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Arts and Entertainment, Reviews

Contradictions coalesce into confabulations: Khaled Mattawa’s Libyan-Arabic-American poetry

Born in Libya, raised in Louisiana. Majored in political science and economics, mastered in English and creative writing; Khaled Mattawa’s life is one of opposites. His poetry, which he read to a small audience in Yeager Recital Hall on Feb. 24, deals with such contradictions. The narrator of any given poem could be a woman behind a veil, an American man, a child, a nurse or a tree. The setting could be a bustling city or an abject refugee camp.

Mattawa’s poetry is strong enough to read on its own, but hearing it spoken by its original creator makes the words come to life. The audience sat in captivity at the sound of the words, the cadence falling in natural rhythm, like breathing.

Mattawa also translates poetry from the original Arabic into English, and it was clear when he read older works where the inspiration for his poetry’s tempo came from. Several times he had to restart the beginning of a poem by an ancient author in order to get the feel just right.

The mood was perfect, as were the choices of words, the delivery and inflection. Mattawa is not only a masterful poet, but an excellent speaker.


What inspires you in your writing?

“In a way – I am interested in the world. I like to talk about the big picture. I like giving testimony. Maybe my testimony will help someone.”

Describe the process of translating poetry.

“You can’t get inside the author’s head. The author can’t get back in the author’s head after completing a poem. You just have to go off of the words.”

How did you begin writing poetry? Your background is in political science.

“Luck. I got interested in writing later in life. I was interested in writing articles and short stories, so I took a writing workshop class. I never looked back from there.”

From “Ecclesiastes”:

“Everyone is a Gypsy now. Everyone is searching for his drive.”

From “Tocqueville”:

“They’ll shoot at it first out of fear, and then from the pleasure of shooting at it. That’s what happened to us.”

More about the big picture.

“Talking about the big picture made me enter being more of an American citizen.”

Written works: 

“Tocqueville” – 2010
“Amorisco” – 2008
“Zodiac of Echoes” – 2003
“Ismalia Eclipse” – 1995



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