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Recorded at the Chancellors Reading, Poets Forum 2014. NYU Skirball Center.

About this poet

Khaled Mattawa was born in Benghazi, Libya, in 1964 and immigrated to the United States in his teens.

Mattawa received a BA in political science and economics from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga before earning an MA in English and an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University, as well as a PhD from Duke University in 2009.

His collections of poetry include Tocqueville (New Issues, 2010), Amorisco (Ausable, 2008), Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable, 2003), and Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press, 1995). He is also the author of Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet's Art and His Nation (Syracuse University Press, 2014).

Mattawa has also translated many volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry and coedited two anthologies of Arab American literature. His many books of translation include Adonis: Selected Poems (Yale University Press, 2010), Invitation to a Secret Feast (Tupelo Press, 2008) by Joumana Haddad, A Red Cherry on A White-Tile Floor (Copper Canyon Press, 2007) by Maram Al-Massri, 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), among others.

The poet Yusef Komunyakaa has described Mattawa's work as "novelistic in its reach and depth" and the poet Marilyn Hacker writes that it "is politically astute, formally daring, grips the reader with an intelligence that spotlights, too, its sensual and emotional (and historical) accuracy."

Mattawa is the 2010 recipient of the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alfred Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize, three Pushcart Prizes, and a MacArthur Fellowship.

In 2014, Mattawa was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Currently, Mattawa teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


Selected Bibliography 

Poetry

Tocqueville (New Issues, 2010)
Amorisco (Ausable, 2008)
Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable, 2003)
Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press, 1995)

Translation

Adonis: Selected Poems (Yale University Press, 2010)
Invitation to a Secret Feast  by Joumana Haddad (Tupelo Press, 2008)
A Red Cherry on A White-Tile Floor by Maram Al-Massri (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)
Miracle Maker, Selected Poems of Fadhil Al-Azzawi (BOA Editions, 2004)
Without An Alphabet, Without A Face: Selected Poems of Saadi Youssef (Graywolf Press, 2002)

The Road from Biloxi

Qader blew at a cigarette, stuck his head
out the window. Carol wondered why she left
was beginning to see living in peace
with Sandanistas in her father's ranch.
My brother and I up front wondered why
we hadn't killed each other all these years.
We were stuck on the Biloxi highway, mid-July
the AC kaput, and what the radio played
didn't matter, Randy Travis on the rise
declaring the end of disco, Reagan, Meese
Jane Fonda, and the gain in the pain
and we all felt like burning American flags
on behalf of a thousand justifiable causes.
But who cares, we were stuck for hours
stuck in 1982, and what blocked the way didn't matter
and the ocean we went to see was no big deal
a great disappointnent in fact, an ocean
brow-beaten by a river, rumbling, moaning
black eyed, bruised, weighed by Mississippi silt.
And the salty air we came to breathe
did not appear, only swamp algae
and the death smell of moss, the slime
the invisible webs that trapped ghosts
in lukewarm water, the dead who would not dissolve--
Tom Sawyer, not dissolving, Huck Finn
not dissolving, Big Jim not dissolving
Goodman, Chaney, Medgar not dissolving
Cherokee tears floating on top like drops of oil
Lakotas still streaming down, Kiowas
still coming down, Sioux still floating
still in the Mississippi where everything seemed
tenuous, everything seemed it would revert back
to the dreams of sickly pale men and women
back to the nightmares of runagates and domestics
all hanging there, in the air over Biloxi
clinging to crayfish and the gnarled hands of shrimpers.
It sat there ominous, a poisonous lethargy
not far from the town we lived in, which God knows
did not matter, making tomorrow matter even less
as long as we were here the week after and the month.
Next time, we promised, it'll be the Atlantic, next time
some salty immensity, some honest to goodness breeze
the smell of the earth turning around itself,
a clear run to the horizon, a cleans shot to Africa,
to something we could beckon and understand
something the waves would release us from
now that we were stuck here on the Biloxi road
chained, and chain smoking, aware of the sea
we left behind, and that had left us, the Mediterranean,
that other swamp, too far to touch us again,
too far to ever matter.

Copyright © by Khaled Mattawa. Used with the permission of the author.

Copyright © by Khaled Mattawa. Used with the permission of the author.

Khaled Mattawa

Khaled Mattawa

Born in Benghazi, Libya, in 1964, Khaled Mattawa is a poet and translator of contemporary Arabic poetry. He currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet

poem

Somewhere beyond faith and grace there is
the footprint of logic lost in the purest light. 

Not hidden at all, but a vehicle, a necessity, neither
mop nor bucket, but whatever gives the floor its shine.

The sun through the window pours on the floor,
and the wood glistens as if in praise.

2
poem

On the light switch,

her floury fingerprints,

the black receiver held

in a fist of bread.

Then words of wheat

across years of salt.
 

Morning of jasmine, earth-clot, bed of bone.
 

“Fate and faith will strum your cords,

your spinal rope fraying.”

2
poem
The trick is that you're willing to help them.
The rule is to sound like you're doing them a favor.

The rule is to create a commission system.
The trick is to get their number.

The trick is to make it personal:
No one in the world suffers like you.

The trick is that you're providing a service.
The rule is to