A Conversation with Khaled Mattawa
Jeff Lodge: This is Jeff Lodge.
Patty Paine: And this is Patty Paine.
JL: And we’re at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Doha, Qatar, speaking with Khaled Mattawa, who is visiting here this week. Khaled, welcome.
Khaled Mattawa: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
JL: Patty, do you want to get us started?
PP: Sure. Khaled, can you describe the trajectory that took you from studying economics and political science as an undergraduate to earning a masters in English and an MFA degree in creative writing?
KM: That trajectory had something to do with my visa status, of course. I was writing for the college newspaper, at Tennessee-Chattanooga, and I got my political science degree requirements, and I thought it would be good to get the economics degree requirements. I was in transition between getting permanent residence and being on a student visa, and in that transitional period, I thought it would be good if I was a full-time student. And I only needed to take nine hours in economics, and then someone said, “Well, take this course. I think you’ll like it. It’s a poetry workshop. And you’ll get the three hours you need, and there isn’t much work involved.” It was a course taught by Richard Jackson. Fiction writer’s name was Ken Smith, I remembered showing him some of my work earlier, and he thought it was interesting, but I don’t think he was going to let me into the fiction workshop. So I took the poetry workshop, and that was it. That was the first step into the poetry workshop.
I think UT-Chattanooga, at least the poetry section of it, is one of the strongest undergrad programs. And Richard Jackson is a gifted teacher, for several reasons. One of them is his workshops were kind of like the Iowa workshop that I’d heard about, where sometimes only certain poems get talked about; there isn’t that democratic thing that people do where you make sure everybody’s poems are discussed, and sometimes divided by equal amounts of minutes, which is what I do. But in his class, some poems floated to the top, and others stayed in the bottom. And he admitted sometimes thirty people into the workshop. Some people were in this class and never got their poems discussed, over years, and they came back for it. So the idea was to have your poem float to the top. And there was one person who went on to go to Iowa the following year. Every year he sent one or two people to good creative writing programs.
But it was the community of writers that was there. And then, of course, he began to expose us to poets. He liked translated poetry a great deal. I heard about Nazim Hikmet for the first time in that class, in the first week or two, Lorca, I think. But I’d heard about Lorca through the Leonard Cohen song [“Take This Waltz," after Lorca’s “Little Viennese Waltz”], and I fell in love with Leonard Cohen and Lorca, but I wasn’t sure I still wanted to be a journalist, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get a degree in creative writing. And I was away from . . . after I graduated, in ’89, I moved to Knoxville. I took some creative writing classes. I wasn’t admitted into any program. I was admitted into the sociology graduate program at The New School, and I didn’t go. And during that year, in between, I decided yes, I really want to pursue this poetry aspect.
Once I got into Indiana, I also knew that I wanted to learn as much as possible, I didn’t want to avoid the literature component. And I should have been credited for an MA in comparative literature as well, but the English department refused, they said, “We brought you here to get an MFA, you’ve got an MA, the comparative literature program didn’t pay a penny for you to go to school. Why should they give you a degree?”
So I felt like there was a gap. And of course the literature, the comparative literature aspect, was that I wanted to learn about European and other traditions of literature, as well as Near Eastern, which weren’t available in the English department. So getting the degree, the other degree, and taking the extra courses through the MFA program, was to compensate for not having an English degree or a degree in literature. So it was a matter of finding the appropriate genre. I knew I wanted to do something to do with writing even before I came to poetry.
JL: Well, you had mentioned journalism. Can you imagine what you might be doing now if you hadn't moved into the humanities, if you hadn’t gone into English and creative writing? Would you still be writing?
KM: The other interesting aspect was law. I thought I might be a decent lawyer. I never scored very well on the LSAT. I studied it seriously, but I never did very well in it, and I didn’t think I was going to get into a good law school. Of course, that doesn’t really matter, but that was my impression. That’s still tempting for me, to be engaged with life and people’s lives and causes and issues in that manner, in a sort of hands-on manner. And journalism has that sort of aspect about it, but I was looking at some of the training that I was likely to be into. . . . I applied to journalism school at Columbia, and they didn’t admit me. I needed a lawyer at some point for my permanent residence application, and he said, “Fill in this form, tell me about yourself, and the rest is creative writing.” The first time I heard the phrase “creative writing” was from a lawyer.
