[First appeared in Poetry Nook, Vol. 3. --ed]
We are honored to interview Yahia Lababidi this month, author of the recently released collection of poems, Barely There, which explore a variety of spiritual, meditative, natural, and other topics, in typically concise and impactful form. In this interview, he expands on the spiritual and philosophical development that led to his collection, as well as the “chrysalis” state of his current growth. We follow the interview with a brief selection of the poems included in his book, which we highly recommend reading.
In some poems, such as “What If” and “Embracing, We Let Go,” you hint at a spiritual struggle or development. What has been your spiritual evolution over time? How has it influenced you as a person, in the choices you’ve made in life, and as a poet?
This is a big question, and I’m not sure such deep movements of the soul withstand being discussed directly, but I’ll try. Yes, this new book is a document of a spiritual struggle or development, as you put it. For years, I worshipped at the altar of the mind, and now something stirs that is overthrowing the tyranny of the rational. In one of the poems in Barely There, called “Expedition,” I sum it up this way:
After decades of exploration,
discovering I stand at the shore
of intellectual knowledge
before an infinite sea
of the esoteric.
An alternative title for my book of short poems was In Chrysalis to suggest this transitional period that I’m undergoing. Also, there’s another poem in this collection, “Kneeling in Stages,” which serves as a kind of resume of my inner life and speaks of me better than I do myself.
So as not to sound needlessly elusive, I will add that I am a cultural Muslim, but was not raised as a practicing one. As a matter of fact, as a young man, I distanced myself from religion as a way of protesting against the type of religiosity that prevailed in my part of the world, and I generally did this through my readings in Existential philosophy. Only very recently, do I find myself fed up with the mind and its chew toys and returning to the mystical branch of Islam (Sufism) by way of Persian poetry and also the lives of (Christian) saints. I cannot really speak further of this evolution, since it is still occurring, but no doubt this force is reflected in my writing, as it is in the process of rewriting my soul.
In “Breath” you seem to find spirituality in nature. How do you think about nature in relation to you, and to humans in general?
There is a Persian mystic, Al-Ghazali, who describes well the spirituality found in nature, saying: “this visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow.” So, if there is consolation and inspiration in the natural world, it is because it mirrors the invisible world of the spirit and serves as a portal to access it.
What kind of relationship exists between creativity and spirituality, in your opinion?
Another fine, and vast, question. Creativity, as I understand it is amoral. It plucks its fruits from everywhere, without asking where they come from and what good they might be. Spirituality, perhaps, is about inhabiting a natural state of creativity, one that is more concerned with our moral development, and the revelation of the hidden relations between things.
Do you think there is a connection between poetry and prayer? How do they affect each other in your life?
I think of poetry as prayer. To write is to bow is to pray; bow so low and you kiss the sky. In fact, prior to this collection, I collaborated with a friend and fellow aphorist, Alex Stein, on a book of conversations called The Artist as Mystic. In this series of dialogues, we examine the spiritual dimension in the lives and work of thinkers and poets, such as Nietzsche, Rilke, Kierkegaard and Baudelaire.
We also see some influence from Eastern thought in “Exchanges,” among other poems. How have you integrated different belief systems in your own life, whether religious or philosophical?
Western philosophy, my first love, is slowly being replaced by Eastern mysticism, Nietzsche by Rumi. Perhaps it is odd to say this but I see in Nietzsche a stunted Rumi. I am drawn to the captivating contradictions in both, the serious play, their radical ecstasy. But I see the example of scholar-become-poet, who then goes on to make of his life a work of art, more fully realized in the figure of Rumi.
In “Egypt,” you talk of your “self-exile” yet the inevitability of remaining part of your cultural heritage. What prompted your “exile?” What are some of the ways your Egyptian heritage continues to influence you in daily life and as a poet?
I left Egypt nearly eight years ago because, quite frankly, I was gasping for air and it felt like something had to give. As it turned out, everyone else felt the same and that something was Revolution. What I did not realize was that, by being away, I was deepening my longing and appreciation for my culture. Also, as a result of the current upheavals, ex-pats such as myself find they naturally gravitate to the role of cultural ambassador or explicator, keen to communicate the Egypt we know and love, as we sift through the many distortions and contortions that are presented in both foreign and local presses.
What are your thoughts on the changes underway in Egypt?
Difficult times. I maintain that the Revolution was absolutely necessary and recognize, ruefully, the revolution-fatigue I see setting in, where people are settling for the unsavory choices of Muslim brotherhood, or military rule, two faces of unfreedom. Yet, neither of these thought-dictators represent our uprising, nor do they offer a vision forward of unity, dignity or peace. I am heart-broken as I see how divided people are becoming and how they rationalize the senseless violence being committed. This is not the Egyptian character I remember and I hope during these trying times, when we are battling for our souls, we remember that *how* we fight for freedom determines *who* we become.
