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Interview with the Tunisian Poet Khadija Ghzaiel by Imen Bennani

KNOT: How did you come to poetry, or she to you?


Khadija Ghzaiel:  As I think of your question, a full storm of strong emotions ravages me. I constantly anguish over how I have almost no memory of how I became the poet I am now.   Reading poetry in front of the people of my home village is the only faceless fragment I could reminisce. a special, possibly chaffy debris from my very early past. 


Then, after writing in Arabic, I turned to write in English with my first encounter with it in high school. I lost all of it, but ironically, I still remember the title of the first poem I wrote in English: “Obliteration”. You see, I have been haunted by a mysterious sorrow which I have always found of fascinating grandeur; a grandeur, I no doubt have no desire at all to abandon. On the contrary, when I feel it is shrinking, I feed it. Poetry is the cave you inhabit though you don't live in; a darkling cave but also a shocking headlamp.  


KNOT: Since you mention 'haunting', some of the recurrent themes in your poetry are sickness, death, decay, pain. Why is that so? Is it a conscious 'choice' or a spontaneous response to some 'echo'?


Khadija Ghzaiel: The other day, in a writing exam for my students, I asked them to write about their most valuable possession. That day, I asked myself the same question: “What's the most valuable possession that I have; that a poet has?” 


When I write, I travel to another land. I leave everything and everyone behind. I relocate myself; retrace the topography of my world. I am my true self when I write, although I may play with that too!


I go to the times I love; to the regions, I feel safe to write in. I mostly write about danger. It is that, the magic of poetry. You are a single dry leaf, but you rejuvenate in another land. For this journey, I take with me my sorrows and my delicacy; I never travel without that bag loaded with my soul vibrancies and pallor. I sit on the top of a hill I call: ‘the hill of my life’. From there, I recollect my childhood memories, the pains I felt and those which I have not experienced yet but might go through thanks to the merit of imagination. From the top of that hill, you summon only what has always enchanted you.


As to the theme of war, it is always present. The poet is a unique creature who identifies with everything and anything, even death.


KNOT: What inspires you Kadija? What are your influences?

Khadija Ghzaiel: I have always pondered how Greek painters imagined art muses. 

While they have portrayed them as ethereal women with divine beauty, in my inner journeys, I cannot ignore the dark faces of poetry. There should be other muses with injured bodies, burnt faces, crippled legs, ugly eyes, dark looks, swollen hearts. For poetry hurts too. It may turn its face against you or lure you and steal your soul before you acknowledge it is mercurial. Indeed, everything can bring you inspiration, even that shallow thing we call nothingness, which is but loaded with noise. 


Once, I felt an eagerness to write but could not. Then, I realized the little pink Sakura in my living room was talking to me. The street I go through every day, that dry tree I adored but which became heartbroken the day it collapsed. The death of a day, the roaring wind from my window, war victims, that fugitive love you hide and hide from, the present, the past which can get you to distant poetic shores as strong as a determined train.  All of these; but still, inspiration is not something you just catch with your hands.

In this context, I recall Ezra Pound's lines:

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough"


I have recently reached a conviction that if I can turn my instant moments into moments of poetic joy, that would mean somehow, I have triumphed over death. 


KNOT: You wrote formerly in English. Now you write poetry in Arabic. Tell us about your relationship with both Arabic and English.

Khadija Ghzaiel: Writing made me realize the great value of language. Even when an idea or a feeling seems impossible to express, language gives you the chance to refine and sculpt it; sometimes in manners unexpected. I am grateful to have that chance and in different ways. I have turned my face to another direction; yet, I still write the winds in English.


KNOT: Tell us about your two poetry collections. What joins and/or separates them?

Khadija Ghzaiel: Nothing remains itself by the law of nature. When I look back at my poems, I obviously see the difference although I cannot explain in detail what happened exactly. In Rasāel Zinbaqah Sawdāa 2017 (Letters of a Black Lily), the poems were longer. My voice was much more narrative than in Laāle Ibrahim 2019 (Abraham's Pearls), my second poetry collection. 


KNOT: What are you working on for the moment? What are your future projects?

Khadija Ghzaiel: I am working on a new poetry collection. Hopefully, it will be published soon. On a personal level, my holiday has just started; so, I intend to take a warrior's rest and spoil myself a little bit.


Khadija Ghzaiel is a Tunisian poet and teacher of English literature. A published author in English and Arabic both in-print and online, she is the former editor of Tanit Boat of poetry and former author at Med Voices. Some of her English poems appeared in Three-line poetry and Moorings Review. She has two published collections in Arabic: Rasāel Zinbaqah Sawdāa, 2017 (Letters of a Black Lily) and Laāle Ibrahim, 2019 (Abraham's Pearls). Khadija Ghzaiel currently lives in KS.


Imene Bennani is assistant professor of English at the University of Sousse, Tunisia. She has contributed with poetry, reviews, interviews, and literary translations in different magazines including KNOT, Sukoon, nas Al-Jadid.

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