‘Poems for the Millennium 4′: On Choosing Work for a New Maghreb-focused Anthology

Poet-translators Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour have recently assembled a new anthology: Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature (2013).* We exchanged emails with Pierre Joris about how it came together:

ppoemsArabLit: Although the title is “poems,” you include a broad range of materials. What was your primary criterion: giving a “full view” of the literary picture at any given time/place, or the aesthetic qualities of each individual submission, or…?

Pierre Joris: I don’t think those two views are exclusive, or necessarily contradict each other. How do we judge the aesthetic qualities? Especially when we are dealing with works from a different culture often far removed in space and time? And in translation, in a situation in which it is notoriously difficult to render the original aesthetic qualities — i.e. Arab poetry, for example, has always been closely allied to oral & musical traditions, with very complex formal elements in terms of verse forms, rhyme schemes, etc. which it is impossible to bring over at this point into English as imitation of strict measures & rhyme schemes would make for doggerel.

So, beyond simply ferrying over some “general meaning” (if a poem can in truth be said to possess such a thing — well, a “general meaning” shouldn’t be called a “thing” it’s much too vague a floating non-signifier for that) and some specific images, the translation has to also translate the original aesthetics and vision of the artist into a contemporary equivalent, and explain, via specific commentaries, but also through the inclusion of other types of materials (the “adab” sections, for example, and other proses distributed throughout the book), what the context for such work was, what is lost in translation, and why it is still relevant today.


When Jerome Rothenberg & I started the Poems for the Millennium series, our idea was to create anthologies that gathered work that in some way or other, formally or content wise or in some other way, “made it new,” i.e. widened the possibilities of poetry, invented new ways of saying, of singing things, more accurate to the world we’re in. Call it experimental, or avant-garde, post-avant, innovative, whatever, that was the idea both in terms of the work gathered and in terms of the conceptual and formal framework of the anthology itself — as against the traditional anthology that aligns work (either alphabetically by author or numerically by author’s date of birth) that by general critical applaud was called “the best” or the most “beautiful,” or “influential,” whatever, because it came closest to some sense of a “masterpiece.” Habib & I have tried to keep that sense of “making it new” alive in this book too, although as it covers 2 millennia and not the very period that saw the emergence of the concept of the avant-garde, it is more complex. But experiment and avant-garde are endemic to all good art — and I very much agree with Adonis when he says that what in the West is given as the origin of the modern, the avant-garde, namely the moment of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Whitman & Co. in the late 19C, had happened in Arab literature a thousand years earlier with the great Baghdadi poets who similarly invented new forms and contents, singing city-life, boy-love, wine, etc. — all supposedly the topoi of Euro-American modernism.


Just one example from the anthology: the muwashshaha poems of al-Andalus were a new form that arose in the new environment of Spain and that broke with the traditional Arabic ghazal & experimented with meter and rhyme — plus, they added those multilingual closing stanzas, the kharjas,  which could be in Arabic, Hebrew or Romance, in contrast to the language of the rest of the poem — a totally new form and one totally accurate to the cultural shape of al-Andalus. It is, by the way, these muwashshaha that, imported into southern France, will give rise the poetry of the troubadours.

So to get back to the first sentence of your question: our criterion was the new, the fresh, the unheard of — & this could be the work of individual poets conscious of the traditions they came from & needed for some reason — cultural artistic or political reasons — to alter, to expand or change, or it could also be the work of a community inventing a world, a cosmology in their tales, as in the oral traditions of the Amazigh peoples, or it could be what Ezra Pound called “the tale of the tribe,” and in our case, for example, the still active tradition of the oral epic of the Beni Hillal, the tale of this nomad tribe moving toward the end of the first millennium from Yemen into the Maghreb — tales still told today with local variations created by individual singers in Tunisia or on the Algerian high plateaus.

AL: For instance, you choose a poem of Khaled Mattawa’s, and it’s “East of Carthage: An Idyll.” Of course Khaled Mattawa, but why that work among his works?

Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris

PJ: Not easy to recall exactly why we picked that poem of Mattawa’s, though I can remember for my part several reasons: first off, it’s a solid, strong poem of considerable skill & lyrical sweep — that’s a good reason to begin with. If you read it carefully, you’ll notice that we have only picked some sections, which make sit obvious that this is a long work, in fact a book-length poem — with some heft, and not just a a good pleasant lyric. It is  a poem that speaks to the history & identity of the Maghreb, detailing the locale and the local, while having a near-epic sweep, in the way Pound spoke of the epic as a “poem that includes history.” This too is important qua choice, in that beyond its own intrinsic qualities qua poem, it adds context to the anthology, fleshing out the multicultural thinking that underlines the region and that we try to reproduce.

AL: Where did you search for the poems and texts you wanted? 

PJ: Everywhere — I’d say, if I wanted to be glib, though that wouldn’t even be an inaccurate statement. We literally searched everywhere in the libraries and bookstores of the Maghreb & the old colonial power France, at the 42nd Street Library here in New York & various US University libraries, at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, scouring the internet, calling people up, etc.
The contemporary work was the easiest to find: both Habib and I have collected, bought, been given, whatever, considerable amounts of contemporary poetry from the Maghreb. I started buying books even before I moved to Algeria in 1976, after I roomed at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris in 1966 with the Moroccan poet Mohammed Khair-Eddine who introduced me to maghrebi literature. And I have continued to do so ever since. We both are also in touch with a wide range of poets and scholars throughout the Maghreb & Europe, go to many poetry festivals, hang out with poets, publishers and translators, and so on. The only problem has been with Berber poetry, as it is more difficult to locate and to translate. But there is a wide community of poets and writers both in North Africa and in Europe that we are in touch with and were able to draw on.