So it was a matter of finding the appropriate form of engagement. I knew it involved writing. Sometimes I go back and wish that I was a lawyer, if only because it would have gotten me into, closer to a kind of fight for issues than one does in poetry. I don’t have that hankering now, but over the years, it had come back to me.
PP: Living in exile is something you explore in your work. You seem to resist romanticizing the country where you live, the U.S., and the country you left, Libya. Has this been a conscious decision, and if so, why?
KM: I think it’s conscious in only the sense that I understand myself, and that I understand the circumstances that led me to have left Libya, and so in that regard, there’s a kind of sobriety that I probably inherited from my father which is exactly that, not to romanticize. But the problem, as I was just telling the that were students in the class earlier, and I think the fine point, but a very important one and I think writers know it, but a lot of people don’t, which is that you can feel and not romanticize. You can feel about a place and not romanticize.
And so I think I do that. I think I tell stories or give impressions, but it’s very important for me to not delude myself. And I’ve never deluded myself about Libya, and certainly even Americans are not deluded about the American dream. I think the only thing that I haven’t done justice to as far as the United States is concerned is in nature, maybe, that I haven’t written about place, and enough about the birds and the trees and that kind of proximity to the natural world that one has in the states. And one that was . . . you don’t get a chance to do, let’s say, in Qatar, for example, or in other places, or in cities. But in America, still in your backyard, you have a lot of access to nature and identify with it, romanticize it, or it would be the form of, would be a kind of, as close to worship as I get.
The other aspect is I never maybe felt nostalgia—I missed my family, I missed the places where I came from, to some extent, but I knew them, I knew their weaknesses, I knew exactly what was wrong where I had come from. I left at a time of critical upheaval, dictatorship that was brutal, a time when people didn’t behave at their best—most people. And I also became aware that it was a place that wasn’t about to offer much in terms, to the world, or to me, or to anything. It was a kind of backwater that had a lot of tribal conflict that was very small-minded, that was not very open to the arts, and very insular. And it’s still insular. And if it isn’t the government that would silence you or ban you from being creative, the culture does that, too. So I don’t need to romanticize something that I know. And as far as the United States, I don’t know if there is any real poet in America who romanticizes America—American poetry from Whitman on is a kind of poetry of dissent. And so it wasn’t anything that I felt I could do or was required, or even was a part of poetic tradition that was there to follow.
JL: The artist and photographer Camille Zakharia, when he was here last year, spoke about Lebanese immigrants he encountered while he was living in Canada. He said
You just spoke some about your childhood in Libya. How do you remember it, day-to-day, I guess, is the question I’m asking, and how does that memory make it into your work today—either your poetry, or your translation work, or your teaching?
KM: I think memory was very important to my work as a structure, that the tone of remembrance, or the position of remembering, is very important, was a way of speaking when I was in between deciding to stay and not stay, and I had decided to stay. It seemed writing had come from that decision. Again, this is in retrospect, so it’s almost like I’m a critic, having decided that that’s what really was the case. But clearly, remembrance was part of the way of telling one’s life, partly because if it wasn’t time that gives you perspective, distance gives you perspective. So I had time and place in physical distance. And the other thing was inaccessibility. I mean I couldn’t really leave the United States and come back easily. So all of these impediments had sort of made the place of my childhood distant from me.
So I say the tone, and the mindset, of remembrance. Now, when I was going through the first book, and I was going through the poems, and so on, I came to realize that much of what I wrote down didn’t really happen. It was autobiographical but not factual, most of it. And so I never wonder why one does that, and I’ve also come to believe in the factualness of the stories I made up about myself. But it was a matter of reclaiming all of them.
