UArizona poet Farid Matuk named USA Fellow by United States Artists

Farid Matuk, a poet and director of the University of Arizona's Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing, has been named a 2024 USA Fellow by United States Artists.

The Chicago-based organization's mission is to "illuminate the value of artists to American society" by offering fellowships intended to recognize artists of various disciplines for their contributions to the "cultural fabric of the country." Each fellowship comes with an unrestricted $50,000 stipend.

Matuk, an associate professor in the Department of English, in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said his fellowship is a strong affirmation of his pursuits as a writer, and a clear indication that people connect with his work.

A middle-aged Syrian-Peruvian man with buzzed salt-and-pepper hair and mustache wearing a button down shirt.

Farid Matuk said being named a USA Fellow is a strong affirmation of his pursuits as a writer, and a clear indication that people connect with his work.

"One of the things that makes this a great honor is that you can't apply for it," Matuk said. "You have to be nominated anonymously. That means that my work is circulating and earning the kind of attention and readership that would produce this opportunity."

In addition to writers, USA Fellows pursue architecture and design, crafting, dance, film, media, music and theater. Nominations are anonymous, and applications are reviewed by discipline-specific panelists. This year's fellows are based in 22 states and Puerto Rico and include both emerging and established artists and creators.

"With this year's cohort of USA Fellows, we are thrilled to support a group of artists who, in their diverse approaches and contexts, offer invaluable modes of healing, expression and collaboration," said Judilee Reed, president and CEO of United States Artists, in a statement. "Together, they invite us to join them in imagining endless possibilities for ourselves and our communities."

Matuk is the author of the poetry collections "This Isa Nice Neighborhood" and "The Real Horse," and of several chapbooks, including "Is It the King?", "My Daughter La Chola" and "Riverside." His work has been anthologized in "The Best American Experimental Poetry," "Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing," and the Library of America's "Latino Poetry: A New Anthology," among others.

In addition to his USA Fellowship, Matuk was previously the recipient of Ford and Fulbright fellowships.

"Farid’s work is experimental in all the right and most fun ways," said Ander Monson, professor of English. "Not a chore but an adventure, pressing against and often straddling the boundaries of genre, and I’m thrilled to see him so recognized by the USA Fellowship, which seems almost perfectly designed to nurture work like his. His work doesn’t easily fit into academic categories, which I’ve always understood as a strength, and as a result he’s able to articulate truths some of us have a hard time articulating about culture and language and community and harm and beauty."

A 'lonely kid' who found comfort in poetry

Matuk's literary journey began in high school when his cousin gave him an anthology of U.S. poets printed for the Bicentennial. Matuk remembers one poem in particular, "Eleven" by Archibald MacLeish, having a particularly lasting impact.

In the poem, a nameless, mute child who endures hatred from his family finds solace in a gardener's shed by exploring the sights and smells of the farm tools. The gardener eventually discovers the child but leaves the young boy to his exploring in a moment of tacit support.

As a self-proclaimed "sad kid in high school," Matuk found comfort in that moment.

"I was a lonely kid who was out of phase with the culture around him," he said. "That child received care in the form of privacy from an adult man, and that's the way the poem hit me. Being a fatherless kid, I think it resonated with a deep need in me."

A child of Peruvian and Syrian decent, Matuk was brought to the U.S. by his mother when he was 6 in order to escape his father's violence. The family, including Matuk's aunt, became naturalized citizens in 1987, but not without facing cultural, economic and linguistic displacement in Southern California.

Despite a difficult childhood, Matuk found great success academically. He is the first person in his family to graduate high school and earned an undergraduate degree from the University of California-Irvine before graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin.

While his childhood bred in Matuk a desire to achieve academically, those difficult years also fostered in him a "certain sensibility" for observation that was nurtured into the artistic vision of a writer.

Matuk's own journey from observation to poetry took true shape after college when he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and spent a year in Chile studying the legacy and work of Pablo Neruda. Matuk said he left for Chile an "aspiring intellectual, thinker and a critic" and returned to the U.S. with an interest in expanding his own creative writing.

Now, Matuk uses his poems to challenge readers – and himself – to "travel through contradictory impulses and sit with the contradictions."

"The more that I write, over the years, I want to risk using contradictions to work myself into moments or declarations of what feels like 'truth' and to just say them as clearly as possible," Matuk said. "Can I hold contradictory things in my poem, will they push me to a moment of clarity? I want that for myself, to learn what my life is, what I am witnessing and what I am enmeshed in. And I hope that somebody who reads my poem might have a similar trajectory through the piece, understanding that any moment or declaration of truth is hard-won but also provisional."

A memoir on the way

After a long run with poetry, Matuk said he looks forward to a change in genre with his next project: a memoir that explores his friendship with Lyndon W. Barret, a scholar and professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Riverside, who was killed in 2008.

"Lyndon was a mentor and close friend," Matuk said. "I will be writing about everything I think I learned from him and try to piece through the legacy he left in my life. It's a very painful project that is bringing me back to a grief I should have felt in 2008 but didn't and couldn't. But it's also a great way to reckon with what it means to be a middle-aged person around younger people, what doors are open and what doors are not."

Matuk is proud of his own accomplishments, but said his success is due in major part to the Creative Writing program and his colleagues – many of whom have their own prestigious awards and fellowships.

"These awards are so precious and so generous and so appreciated, but they obscure the network of influences and co-creation that is really happening when any one writer is working," he said. "It's not just that we influence each other, I really believe that we write shoulder to shoulder, and each one of us is responsible for part of the larger story. I hope this award can be a way to honor that collective that is invisible or obscured by awarding a single author. It's really what we're all doing. I have so many writer-heroes that are my contemporaries, that are my ancestors, and there's no way that I am interested in singling myself out from them. It's more of an honor to be thought of as working shoulder to shoulder with them."