AL: You note in your introduction that many of North Africa’s cultural achievements have been “disappeared” from the historical record, cut off from our contemporary understanding of N. Africa. One of your central goals is to re-appear some of this material…but also is it to create a continuous chain, by linking classical and contemporary poets in one volume?

PJ: Yes, indeed — that is one of the aims. I don’t know how well we managed to do this with our smallish means and inside the compass of one limited book. So we hope that  rather than be put down or criticized for what is not in the book, or for imperfections, areas not well enough covered, or whatever errors congenital to the genre of the anthology we are guilty of, readers will be energized by what’s in the book and spurned on by its lacunae to fill these out by bringing forward, editing, translating, publishing, in one word, by adding to a growing corpus of work from the Maghreb.


You propose “a continuous chain” — I’m not worried about continuity, like any culture only even more so, the Maghrebian space and time is a discontinuum,  i.e. there is no such thing as a homogenous culture, and North Africa’s richness lies exactly in those ruptures, discontinuities, those multilevel, mille-feuille layers of languages & provenances. The current danger, very visible if you follow the news is exactly the desire of fanatic religious groupings (with imported Salafist ideologies) to reduce this richness to a puritanical unreal and impossible fiction that only leads to killings of peoples and their vibrant cultures — look at Timbuktu and what happened there recently — or look back at Algeria in the nineties and the great blood-letting of that decade.

AL: Sometimes you use triangulated translations (trans. from the French, which was trans. from the Arabic). Why that vs. going back to the Arabic? What were you primarily looking for in the translations…a more academic “fidelity” or a poetic one?


PJ: Our Diwan Ifrikiya  is a collection of very varied texts, poems, proses, historical narratives, travel descriptions, philosophical treatises. Whenever there were good extant translations, we would use those; old 18th or 19th century translations we would update to make the texts more readable today. A range of materials, especially in the oral sections, but in other diwans and books as well, are at this point only available in French versions, usually done by anthropologists or ethnographers in the 19 or early 20C. Having a sense of the originals, we would retranslate those versions to bring them into the present — certainly my collaboration over the years with Jerome Rothenberg, and my study since the late sixties of his approach to translating such materials, as masterfully proposed in Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin and other anthologies, has informed my own ethnopoetics approach to this matter. Most authors and texts are accompanied by a commentary, which should help in providing context for a more informed reading of the translations.

I don’t think there is a question of a difference between what you call “academic” or “poetic” fidelity to a text, because to translate a poem and make it a poem in the new language, which is the aim, one has to know as much as possible about it, and that involves also all the so-called and very varied “academic” knowledges, that some may posit would harm the “poetic” side of a translation, just as one has to be cognizant of what contemporary poetry is doing at its finest and most experimental edge, so as to be aware of the great range of formal possibilities open to the translator.

I have been involved with literary translation for close to half a century now, and also know from experience that translation is always contingent, time-bound undertaking. I am right now revising translations in another area of poetry that I first made in the late sixties, had revised already several times for different publications, and review today again.

AL: These sorts of anthologies sometimes strike me as overwhelming. With a collection of an author’s work, I feel I can get myself around it, can get it inside me, but with this I’m afraid it might take a lifetime. But perhaps it is like speed dating, meant to introduce me to many different poets, make connections…


PJ: Well, they are indeed overwhelming if you think of poetry as slim elegant volumes of smallish lyrical pieces. but that is only one possibility for poetry, and in my mind, not the most interesting of lively one. Yes, this anthology, like the other ones in the series, is big and might feel overwhelming, but these volumes are meant to be read over time, explored, savored, dipped into or studied intensely in certain parts at certain times, depending on what the reader needs or wants. The important thing being that this kind of book be there, exists, be available — so, no more excuse for ignorance about the cultures of that part of the world.  And the hope is of course that readers, with translators and publishers and other actively interested parties among them, will want to look more closely at authors that interest them particularly, translate more, eventually publish individual books by these authors, and so on.

AL: As I read your intro, I thought it might be interesting to create an anthology that binds North African and European poetic traditions, with metaphorical if not scholarly links. Do you know of any such project?

PJ: Our book does some of that, and in a rather radical way, I would like to suggest. Remember that the whole poetry and literature of al-Andalus, one of the opening sections of the anthology, is work done in Europe, i.e. Spain. As we make clear —against canonical conservative and still mainstream European scholarship, it is the Muwashshaha poems and the Andalusian Arab tarab, i.e. song tradition, that lie at the origins of the troubadour poetry of Occitan France, which, as Pound showed long ago, was the beginning of the European tradition of the lyric, from Provenza (the term used by Paul Blackburn as title for his troubadour translations) over to Italy, Dante, etc. And certainly the contemporary Maghrebi poets are not simply influenced by the avant-garde traditions of European literature in the 20c, but have also been very active in advancing & enriching & giving new life to these lines of experimentation — I have for a long time maintained that the most interesting, most inventive & innovative writing in that old European language called French has been happening in the areas of the ex-colonial empire, be that the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa or, and I believe most intensely & richly so, the Maghreb.

*An earlier title referred to the Maghreb, as the collection is indeed Maghrebi and does not include Egypt and/or North Sudan.

Pierre Joris is a Professor of English at SUNY, Albany and an acclaimed translator and editor. as well as the author of many books of poetry. He is coeditor of UC Press’s highly successful first two volumes in the Poems for the Millennium series.

You can read an excerpt from the anthology on the publisher’s site.

Categories: Algeria, Libya, Morocco, poetry, Tunisia


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,951 other followers

%d bloggers like this: