Habib Tengour: “I’m Not Seeking Sophistication or Charm, but the Correct Expression, the Effective Image, the Sounds and the Appropriate Rhythm”

This month saw the release of a newly translated collection by the celebrated Algerian poet, Habib Tengour, translated from the French by Delaina Haslam and Will Harris.

The book, Consolatio, is a selection of poems from his as-yet unpublished longer collection, and, as publishers the Poetry Translation Centre write, includes a “mix of playful poem-puzzles and longer prose poems reflecting on forms of loss”.

ArabLit Editor-in-Chief, Marcia Lynx Qualey, spoke to Habib about the new collection and his lifetime of writing.

By M Lynx Qualey

Congratulations on the release of your collection, Consolatio! This collection is often playful and light-hearted, although it also contains laments for the lost, others and selves. How do these elements fit together—play and loss? What is the relationship between playfulness and consolation?

Habib Tengour, a man with gray hair and thick black eyebrows in a light beige shirt, looks at the camera. Next to him, an image of the cover of his new book is imposed. It is light green with orange writing.
Habib Tengour and his new collection

For me, play is a very important element of writing. It is essential to enjoy the act of reading a text. Playing with words creates a distance with subjectivity. The gravity of the subject matter is reinforced by the apparent lightness of the form.

Why Consolatio for the title? Should we approach the collection as mourners?

A consolatio is a literary genre. It is a type of elegy, like the threnody or ‘rithā’ in Arabic poetry. This type of poem is intended to console the loss of a loved one. But the reader doesn’t necessarily have to approach the text from a position of mourning. The aim, rather, is to release this mourning, to soothe the reader, and to bring them joy and comfort.

In “Le rempart de Sebti,” you write, « Il faut te mettre sérieusement à l’arabe, me dit-il à la pause-café. Autrement tu resteras toujours infirme » … Has your relationship with Arabic—as a language and a literature—changed over the decades?

It has only become deeper. Don’t forget that I was educated in the colonial era when Arabic was not taught. I ‘suffered’ through the French Jacobin Republican school, where only the French language was permitted. As a child, I memorized verses of the Quran, without understanding them. Quranic school helped me to acquire the rhythm and sounds of the language. It was only by taking an interest in the North African oral tradition and the mu’allaqat, which cradled my childhood, by being immersed into the different North African dialects, and then later by meeting poets from the Near East, that my grasp of the Arabic language improved.

How has your approach to writing changed through the different collections you’ve published, and are there particular shifts you mark in them? Moments when your focus or style have changed?

It’s up to readers and critics to decide whether my writing has evolved or transformed over time. What I can say is that it took me a very long time to become more or less satisfied with what I was writing. It took me a long time to find my way (and my voice) which is to simply say things, even if they might seem impenetrable or sophisticated. I’m not seeking sophistication or charm, but what I’m always searching for is the correct expression, the effective image, the sounds and the appropriate rhythm.

Here, you use poetic constraints, and even reference it in your poems (e.g. “Acrostics are good” in the opening of the collection). The story of poetic modernity has often been moving away from shared poetic constraints (gravitating more towards, perhaps, individual poetic constraints). What do you appreciate about them? And what do you like about acrostics in particular? I suppose I had always associated them with school assignments!

I feel like modernity is not so much about moving away from shared poetic constraints as subjecting [poems] to their own constraints. Each poet imposes constraints and tricks. The formal work of the poem is always a constant questioning and readjustment of constraints. I use acrostics for the proper names of those I evoke; the letters become independent, the way they would in a talisman, and open the verse.

Your poems are often dedicated or reference specific people – friends, poets, historical figures. How do these ‘interactions’ come about? Do you imagine the people first, and write toward them, or do they emerge in the process of writing the poem?

My poems are mostly intended for someone, or to evoke shared moments of happiness or sadness. The trigger is always a powerful emotion like the assassination of several of my poet friends, and the death of others. It can also be a declaration of love or a form of anger against some injustice. However, I try to avoid subjectivity so that I can maintain some distance, and I always slip in some little hints of humor.

With which writers is your work in conversation who we might not immediately see on the surface of this collection?

Firstly, all the authors who are mentioned directly, such as Homer, Mahmoud Darwish, Michel Deguy, Youcef Sebti, Tahar Djaout, Nabile Farès, Mohammed Dib, Kateb Yacine, Malek Alloula, etc. But also implicitly mentioned are Hölderlin, Seféris, Octazio Paz, Tarafa, Imroul Qays, John Donne, and many others who haunt my unconscious.

How do you feel about co-translation, in this collection and otherwise? Have you ever co-translated work? How does it seem to change the process, and the result?

In terms of this collection, Consolatio, I found that the translators did very well. Personally, I translate on my own and in discussion and reviewing the translation with the poets [I’m translating] each time. You can say that, in a sense, it’s a type of co-translation. I don’t think that translating in pairs changes the translation process, I would say that it enriches it and the result can only be better.

In a 2021 interview at Iowa, you talked about how the next generation fills you with hope. Which young writers (or publishers, or booksellers) are filling you with hope?

In this interview, I was thinking of Algerian youth in general, of their dynamism, their political maturity and inventiveness despite all obstacles. They showed this during the two years of the Hirak, by demonstrating peacefully without giving in to provocations.

Among the young writers, Mustapha Benfodil’s work is very interesting. The recent books by the poet Samira Negrouche are strong. As for young publishers, I must pay tribute to Karim Chikh and his wife Samia Zennadi of APIC editions who didn’t hesitate to support and promote the collection that I offered them, “Poèmes du monde”.

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Since his initial departure as a child, Habib Tengour has lived the majority of his life between France and Algeria. He returned in 1972 to carry out his military service and then to teach at the University of Constantine, where he has been a professor of sociology and anthropology. He now spends roughly half of the year in each country. He is the author of over fifteen books of poetry, essays, and drama, and his work has been translated into several languages, among them English, German, Italian, and Arabic. His work includes “Exile is my Trade”: The Habib Tengour Reader, edited and translated by Pierre Joris, and Crossings, translated by Marilyn Hacker. With Pierre Joris, he edited Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature.

M Lynx Qualey is founding editor of ArabLit. 

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