Academic journal article MELUS

An Interview with Khaled Mattawa

Academic journal article MELUS

An Interview with Khaled Mattawa

Article excerpt

Khaled Mattawa is a poet, essayist, and translator. He was born in Benghazi, Libya. In 1979 he immigrated to the United States. He has bachelor degrees in political science and economics from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and an MA in English and an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. He is the recipient of numerous honors including the PEN American Center Award for Poetry Translation, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Memorial foundation, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the Alfred Hodder Fellowship (Princeton University). He previously taught at the University of Texas (Austin) and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Michigan.

He has published two collections of poetry, Zodiac of Echoes (2003) and Ismailia Eclipse (1995), and translated from Arabic five collections of poetry. He is also the co-editor of Post-Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing (2000), and Dinarzad's Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction (2004). His poems have also appeared in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, New England Review, Callaloo, Poetry East, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Black Warrior Review, Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Mattawa's poetry expresses a deep commitment to exposing the tangled and often knotted relationships between language, time, place, and memory. While he draws regularly on material from the Arab world, his poems are not limited by any particular national sentiment. Rather his writing is evocative of the difficult negotiation of attachment and distance produced out of filial ties to the Arabic language and Arab places that can only be approximated through writing in English. This interview, conducted over e-mail in spring 2005, raises issues in connection with Mattawa's work generally, but focuses specifically on his continuing ties to Arab world contexts.

SDH: I want to begin by asking you to talk a little bit about your experiences writing and more generally your relationship to languages and literature. You studied political science and economics as an undergraduate, but later went on to do a Master's degree in English and Creative Writing. When did you begin to write poetry? Did you first write in English or Arabic? When did you first publish a poem?

KM: My awareness of my interest in writing came through my failure at all things numerical. In my first two and a half years in college, in which I pursued degrees in architecture and then business management, I did miserably in courses that did not involve writing. And so the move toward the humanities. I was passionate about politics, and I thought that eventually a degree in law would be the best way to apply my talents. I was reading novels on my own, but I really did not think much about literature. I wrote very short stories on my own, for my own pleasure.

The very first poem I wrote was born out of an experience of calling home. I'd developed a habit of calling my family in Libya late at night when it was morning there, a time when only my mother was awake in our house. One time she told me she'd run to the phone having not wiped her hands from the dough she was making. I had the image of her holding the old, black phone handle with her flour-dusted hand. The image was very sharp in my mind, and I wanted to capture it. I had not written poetry before, and so when I wanted to write this moment down, I had no story, only a single image and a feeling of homesickness and tenderness. I was not even aware it was a poem, really, but I simply could not write a full paragraph as such, just a few disconnected lines. I wrote in English.

Since my arrival here in 1979, I continued reading in Arabic, but the bulk of my reading was in English. My exposure and immersion in literature was in English, so I wrote that poem and everything before it in English. I felt insecure in my skills in Arabic, and if I'd written in it, I had no way to assess my output. …

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