Poet and IU alumnus Khaled Mattawa awarded ‘genius grant’ as 2014 MacArthur Fellow

Khaled Mattawa, who earned his MFA in poetry at Indiana University, was recently named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow. This year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded unrestricted grants of $625,000 to 21 individuals who demonstrate exceptional creativity in their work.

The foundation called Mattawa a “cultural ambassador” whose masterful translations make the beauty of Arabic poetry accessible to those who read English.

Surprise!

The 1994 graduateĀ said, “I had no inkling that I was being considered.”

Mattawa, now an associate professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said, “I had just finished teaching a class, and had an hour to prepare for the next class. I turned on my cell phone to call my wife, and the phone rang right then.”

Khaled Mattawa

Khaled Mattawa, photo by Khairy Shaaban

On the line was Cecilia Conrad, the MacArthur Foundation’s vice president in charge of the fellows program. “I called my wife and told her, ‘Reem, the MacArthur people called’ and she said ‘Who?’ I said, ‘The MacArthur,’ and she said, ‘Well what do they want?’ and then said “Oh, oh, oh.”

“So, suffice it to say, it was an incident that made me and my wife not exactly speechless, but definitely ineloquent.”
It was a rare moment, in more ways than one.

Eloquence is Mattawa’s trade.

He has written four books of poetry, “Tocqueville,” “Amorisco,” “Zodiac of Echoes” and “Ismailia Eclipse.” He has translated nine books of contemporary Arabic poetry and co-edited two anthologies. Mattawa also wrote the book “Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation,” which examines both poetry and Palestinian identity.

Indiana days

Though his professors and mentors at IU have retired or moved on, Mattawa has fond memories of his time in the MFA creative writing program. “I worked with Yusef Komunyakaa and David Wojahn, who were the best teachers a young poet could have.” He also said he was inspired by “the joy for life and poetry” of his translation professor Willis Barnstone, distinguished professor emeritus of comparative literature and Spanish and Portuguese.

“It was a tremendous period of growth for me,” he said. “I felt I needed to prove myself and also to catch up.”

During his time here, his poetry appeared in magazines, he worked on his first manuscript and began a first translation project. “I worked very hard, and given all the entertainment and arts opportunities in Bloomington, I also played hard,” he said.

Good news in bad times

For Mattawa, an added benefit of the MacArthur Fellowship has been hearing from friends, associates and even complete strangers in his native Libya. Many said the announcement of the award was uplifting to them in a time of “tragic and disappointing news” in their own country.

“What was most amazingā€¦ was a letter signed by the Fiction Writers Union of Derna, who sent the warmest congratulations. Derna is a city encircled by a local group loyal to ISIS. To receive such a note from people in danger, and to have the award be so meaningful to them can only be humbling,” he said.

“This collective sense of joy around me is really a reminder that I could not have gotten anywhere without the help of many teachers and colleagues and even students who made time to help me improve my work.”

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