Your poetry does not have a lot of explicit political discussion, but there are some lighthearted reflections on issues like racism in “Skin” and commercialism in “Truth in Advertising.” What do you think is the role of the poet in discussing societal and political issues or in keeping the art and the society separate?
I wrestle with this question on a regular basis. I think poorly digested politics make for bad art. At the same time, I think it unconscionable for the artist to fiddle while Rome burns, so to speak. Striking the right balance has been tricky, but I’ve found it easier to address issues of the day (politics, culture, etc…) in my prose, as the poetry I do not own.
For readers who might be interested in my prose meditations on the role of artists in times of political crises, or commentary on Egypt throughout the years, here are a couple links:
In “Hothouse” you talk about poets you cannot stand. What are your thoughts on the currents of contemporary poetry? What types do you like and dislike? What are you trying to accomplish as a poet?
I don’t perhaps read as widely as I should when it comes to contemporary poetry, but the advantage of that is that I am always discovering new poets / poems I admire. (Here’s a virtual library where I recite some favorites: https://soundcloud.com/yahia-lababidi). What I like in poetry is what I like in people: profundity, humor, attention to language. What I dislike in verse, similarly, is what I am not fond of in persons: superficiality, sentimentality and, in regards to language, a sort of gimmicky self-consciousness. What am I trying to accomplish as a poet? Goodness; to Be more fully, I suppose, and in some small way, perhaps help others also to do so.
What do you hope readers take away from your work? Do you aim to teach or to provoke thought in your audience?
I think in order to teach that cannot be your stated aim. But, I do believe in provocation, challenging assumptions and “telling the truth slant.” I think it’s not easy to speak to ourselves, and that we sometimes need to devise ruses. Poetry, at its finest can do this and bring us into contact with a larger reality. Then, if we’re lucky, help us to transform, too.
Most of your poems are extremely brief. Do you think a shorter form has more impact? Do you think this is inherent in the concentrated intensity of shorter poems or do you think it reflects the changing tastes of contemporary readers as they have become accustomed to smaller bites of information?
All of the above.
To begin with, I’m an aphorist at heart and always try to whittle matters down to their essences. Further, the poems in this book were, to a large extent, inspired by the constraints of social media, specifically Twitter – so, I’ve found the 140 character limitation an invitation to create poetry in miniature. In this way, the poems in my new book are “barely there,” on the page, the way their author is “barely there” off of it.
Who are your major poetic influences? We saw a quote from Rumi in your book and a reference to “the Way,” which we assume to refer to Daoism. How have mystical poets influenced you? How about other types of poetry?
Yes, Rumi and the Persian poets exert a great influence on my being. Also, Rilke means a great deal to me; as he says “We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.” Otherwise, Eliot was a formative influence and Rimbaud, and I still return to all the usual suspects who set me alight as a teenager. Spiritual tourist that I am, Daoism is also a source of inspiration as is Buddhism. If I had to pick a single book, at the intersection of poetry, philosophy and the sacred, it would be Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. I regard it as inexhaustible and am struck anew by its fruitful paradoxes with each reading. Simply, I think it gets at the heart of life in ways that nothing else does.
What are your major non-poetic influences–whether people, other literature, events, etc.?
I think, if we pay attention, everything/everyone has something to teach us. Silence has been one of my greatest teachers; Solitude, too.
What are your plans for future work, whether in poetry or elsewhere in life?
After around a decade or so of aphoristic silence, I’m back to secreting these brief arts through the pores. In fact, I’ve a book’s worth of meditations on art, morality, and spirit, and am taking my time to find the right publisher for such a project. Otherwise, I haven’t a clue what comes next. More listening, deep self-diving for pearls.
Before we wrap up, we would like to give you a chance to speak to young poets who grapple with faith and writing. Madeleine L’Engle noted that when one is given a gift, one is obligated to serve that gift. Do you agree with this and do you think young poets should follow the idea that art is a type of service—either to be honest to their own potential, or to use what has been given to them?
Yes, I passionately believe that art is a calling and a life of service. In fact, this is the premise of my conversation: The Prayer of Attention
My advice to young poets would be that, to honor the gift and be worthy of it, they must give of themselves, whole-heartedly, and hold nothing back. The more deeply you know yourself, the more you are able to truly reach others. The more fearlessly you share of your findings, the more likely you are to make an authentic connection with a stranger; in turn, liberating truths that are not just about you, or me, but us. Lastly, I would add that part of knowing ourselves entails working on ourselves - training the self and liberating the soul. So that we can answer Yes, when a winged poem approaches us and asks: Can I trust you? Is your heart pure to carry me, are your hands clean to pass me on?