any thoughts?
Mattawa: The passage you quoted is from a poem titled “Malouk’s Ode.” Malouk is a character in Abu Bakr Kahal’s novel African Titanics; Malouk is a poet. My poem is supposed to be in his voice, and it gave me a chance to tell his story and to speak about the migrant crisis from a poet’s point of view. Malouk, like many intellectuals from the Global South, is leaving his country because of persecution after he’s reached a point of despair regarding the future of his nation or region. In the poem Malouk is in detention camp, and as he tells his story he feels the power of poetry rising in him. The promise of poetry had never left him and while he can’t really affect change, poetry continues as a source of moral authority in him. So I’m not talking about myself, but perhaps in a voice that I wanted to have, or through a mask I wish I could wear fittingly.
Poetry perhaps does not change things, and like many seemingly far fetched truths, it’s something that people don’t readily accept. Poetry provides visions for life that people often see as too ideal or too horrific or just plain impossible. That’s why poetry is difficult; it draws a point in the distance and says this is where we should be or will be if conditions remain the same. Societies can’t change that quickly to that ideal point, or they can’t change course quickly enough to avoid the abyss. But in many cases, maybe after a few decades, societies can find themselves at the point the poem has placed on the horizon. So it’s societies that change toward poetry in a slow process. Poetry creates landmarks in the consciousness of society, milestones toward which they move, but it’s often far ahead of people’s reality and even imagination and so they don’t buy into it immediately.
Now about re-phrasing and translation, you know all translation is rephrasing, broadly speaking. Malouk represents the attempt of many postcolonial writers to re-write the social contract away from realpolitik, away from division, corruption and despair, and toward decency, justice and inclusion. He’s wondering if poetry can reorder the political and ideological language of a given society. There’s also the desire to shift the language that spurred violence, to change it so that that energy can become a force of inclusion. In the U.S. today, we’re witnessing the language of the social contract being spun into a rationale for exclusion and inequality. I think this top-down work from the right is a reaction to some of the good that American poetry has done. The country has changed toward inclusion, but now the law and the politics of fear are being used to reverse this momentum.
DB: Could you talk a bit more about “lyric documentation”? Is there something that poetry can do that other types of documentation can’t?
Mattawa: I like Muriel Rukeyser’s expression that poetry can “extend” the document. I love the ambiguity of the word “extend” making the document reach out to more people. As translators, we all know that translation extends the original, and that in fact something is gained by and in translation, not lost, and that a translation can be better than the original. But that’s a conversation for another time maybe. Now back to lyric documentation, extension can be done in many ways—analysis, dramatization, interrogation, and lyricizing or making a document musical. Rukeyser’s poem “The Book of the Dead” does all these things and more. Sometimes compression and restraint are all a document needs to become lyric; sometimes the lyric can be akin to adding a string orchestra to a simple song; the string and wind instruments fill the silence or enlarge it. It’s really about the poet’s sense of the various feelings that can be felt, given what the document contains. Mark Nowak says the documentary poet’s job is to lift the silence imposed on human experience or tragedy by the bulk of legal and official language surrounding them. Official documents heap a lot of language on human suffering, and so the poet’s job is to remove all that unfeeling language. Poetry can perform acts of rescue as in an earthquake, to save the living word from the rubble of lifeless speech.
DB: I’ve always been fascinated by multilingualism, but even more so in terms of how it might affect the development of one’s poetry. Would you be able to pick apart influences that have come from your reading poets in Arabic and in English? Or is it all just one great blending?
Mattawa: It’s a great blending and so organic and changing that it’s hard to take account of it. A lot of it depends on the process of rephrasing or translation that you mentioned. For example, what we call the arms of the clock in English is called ‘aqarib al-sa’a in Arabic, which literally means “the spiders of the clock,” perhaps originally being the spider legs of the clock. I love the idea of a clock having arms but also having spider legs or spiders. It’s so arbitrary, but each of these similes or metaphors makes sense. Multilingualism, even bilingualism, can awaken us to this beautiful, creative and convincing arbitrariness and how it conveys meaning. It’s these qualities that we seek in poetry.
DB: This of course is just my own off-the-cuff insertion, but I see in your long-lines a sense of voice, of recitation, that comes out of an oral tradition and which coincides with many Arab-language poems I have read in English translation, say “Ode to Balqis”—but it also reminds me of beat poetry and even of Walt Whitman with his long breath and expansive vision. For example, your poem “Ode to Mejnoon” comes to mind. I know this is a hard thing to articulate, but do you have a sense of line, of how the line functions in your poetry?
Mattawa: I use lines of various lengths depending on the poem. Short lines are really difficult as there are only a few words to create tension or attention. White space is extremely difficult. But you are right; the long, ode-like line is a kind of home base for me. In the classical mode of Arabic verse, the line is usually long, from 12–16 syllables with a hemistich in the middle, and of course a single rhyme throughout the whole qassida. Whitman did not appeal to me at first; I missed the rhyme. But within a few years of being immersed in English verse, I began to be annoyed by the strain rhyme seemed to place on poems in English. In Whitman, the naturally formal stance of poetry that I was familiar with in Arabic poetry was there and the rhyme was gone. Whitman seemed familiar also because he’s not a story poet, but a voice heavily invested in conveying the poet’s knowledge, drawn from within. This stance resonated with the image of the poet that I’d grown up with and offers a natural mode of writing in between the influences of imagism, confessional and postmodern poetry that mark the rest of my work.