I think there’s a kind of thing that emerges, maybe in the poems, and I don’t know if you notice it, but I think I had a kind of introspective, somewhat melancholic childhood. There were some happy times, but I remember that I watched a great deal, that I led as active life as I could as a child, but I feel like I watched a lot more than I did. The poem that I think of as most—maybe closest to memory—is “Summertime Cavatinas,” and I think what emerges maybe in that poem is a kind of lushness. We had a garden in our house. And we did have a man who took care of the garden. In Libya, the relationships had always been, as far as work help, much better than you would experience in the Gulf or in the Qatar, where somebody who worked for you, particularly if he’s a citizen—even if he’s not a citizen—the relationships were much more direct and immediate. People didn’t feel like they had to claim superiority, and so you call these people “Uncle.”
Uncle Rajab was our gardener, and my mother would make him coffee and bring it to him, that kind of thing. And he had a magic hand. We had corn, growing up; we had beans, fava beans. We ate figs from our garden, dates, mint—there was the smell of mint in our house constantly. And my mother had hens and sheep and ducks, and she used to trick the ducks to lie on the chickens’ eggs because the chickens just didn’t want, they’d just lay an egg, they, maybe they were egg hens. But the ducks were foolish enough to lie on them.
She used to resuscitate the sheep that ate too much. You may know that when sheep eat too much, they choke, because they can’t regurgitate, they fill up, maybe both of their stomachs? I don’t know how many stomachs they have, but they eat so much that they kind of begin to choke. And her solution was to give them 7-Up. And once she gave them 7-Up, they just shook off and stood up and they were fine. So to me, my mother was . . . she healed the sheep like Christ healed human beings . . . My mother was also a great storyteller. If I know anything about stories, it’s from her and Milan Kundera together, because she had the same kind of style.
So home was secure. School was fine, but it was not an easy place. It was tough. You had to be tough in school in Libya. But it was also very free. At the age of eight—I was eight, my brother was eleven—we went to soccer matches, we went to movies, sometimes the same one the same day, both the same day. We got on the bus. Complete freedom, really. We didn’t always feel safe, but not threatened in any way that people might be now. There was a lot of room, if you will, to contemplate, and I was a contemplative child, and when I am in a contemplative mood now, it’s not really all that different. I think that’s a connection I have from childhood. A slight sort of enervation that had always been there, with me now, with me then. And it was born there.
PP: You have said that “what translation teaches you is that there is something before you that is whole, that needs to be conveyed. It teaches you to try to perfect the poem at the cost of yourself. The work is deeply impersonal—you are in the service of this poem and not of your ego.” Is this displacement of ego something you try to carry back to writing your own work, and in general, how has translating the work of others impacted your work?
KM: I advise a lot of my students in their poems to get out of the way of the poem. I don’t know to what extent I do that in my own work, but clearly, if I don’t do it successfully when I write, when I revise, in immediate revision, I do it with time. I let the poem sit. I don’t write a poem in one sitting anymore. If it’s more than two pages, or more than one page it’s . . . I write half of it in one year and the other half two years later. And that’s how you get out of the . . . you get out of the moment you’re in. You don’t get yourself out, you don’t get what you know out, but you get the immediate crisis, you get your pettiness out of the poem. You put the self in that is the self of your life time, not the self of your contemporary or contemporaneous crisis. You write with your whole self. You write with all that you know, not just part of your knowledge, and if you know a lot, you put a lot, you don’t cut yourself short in the poem.
So I think it does influence that, it does influence the fact that I try to be true to poetry, and to the best self I have. That’s what you do in translation. You’re true to poetry, you’re not true to the literal meaning, you’re true to poetry, which means you’re true to rhythm, you’re true to complexity and simplicity of language. And you’re true in the aggregate. If you are literal all the time, you will be true, but also you can take a poem from poetry by being true. So you’re true in the aggregate in that the over all poem has a strong feel about it. It may be different, slightly different from the original, in the way that Yo-Yo Ma is allowed to play a composition by Rachmaninoff, for example, differently from [how] Rachmaninoff played it. But you see, that’s the aspect, in that you can add greater intensity to a certain bit, more than maybe was necessarily intended, but all of it has to make sense as a whole. And the way you do that, like the way you write a poem . . . I read a poem to myself, when I write it, several times, until it finds a place for in my body, and the same thing with a translation. I never translate a poem that I can’t read to myself over and over and over, until it sounds right, until I’ve got everything right. And sometimes it’s a matter of contractions. Like when do you say, “I did not,” or “I didn’t”? In Arabic, you don’t have contractions. When do you do it in a translation? When does it seem right in a translation? It’s just a matter of the kind of feel you have for how the poet is saying, or your feel of how you think it should be said. So you’re constantly listening. And you’re acting, you’re an actor, you’re Yo-Yo Ma. You’re an actor playing Yo-Yo Ma when you’re translating.
