Arabic Poets at Luminato

Arabic Poets at Luminato

Arabic Poets
June 17, 2011

Award-winning poets discussed craft, the art of translation, in an evening of onstage readings

Patrick Connors – Toronto: On Tuesday, June 14, the TIFF Bell Lightbox was host of Arabic Poets, one of the highlights of this year’s Luminato Festival.

Award-winning poet and translator Khaled Mattawa visited Luminato to discuss the art of Arabic poetry. Mattawa is the long-time translator of 06/LuminatoAudienceAdonis (the Arab world’s most famous poet and favourite for the Nobel Prize). Mattawa was joined by Lebanese-Canadian poet John Asfour, and Libyan novelist and poet Hisham Matar, whose novel In the Country of Men won the inaugural Arab American Book Award.

“When I knew that we were going to focus on literature from the Arab world, I also wanted to make sure we included poetry,” said Devyani Saltzman, Curator, Literary Programming, Luminato. “Arabic literature began with Arabic poetry. I’m very excited that Dionne Brand, recent winner of the Griffin, hosted three amazing writers – John Asfour, Khaled Mattawa and Hisham Matar. I approached the writers individually and they were thrilled to attend.

“Dionne has moderated for Luminato literary events in the past and she seemed a natural choice for this event. In addition to her work as a poet and a writer, Dionne has a wonderful political awareness that also lent itself to this discussion. John is Lebanese-Canadian and both Khaled and Hisham are from Libya.

“The theatre spaces in the Lightbox are very elegant and very intimate. The four participants were seated in a living room setting and read excerpts from their work interspersed within a bigger discussion about poetry from the region.

“Luminato is about multi-disciplinary events that are both local and global. The panelists and the venue (a poetry event in a cinema space), and a subject that is not something you would find in the everyday arts scene, makes this Luminato.”



John Asfour

John Asfour is a Lebanese-Canadian poet, writer, and teacher. At the age of 13, a grenade exploded in his face during the Lebanon crisis, leaving him blind. Asfour is the author of four books of poetry in English and two in Arabic. He translated the poetry of Muhammed al-Maghut into English under the title Joy is Not my Profession, and he selected, edited and introduced the landmark anthology When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry. John Asfour resides in Montreal.

I asked Mr. Asfour if this kind of an event could bridge the gap between East and West, at least in poetry. “One event will not do it. We need to probe more, have more openness. Arabic culture is one which has survived on poetry and literature, on how deep that canon of writing is. My colleagues (Matar and Mattawa) are lucky to have two cultures and multiple translations of poetry of work with. The study of English literature is a fascinating topic for me, but modernism started in the Arab culture in the 9th century. Many of the challenges and questions of modern literature were being addressed then.

“The problem with poetry is that it’s quite regional. Even in this country, what gets published and read in the East is not being read in Western Canada, and vice versa.”

Hisham Matar was born in New York in 1970 to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo. He has lived in London since 1986. In the Country of Men has been published in twenty-two languages, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2006 and the Guardian First Book Award.



Hisham Matar Photo Credit: Diana Matar

I asked Matar how important the art and science of translation is to poetics as a whole. “Phenomenally important, both in reading and in writing poetry. It’s hard to speak of in such general terms. However, things I read when I was young, the things which mark me now, were all written in translation. When opening a discourse such as this, the outcomes are impossible to know until afterwards. Parochialism seems to be the default in any culture.”

Khaled Mattawa is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Tocqueville (2010), and the translator of nine volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry. He is the recipient of the 2010 Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize and a Ford/United States artist for 2011. He was born in Benghazi, Libya, and in 1964 immigrated to the United States while in his teens. He received an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University and a PhD from Duke University,
and presently teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Mattawa is the author of four books of poetry, Tocqueville (New Issues Press, 2010), Amorisco (Ausable Press, 2008), Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable Press, 2003) and Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press, 1996).

He has translated nine books of contemporary Arabic poetry by Adonis, SaadiYoussef, 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. His work has received much recognition, including the PEN American Center prize for literary translation, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Alfred Hodder fellowship from Princeton University, an NEA translation grant, and 3 Pushcart prizes. He is the recipient of the 2010 Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize and a Ford/United States artist for 2011.

Like Brand, Mattawa also appeared at the Griffin Prize Readings; in his case reading the shortlisted Selected Poems of Adonis, which he translated.

“Poetry is the most nationalistic of all art forms,” he said, “in that people write the way they speak. New poetry can introduce communities to each other. Intellectuals are not local anymore.

“I wasn’t familiar with Dionne Brand until recently. Since then, I have read part of Ossuaries, and think that it was worthy of winning the Griffin Prize. I am delighted that she is the host for the evening, and curious as to what questions she will ask.”

Asfour read his poem “Daffodills”, which he proclaimed to be, “the only poem (of mine) I’ve ever memorized.” Then, Brand read several of his poems, including, “Call to Mind”, which she proclaimed to be one of her favourites; one could clearly see where she had dog-eared the page in her personal copy, although she had not been expected to read for Asfour. Whether read by Asfour or Brand, his poems resonated with layers of profundity, the audience mesmerized
by the words and living practice of a master.

Matar read from his novel Anatomy of a Disappearance, in which the protagonist’s father has disappeared. The poetic quality of his writing came through in the perfection of his reading style and voice.



Khaled Mattawa

Mattawa made a joke about this being the midnight special, in reference to this theatre’s other life as a film festival venue. He then read four of his poems with a sense of ownership and increasing passion which I did not hear from him when he translated Adonis’ poetry – perhaps due to a sense of awe on Mattawa’s part. Most striking was, “Ecclesiastes”, brilliantly evocative of the biblical book on the folly of man’s wisdom, where he wrote of “the rule” of dealing with circumstances in life contrasted with “the trick”.

Then, Brand asked three questions of the esteemed panel, the final of which was, “Is literature more urgent now, more of a need than ever before?”

“Not more so than at any other time,” Asfour said. “There is a certain irony in that writers are slower thinkers than the rest of the population, so we spend more time to put out a poem. We can’t just push it out with a button.”

“For me, there is a distinction between my roles as artist and citizen,” said Matar. “As a citizen, I am a journalist, and say what I think. As a poet, my identity is not a function behind the work. The work does what it tells me to do, and this I put down.”

“I wrote a poem about the Libyan revolution,” said Mattawa, in a rare foray away from keeping the evening about poetry as opposed to politics. “Doing this raised a series of questions that I am not sure will have a lasting effect. Libyan poet Fatima Mahmoud wrote such powerful things in the 70’s, at the height of Gaddafi’s suppression of the people. Everything she wrote still rings true today. I’m really interested in poetry creating a consciousness; poet’s I’ve translated who have stood the test of time.”

One night will not bridge the gap between East and West, even a night as special as this. But opening a dialogue is always healthy, and it was inspiring being in the presence of these excellent artists and people.