DB: And, also, how has your work in translation affected your work in poetry? Are there things that you’ve noticed about Arabic or about English while translating that has made you see poetry in the other language in a new light?
Mattawa: I was just in Cairo where I met the Egyptian poet/translator Ahmad Shafei and he was wondering to what extent his translation work has undermined his career as poet, and by career I mean being read, seriously. So I do feel a bit cornered as a translator, when I’m approached to do something, say a panel at AWP, usually it’s as a translator. So I’ve had to slow down on that part. At one point, I translated under a pseudonym [laughs]. I definitely like being a poet/translator, and so much of my phrasing picks up from the discrepancies in metaphor that I mentioned earlier, and I get a lot out of misreadings. But when people are asking you about translation this and translation that, and they don’t know you in any other context, you want to say, “Okay, screw you! I want to have nothing to do with you.”
DB: Well, I assure you that we’ll present you primarily as a poet.
Mattawa: Oh, I know I’m in good hands with you. I’m delighted! What I’m expressing is a lament or a commiseration I’ve exchanged with many other poet translators.
DB: But you see yourself as leaving that part of your literary activity now.
Mattawa: Yeah, some new people are coming into the field and are doing very well, much better translators than me. And as happy as I am with all the translation work I’ve done, it has taken up a big chunk of my time.
Mattawa: But I can tell you one clear gift that translation has given me: Every time I came out with a new book of poems, it was really different from the one before it. Translation seems to erase any linkages between my book projects. It’s as if my handling of the pen became different, and the new book becomes really different from the previous book. Because when you were “only translating” you’ve actually written a book or two, or like an actor/playwright you acted in a few plays and then sat down to write your own play. You’ve gained something from the writing/ translating and it contributes to your process. Translation has given me the ability to retool, to change style, to embark on really different projects.
DB: James Wright did that very thing between his first two books, which were very formalist, and his later work. He stopped writing poetry for a while and instead worked on translation, then eventually came out with his third book, which is his really big one, The Branch Will Not Break, that had the poem “Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium,” about his bidding farewell to his “old” poetry. What you’re talking about is very similar to that.
Mattawa: One piece of great advice about translation is from—who was that guy? One of the great West Coast poets who translated from the Chinese …
DB: Kenneth Rexroth?
Mattawa: Yes. He says, “Translation will save you from your contemporaries.”
DB: Oh wow, I’d not heard that line.
Mattawa: It’s from his essay “The Poet as Translator.” Yes, exactly. You won’t have to worry about what the others are writing because you’re developing different reference points and widened the range of your creative process. Your models, conscious or internalized, free you from having to sound like the others. For me, translations were creating blank slates of the new poems, and I’m grateful for that. But I feel like I need to squeeze the toothpaste tube of my imagination to see if there are more poems in me.
DB: Is there cultural dynamic in this process of being cornered by translation. How is it related to the idea of authorship or being an author?
Mattawa: I think so. And for me perhaps the question is about being a native informant. I want to give you a revealing example not from poetry but from TV. I was invited to be on Charlie Rose back in 2011 at the beginning of the Libyan revolution. I was on with my friend Ali Ahmida, an expert on Libya. Rose asked us several questions about the history of the country and about the inner politics of the regime. Also, the usual stuff about tribalism and religion, etc. Then our segment came to an end. The next guest was a White male foreign policy guy and the questions posed to him were about what the U.S. should do in approaching Libya. It dawned on me when I watched the program later how these questions were not posed to Dr. Ahmida or me. It was clear that that was not our place in the conversation, and we’re not invited to be part of the decision- making process, or we can’t be trusted to have America’s real interest at heart. That’s classic native informant stuff: “You’re here to report to us about your culture and you’re excluded from here on in. We’re not interested in what you think about what we’ll do with that information.” I imagine that native translators like me, especially from the Global South may feel sensitive about these issues as well. You sense that your being a translator limits your voice and your authority, or the space given to you to be an author. Your role is to bring us the goods of your people; everything else is needless philosophizing. Interestingly enough some of the great White male poets are translators but that tends to enhance their authority. They—not all of them—are conquerors bringing unknown treasures into the language, while the native translator is merely informing on his tribe. These paradigms are still operating in our current literary/political unconscious, and so as a poet it makes you wonder how to fashion a career, how to make a formal space for yourself. Maybe I’m wrong about all this, maybe it’s just be a matter of time. So I need time to write, to be patient with the despair of the empty page and not run toward translation to fill the void.
DB: I’m familiar with your anthology Post Gibran: An Anthology of New American Writing that came out in late ’90s. You wrote at the time: “However slow and painful the recovery, Arab-American destiny will continue to come under Arab-American control so long as the image of the Arab-American comes increasingly under the control of Arab-American writers.” How has this project of trying to create your own narrative for your community fared since the publication of your anthology?