PP: Why do you think it is important to translate poems and stories from Arabic to English?
KM: I think that in some ways it is a matter of providing knowledge. I was translating Saadi Youssef (Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems, Graywolf, 2002) because I love his poetry, but also I felt like what he wrote would be a kind of knowledge that needs to be available. I think of his poem “America, America,” which is a great poem. That poem, and also a poem by Fadhil al-Azzawi called “Elegy for the Dead,” that these poems were like visionary. They saw what the course of relations between the United States and Iraq would take, possibly take, and they envisioned the horror to the end we have now. So these are two poems that I feel have that visionary power that poetry can se the future, in that sense. This is what I provide. I can’t think of anything else that I could provide in the culture that I live in more than that in terms of knowledge. And it seems to me like, had that poem, or these two poems, been read or discussed or thought of or contemplated at any serious level, we wouldn’t have that mess.
So you can think of poetry in that very practical sense. I know Saadi Youssef’s poem was being read in anti-war demonstrations and so on as a protest poem. It saw through. One of the lines says, “America, take your stripes and give us the stars . . . Take Saddam Hussain and give us Abraham Lincoln or give us nothing at all.” And that may have been the real issue here, that the replacement of this terrible regime would have to be ideal, would have to be worked out. Otherwise, Iraq didn’t need anything, and maybe that was the verdict of history, that it would have been better not to have gone through this.
There’s a kind of knowledge that poetry provides by letting us into the deepest sensibilities of a people by listening to their most sensitive and, I think, intelligent and complex individuals. Of course, there is a way in which translation is being asked to simplify a culture. And what I’ve chosen has, I hope, has not done that, has been to show us the complexity, but the humanity, of the cultures I’ve translated.
JL: Earlier, you said sometimes you wish you’d gone into law because of the engagement, the opportunities for activism that it presents. Is translation taking the place of that somewhat?
KM: I feel like Arab American work is more of that, and it’s activist in the sense that at least it provides books for people to teach in class. You know, Dinarzad’s Children was like . . . first of all, we don’t have enough fiction by Arab Americans. We need to have fiction. We also had the idea that we wanted fiction that was located in the United States. And its very odd that you ask for an anthology and you say, “Well, everything in your story has to happen in the United States.” For the most part, I think there’s only one story where the action doesn’t take place in the United States. But we wanted to see how does the Arab American, or the new Arab immigrant, just negotiate being in America. It wasn’t as interesting to hear about an Arab American person going, negotiating Cairo or Damascus. That’s kind of an old story. But it was about here, so we asked for that. And then we wanted fiction. There was a lot of poetry being written, but we wanted fiction. Some of the people we were their first publication in Dinarzad’s Children.
Before that, with an anthology called Post Gibran [Post Gibran: New Arab American Writing, Syracuse University, 1999], I noticed there was some kind of lax attitude. I mean you see it in a lot of ethnic literature. People find a certain groove, they sign a certain complaint, and they riff with it. And I thought that can be solved, possibly, by having people write in different genres. So I said, if you are a poet, I want your play; if you are a fiction writer, I want your nonfiction, that kind of get out of your generic, get out of the way you’ve learned how to talk. So I felt like that was a really a good thing for the Arab Americans writing and also for the people reading, and I also wanted to choose work that didn’t have anything to do with a cause. I wanted to know what an Arab American wrote about flowers . . .
JL: But even that would seem to be, not giving voice, but spreading the voice around to people who may not have heard it before. I’m talking about this in a good way, I think, and maybe activist isn’t the right word, but . . .
KM: I don’t mind. Activist is a good word for it.
JL: It’s like, “Listen here, people. Here are some people you need to listen to that you haven’t listened to before.
