‘Poetic Justice’: A Quarter Century of Collecting Moroccan Poetry

The collection Poetic Justice, translated and edited by Deborah Kapchan with Driss Marjane, was published in December 2020 by University of Texas Press:

The collection — which represents a quarter century of work — brings together work by more than 80 contemporary Moroccan poets writing in Darija, standard Arabic, French, and Tamazight. Like Abdellatif Laâbi’s Anthologie de la Poésie Marocaine de l’Indépendance à Nos Jours, it gives a broad glimpse of concerns and stylistic movements in Moroccan poetry. (Read more: ‘Poetic Justice’: A Snapshot of Contemporary Moroccan Poetry)

Below, Deborah Kapchan talks about the origins of the project, her search process, what’s missing, and what she has planned next.

You write, in the introduction, that the Poetic Justice project began in 1994. Have you been assembling the poems for this collection steadily over the last quarter century? Or did the project have several “beginnings”?

Deborah Kapchan: In 1994 I had a Fulbright Fellowship to do research on Moroccan verbal art and performance in Rabat. I had already written on the halqa, the Moroccan performance circle. I had also written on women’s oratory, and the genre of l‘aïta, sung poetry by women shikhat. I thought I would explore Moroccan theater in dialect. I had read the manifesto by Mohammed Berrechid and knew the work of Tayyeb Seddiqi, Touria Jabrane, and others. But the Mohamed V Theater was closed that year for repairs.

Without looking however, I stumbled upon a performance of zajal, poetry in dialect, by Ahmed Lemsyeh and Driss Mesnaoui. I was enrapt. Kan makteb, It was written. They both introduced me to this genre of poetry as well as the movement to write literature in Moroccan Arabic (darija) which, at that time, was in full efflorescence.

I also began other projects that year: researching music and possession trance. I attended ceremonies with the Gnawa. I delved into Sufi practice, attending the first Fes Festival of Sacred Music as well. Given the system of rewards in the academy, which hardly recognizes translation as an art, these projects took precedence in the timeline of my publications. But my passion for poetry and translation never wavered.

Over the years, I expanded to classical Arabic as well as French. It was a labor of love, done slowly, and always in consultation with native speakers and experts.

When I got the contract for the anthology with the Modern Middle East Literatures in Translation Series (CMES, University of Texas), I switched into high gear. 

Why the title Poetic Justice? Is it meant to link us to Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice? When did you settle on it, and how do you see it as fitting this anthology? 

DK: The book was always called Poetic Justice. It just seemed right; especially as the project began with zajal, an oral poetry that was first published in newspapers and journals as social critique — that is, for justice. The genre traces its beginnings to Sidi Abderrahman al-Majdub, a Sufi who wrote quatrains that are seared into Moroccan cultural history.

It was only years later that I read Nussbaum’s work of the same name. She talks about the role of literature in shaping the moral and aesthetic imagination in society. I agree. The title made even more sense than it had before. 

What were the criteria that guided your selections in the anthology? Were there balances you wanted to achieve (regional, stylistic, linguistic)? Did you first look to the poets you wanted to include, or the poems? How did you know yes, this is a poem I want in the collection?

DK: As you can imagine, an anthology of poetry is a very sensitive undertaking. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible; women and men, poets who write in Fausha, Darija, Tamazight and French. Some of the poems, although written, are grounded in the oral repertoire: Ali Chouhadi, Fatima Chebchoub, Tayeb Laâlaj. This is not a book of “high” culture only. It contains the tastes of many aspects of Moroccan society. Hassaniya is missing however. The volume is not complete. 

As for what works best: concrete images that evoke the senses. I am drawn to poetry that moves me, that effects a transformation. That is what poetry is: a shift in perception. It makes us see the world with new eyes. Some poets in the volume already have an important place in history. Some are newer voices. I wanted to be as comprehensive as possible.

What was your discovery process?  

DK: It was not always easy to find the poems. Chapbooks sell out quickly and are often not reprinted. I collected books. I met poets and asked them who they read and admired. Mohamed Bennis donated many volumes that he had published with the Ministry of Culture (his work and the work of others). No one was published on the web in 1994! At first I actually wrote the poets letters, asking them to send me poems. But sometimes it was pure serendipity: one of my favorite poets — Khireddine Mourad — I met purely by accident at a Sufi gathering in the north of Morocco. Of course that’s if you believe in accidents!

You note that there is only one Moroccan poet in Selma Jayyusi’s Modern Arabic Poetry and few also in Issa Boulatta’s Modern Arab Poets 1950-1975. At a glance, there are none in the Everyman Library collection Arabic Poems. Was the relative absence of Moroccan poetry in conversations about Arabic poetry in English translation one impetus for putting together this anthology? 