Mattawa: Indeed, speaking of being prophetic and a poet’s prophecy. Part of me wants to say that these were happier times, if only because it was the past and I was more hopeful. Since then there’s been 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the economic crisis and its global repercussions, the Arab Spring, and Trump. These are tremendous challenges, and of course the focus has shifted from Arab to Muslim and the confusion between the two increased. Indeed, between Muslim and Sikh, and Muslim and foreign-looking brown people in general. Yet the Arab and Muslim American narrative is being written. At the time of Post-Gibran there had only been a handful of Arab American novels, but in the last 15 years there’s been a handful published each year. And many new and wonderful poets too.
DB: Then after 9/11, you appeared in another anthology Inclined to Speak, edited by Hayan Charara. In Charara’s intro, he writes about a still existent need to shape the portrait of Arab Americans. Has there been much difference made beyond the edges of the literary community itself? This might be a similar question to how literature can offset automatic thinking, which we discussed earlier.
Mattawa: The narrative is being written. But it’s a complex narrative and American culture at large is not listening. As with other American minorities, having a great literature does not mean you’ll get better treatment socially, legally or politically. Your literature weakens and saps the discourses that deny your humanity, but it has to be read and re-interpreted in other media for it to have an impact. I think the American literary establishment, which itself has become diverse, has been happy to have Arab American literature in the mix as part of its wide menagerie but it hasn’t been ready to grant it the stamp of excellence. That has to do with literary politics, which I don’t understand, but also with real politics (Palestine and Islam), which I do understand: We come from the places where American soldiers have died, and where hundreds of thousands of our kin were killed—and only a few in American poetry talk about the people that these soldiers have killed—and also everyone wants to know what we think of Israel, which is a cultural litmus test where the right answer is to want peace in this glib and ironic way. At all levels, there’s an unstated and opaque test that Arab and Muslim writers have yet to pass. Many of us are not only saying, “treat me better in America,” we’re also asking that Palestinians are given justice, that they’re granted a homeland, and that they’re treated as equals to the Israelis. We’re asking the U.S. to stop coddling up to the reactionary dictatorships of the region, to stop making the region into a continuous theatre of war, etc. I think it would be easier—and perhaps we’d be recognized as equal members of the American literary scene—if we just limited the scope of our narrative to American identity politics, but that would be to deny the fullness of our lives.
DB: The poems you read today address what you called “the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean,” and you also discussed how you’ve been doing research for the poems. Can you tell us about this project, and about the research aspect of the new poems?
Mattawa: The current manuscript has had a wayward history. The Arab Spring began a year or so after I published Tocqueville. I did not have a new book just yet and I had so little time to write anyway. My wife and I relocated to Libya and started an arts organization there. We ran a cinema club and organized several exhibits and workshops. It was wonderful, but time-consuming and difficult. Guns were everywhere. Random RPG explosions were common occurrences. But we had many young people around us and we all breathed hope, not paying much attention to all that was happening around us. In the summer of 2014, all hell really broke loose—we’d come to the U.S. for a few weeks on a visit and couldn’t return. We had to shut down our operations there. Looking back at the region, I began to see some things at play, some global trends, if you will, the migrant crisis being one of them. So my initial research was geographical—how did people travel and why? I wanted to know the various stages of their journeys and the hardships encountered. Drought and climate change are a big part of the story, so is the economic crisis of 2008, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as the scramble for heavy metals in Africa. Masses of people have been affected. No work, no schools, no water. I wanted to recognize individual stories, but also to think about how there were masses of people being similarly affected, nameless people treated as mere bodies. A conversation I once had with Phil Levine at Breadloaf kept coming to mind. I’d shown him a poem about Iraq and how horrified I was by the masses of people being killed—the images of the Highway of Death haunted me—he’d asked me to try to resurrect their personhood and their lives, but I resisted. I didn’t think that giving a few individual stories to dignify the dead could really address the fact that people were dying en masse, like rats or some kind of infestation. I wanted to know how they got to be so dehumanized and why. And now we had people migrating in large numbers because of global economics or collective traumas. I wanted to show these events from a distant, overhead shot, if you will, and not personalize the horror and the hardship, because the damage was so impersonal that it could be anyone. Any of us could have been one of the people being traumatized in this massive manner. So I wanted poems that were specific to the events, but not personal in the sense of autobiography or story. I chose to write psalms and songs to also heighten the poetic signature of the poems. All the poems are in tercets as you can see. Imposing this arbitrary prosodic signature was important to announce a certain artifice—or let’s say to deflect any claim for authenticity. I didn’t want the reader to think he’s reading ethnographies. We’re so used to the stories of poor or dark-skinned people—the subalterns—as being simplified, or as kinds of raw material literature. So I wanted the poems to show themselves as poems while also being true to the facts of the experience, and to tell a big story out of these small pieces. Psalms, songs, pseudoghazals, journal diaries and even curse tablets seemed perfect as they could be very specific but also not owned by anyone. It was great to write this way, and to use the idea of selfhood, or the capacity for self-expression in this selfless manner.
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