KM: Absolutely. No, absolutely. And it was really trying to create a counter-approach within both. I wanted the timbre of the Arab American literary community to change, I wanted to hear something else from them, and I also wanted that to be out and available, to say well here it is. You don’t really believe blurbs, but I felt like Edward Hirsch and Yusef Komunyakaa . . . I don’t think they had read any Arab American writers when I sent them the book, and I think they were generally astounded by them. And I know Charles Johnson with Dinarzad’s Children hadn’t read much Arab American writing, and I think they were astounded because, well here’s this stuff, and these are genuine stories, well-crafted; certainly the content in them is both compelling and human at the same time.
So you make a case, spreading the word around, making a case for people’s humanity. And I think you make a case for people’s humanity by showing the complexity of their lives, and the fact that they’re living in the moment. You don’t simplify. There’s always a danger that when you present people from outside, that you simplify them, that they begin to represent a certain kind of idyllic simplicity, and the way we do that . . . we do that all the time. But it’s just a way for us to really praise ourselves. When we simplify other cultures, we are saying that we are, we are the ones dealing with life, as such. These people out there, they just have it so easy. Yes, they’re poor, but God, they’re poor and happy, and they deal only with the simplistic aspects of life, but we, we’re the ones that are dealing with difficulty. Even though the stories might be about poverty and hunger; still, sometimes foreign literature somehow deludes us into thinking that these things don’t matter. What matters are the complex and difficult psychological bullshit that we’re dealing with in America.
So we’re very exploitive of foreign literature in that manner, and it’s very important for me that what I present can look you in the eye and says, “I understand you, I’m not simple, I deal with different things, and I deal with similar things. And are you going to take me seriously and give me the full credit of my humanity? Or are you not?” Of course, when you’re dealing with poetry, already you’re geared towards an audience that you expect to be attentive to language and at the same time that might be ready to deal with that ambivalence. And so it is activism in one regard. It is also a terrible addiction, I must add. I’ve never been able to quit. I think if I quit translation, I might be able to quit cigarettes. I don’t know which is harder. But it’s been a great kind of company to keep while writing, as well.
JL: I imagine there’s quite a few Arabic poets, Arabic-language poets you haven't gotten to yet. Can you tell us a little bit about some of them?
KM: There’s a Lebanese poet named Abbas Beydoun. He is, I think, the leading poet of Lebanon. Adonis, I can’t tell if Adonis is Syrian or Lebanese—he’s both, and he’s a different generation, older generation than Abbas Beydoun. But Abbas Beydoun is a fabulous poet that I translated for Banipal. He’s written about his growing up in the south of Lebanon, he’s written about Vermeer, he’s written about his time in Berlin. He has a great poem to Berthold Brecht. He’s a, I think, fabulous poet that I’ve not gotten into. I’ve translated some for the journal Banipal, but I haven’t put a book together.
I’d like to go back and do some of Saadi Youssef’s poems after 1995. And after that, I want to shut shop. Ten books, or maybe eleven by then, and then just retire? These are the two that I can think of right now.
JL: If it weren’t for the addiction?
KM: If it weren’t for the addiction. Somebody has to help me.
JL: Well, what are you working on now? What’s up next for you?
KM: I just finished a manuscript called Amorisco that Ausable Press will be publishing at the end of 2008. The word “amorisco” is a word I coined, a combination of the Spanish amor, “love” or “to love,” and “Morisco,” which is, the Moriscos are the moors who were kicked out by the Spaniards at the end of the Inquisition. And so it is Amorisco, and it’s a love, exile, with a Moorish flavor, I guess is the idea. And it’s an examination of these things. There’s also a poem about a cat in that volume. Exile can include cats.
The other book that I’m working on now and I want to finish soon has a piece called “Tocqueville” that is inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville. The book is called For Queequeg, the character from Moby Dick, whom I think of him as a kind of kindred soul. So there is a book that is not, maybe, political, exactly, that’s Amorisco, and the Queequeg book is as political as I’ll ever get, maybe. So these are the two manuscripts.
JL: Yeah, thanks very much.
KM: Thank you.
JL: A pleasure talking to you and listening.
KM: Lovely to be in the out of the sorts places and talk about America from afar.