DK: To be honest, I began this project out of love — for poetry, for the languages of Morocco, and for the work of translation, which is deeply ethnographic and holds the keys for understanding and appreciating our magnificent cultural diversity. Translation teaches us to listen deeply to another vibration. It was only after I had committed myself to this project, that I did my research and discovered that there was a vital need for the translation of Moroccan literature, and poetry in particular, into English. By this time, the work of translation into French and Spanish had already begun.

Can you talk a little bit about how you went about finding Tamazight, Tarafit, and Tashelhit poetry to include in this anthology? 

DK: Ah! That’s a story. As we say in Moroccan Arabic, ma khali-nah fin mashi-nah: we didn’t leave a stone unturned. Tla-nah wa hbut-nah, we went up and down. Of course I eventually went to the Institute of Amazigh Culture in Rabat. I met with Ahmed Assid. He promised to send me his poems, as well as poems of other Amazighi poets. Despite many follow-up emails over the years, he never sent them. To be fair, he had a lot going on at the time, including threats to his life for his outspoken secularist politics.

I also contacted Amazigh scholars in France to no avail. Finally, I got the name of an Amazighi  poet from my dear friend Ahmed Lemsyeh, who has never lost faith in this project despite its long incubation. He called Mohammed Ougrar, who put me in touch with someone in Agadir. Mohamed Farid Zalhoud had already translated many poets from Tashilhit into French. He sent me his texts, and I went to work!

Can you talk about the different processes of translation with the different poems? Those that were in French, those in Darija, those in standard Arabic, those in Tamazight? How did you and Driss Marjane work together, translationally? Did you use performance as any aspect of the translation process? Other oral or auditory practice? How did you work with the (living) poets, if at all? 

DK: I believe in collaboration. Life is a co-labor; so is art; we do nothing alone. It’s humility that opens doors and hearts, not hubris. Ethnography has taught me this: to listen deeply, to pay attention. I have talked at length about the poetic process with several of the poets in the volume, and it has added depth to my understanding of their oeuvres. Most of all, it has enriched my life immeasurably.

When I began this project in 1994-95, I was keen to translate zajal while honing my Arabic. I met El-Houcine Haddad, then a student of law. (I had met his brother Lahcen in Indiana where I had been a visiting professor in 1992.) El-Houcine was a popular culture enthusiast and gave me many insights into the allusions present in zajal. He is a father now, and working in Rabat.

Driss Marjane came to the project ten years later in 2005 when I was living in the Fes medina. He was a graduate student then as well, studying with Fatima Seddiqi. (I had asked Fatima to recommend her most brilliant student to assist me.) I wanted to make sure that I understood the nuance of the poems in Fausha as deeply as possible. Driss was trained in Arabic linguistics. He and I sat side by side, both of us consulting the Hans Wehr Dictionary for many, many consecutive summers. I then translated the poems into a contemporary American idiom. Driss is now a professor at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fes and has three children!

Despite the fact that my daughter is Amazighi (from the Beni Iznassen tribe), I do not speak or understand Tamazight. I have had to rely on translations from the French. This is not ideal, but it was the only way forward.

The texts in French I translated more or less alone, though I had many native speakers around me to consult when I needed to verify my intuitions. I discuss this at more length in the Introduction to the volume.

Of course I have attended poetry festivals in Morocco. I have heard some of these poems read. My scholarly specialty is in oral literature, poetics and music. Poetry, whether written or not, is like a score: it is necessary to listen to its rises and falls, its rhythms and pauses. I have spent a lifetime tuning not just my ear, but my entire being, to Moroccan cultural expression. It inhabits me. Ana maskuna. I’m possessed!

It’s wonderful that you also have the originals of many of the poems on your website, deborahkapchan-poeticjustice.com/. Why did you want to make them available? 

DK: Originally my hope was to publish a tri-linguial volume. As the project grew in size and scope, however, this became impossible. The book would have been more than 800 pages long! So we decided to make the originals available on my website: deborahkaphan.com.

You write that “with a few exceptions, the youngest generations of poets are not represented here. That is a future project.” Can you tell us anything about that project?

DK: The translation of new work is a perpetual project, and I hope to be translating work all of my life. ( I have a file entitled “To Translate” on my computer.)

A volume like Poetic Justice however is a great undertaking. For the time being I have returned to my own work as a writer. I am writing a memoir about my life in Moroccan Sufism. It’s called Maqam and is already more than 95,000 words in length. I hope to finish it by the summer.

Find readings of the poems and their originals at deborahkapchan-poeticjustice.com/.