The PEN Ten with Khaled Mattawa
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Randa Jarrar speaks to poet and translator Khaled Mattawa, who was recently named a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
Born in Benghazi, Libya, in 1964, Mattawa immigrated to the United States in 1979. Mattawa is the author of four books of poetry: Tocqueville (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2010), which won the San Francisco State University Poetry Center Book Award and the Arab American National Book Award for Poetry; Amorisco (Ausable Press, 2008); Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable Press, 2003); and Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press, 1995). He has translated nine books of contemporary Arabic poetry by Adonis, Saadi Youssef, Fadhil al-Azzawi, Hatif Janabi, Maram al-Massri, Joumana Haddad, Amjad Nasser, and Iman Mersal, and has co-edited two anthologies of Arab-American literature. An associate professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mattawa was elected Chancellor at the Academy of American Poets in 2014.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I think it was after I began working on my second book, and when I could not stop working on it. I did not want to do anything else and that’s when I knew I was done for.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
There are too many to mention. We steal without knowing it, and the great writers, as Paul Valéry notes, are those who write works where “the relation with earlier productions is so intricate that we become confused” about their origin. I think what Valéry is saying is that an original writer steals and conceals without knowing what he’s done. And in that case, I’d want to steal from everyone.
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
The problem with censorship may be more of a question of “who” rather than “when.” We don’t want anyone except the author to censor him or herself. But censorship is not only about politics; it’s also about tact and esthetics. I think it also matters as to who may be affected by what we say and how. By now we should all know that all the stuff about the prophet Muhammad only riles up the poorest, most underprivileged Muslims. It’s almost Pavlovian now with this disfranchised population, and to provoke people who have so little power helps no one. You are not speaking truth to power when you do that. And you are not provoking an interesting or deep dialogue anywhere. To censor one’s self when it comes to an issue like that is to be thoughtful and effective. Being uninhibited is not the only imaginative state that artists should seek to be all the time.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Rhythm is my main obsession. It’s both conscious and unconscious. I know that I care about rhythm and while I write I know it’s working on me in ways that I don’t know, and don’t want to be conscious of. The vernacular poetry of Libya, Emily Dickinson, and the short anonymous seventeenth-century English poems, the stuff that thrums in my head telling me to match it. Also, there are passages of music by Anouar Brahem and Jali Musa Jawara that are telling me to fill them with words. Rhythm is the rabbit lure that I’m always chasing.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I wrote a few things during the Qaddafi regime, before the revolution, that people thought were daring. But I don’t think about daring, anyone or myself. I think about what’s urgent and the rhythm it needs to be said in. Once I’m there I don’t worry about “daring.”
What is the responsibility of the writer?
I now have the image of an Egyptian fallaaha walking with a big clay water jug on her head. She’s the image of grace in her motion, and it’s the world she is carrying. To be response-able is to enter a dialectic where nurture, beauty, and repair are operating simultaneously from us and through us.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
A writer who only operates on the collective purpose should try to become a talk-show host instead of writing because that’s not the function of art. Writers who don’t think about the “collective” elements in art are deluding themselves because they’re leaving that part of their work to their publishers and may be misrepresented when they do so. Again, it has to do with being responsible. Sometimes our esthetic engagement seems a sufficient force of good in the world. Other times the world evokes in us more than esthetic responses. We should listen to those too.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Ahmed Marzouki’s Tazmamart: Cellule 10.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Maybe there’s a vague period early on, but I think the vagueness dissipates once you begin judging what you are observing. When you engage in surveillance you discover the vulnerability of your target, which kicks in your predatory responses. You can’t conduct surveillance and assume that it’ll be easy to control yourself from pouncing on the thing you’re watching. The problem is that there’s a thin line between surveillance and persecution.