KR Conversations

Khaled Mattawa

Photo of Khaled MattawaKhaled Mattawa currently teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan. He is the author of four books of poetry and a critical study of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Mattawa has coedited two anthologies of Arab American literature and translated many volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry. His awards include the Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is the current editor of Michigan Quarterly Review. His poem “Fuel Burns” can be found here. It appears along with four other poems in the July/Aug 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Fuel Burns”?

I was researching the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean for a series of poems. And when I learned of how thousands of migrants had experienced this particular kind of suffering I felt that I needed to write a poem about it.

You mention that this is an erasure poem based on a blog post of the same title by Dr. Sarah Giles. She wrote about the difficulty of wrapping fuel burns, especially on people who were smuggled out of Libya. Can you talk about how you first found her work, and the relationship between your poem and the original post?

As I was writing the sequence of poems, I tried to break it down into the many stations, if you will, of the experience. I read everywhere I could to learn of all the various stops and movements and of the dangers that take place in each. I thought I’d known about everything that went on the boats until the phrase “fuel burns” began to appear. I found several mentions of the experience, but Dr. Giles was the most effective. As I whittled or rephrased some of the writing, I was keen to let the images simply speak for themselves. I did not cut off a lot of her language. It was simply a matter of making it a tighter description.

The people in this poem are poised on the verge of danger, for instance: “Women sitting in the bottom / or the center of the boat / are at highest risk.” Dr. Giles’s post says most people expect these to be the safest part of the boat, but in overcrowded spaces, people are at risk of drowning in even a few inches of water. Similarly, the fuel burns seem to appear before your audience, even as the gasoline is just beginning to spill at the poem’s opening. Can you tell us about positioning the people at the heart of this poem, and the tenses you chose, especially in the format of an erasure?

Taking up the middle of the boat would seem like the safest spot. And perhaps that’s part of the tragic irony of the situation because that’s where people get the fuel burns, and where these rigged zodiacs are more likely to split apart. As I worked on the poem I had to choose from among the details, and how much context to provide, and I opted to provide almost no context, except what can be gotten from the other poems in the sequence. I also felt that for the poem to be a stand-alone poem, its tone had to be as objective as possible so to really capture the horror of the whole experience. Here restraint becomes a signifier of the so much that is not told. So in that sense, the idea of an erasure is not a matter of compressing the details, but also compressing the emotions as well. The poem ends with the image of a latex glove being dissolved by the mixture of fuel and salt water. It’s also a point where the person who is protected loses their protection. That’s where I wanted to leave reader, feeling the glove burning under their fingers.

How has your writing changed since you started out?

I’m working on my fifth full collection of poems. The previous one appeared ten years earlier. I think I simply gave myself time to change, and I willfully wanted this book to be different, as I wanted all my previous books to be different. I just had to be patient, and in some ways, with every new book I have had to learn how to write poetry again. This approach to my writing—starting from scratch and being patient—has always been the same, and it’s what makes the poems and the books change. I hope so, in any case.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?

Travel, reading non-fiction, and a general, but inconsistent sense of pessimism about the world.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?

Philip Levine once told me, “Don’t ever find your voice.” I think this was a great piece of advice. The best I ever got.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next?

I’m still finishing up my new full collection of poems—which will be coming out from Graywolf next year. At this point, the projects in the distance are mere mirages. I will chase after them when I’m done with the book.