In Conversation with Yahia Lababidi
by Saloua Ben Amor
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian- American poet, aphorist and writer. He is the author of 9 books.
Lababidi’s latest book is Learning to Pray: A Book of Longing where you can enjoy reading his stunning
Collection of poems and aphorisms.
KNOT: Can poetry be prayer? If so, what should poets do to say good prayers?
YAHIA: Yes, I think poems can be like unconscious prayers. In that they are acts of attention, awe and gratitude.
KNOT: How do poems create a strong effect on readers?
YAHIA: Through sincerity, for starters. What springs from the poet’s heart reaches the reader’s heart.
KNOT: What is the most difficult emotion that inspired you to write a poem?
YAHIA: Betrayal, heart-ache, mental/emotional/spiritual anguish. Yet, at the same time, it feels natural to turn to poetry to make sense of suffering and, through art, transcend it.
KNOT: Poets can sometimes lose inspiration, what do you do to get inspired again?
YAHIA: Silence. Solitude. Meditation. Nature. Prayer. Reading the poetry of others.
KNOT: What is prayerful writing? Does it have any rules? Can we say that you are the pioneer in this field?
YAHIA: It would be sacrilegious to say I am a pioneer in this time-honored territory. Where would that leave the great mystic poets of various traditions, such as Rumi, Rilke or even Gibran. Prayerful writing is what addressed what is highest or most profound in us. Again, only authentic encounters with the spirit can be communicated. There are no rules in these elusive realms. Only inspiration.
KNOT: Your poems are littered with philosophy. What relationship can poetry have with philosophy?
YAHIA: I began my literary career as a reader of philosophy, Existentialism, particularly. I still view myself as somewhat of a thinker, though I hope not the doubtful, argumentative type. Poetry might benefit from asking the big questions but, unlike philosophy, it should not presume to answer them.
KNOT: One time you said, “I believe that our most profound prayers do not reach our tongue, as they are made with our entire being.” However, in your poem “Words” you said that “every word is a cosmos dissolving the inarticulate”. How do they do that?
YAHIA: Truth speaks in paradox. What we, actually, say or write is only the tip of the iceberg. There are mysteries upon mysteries that lie beneath the surface and words can only hint at that.
KNOT: Did you learn how to pray? How can we pray through art?
YAHIA: Life taught me how to pray, by bringing me to my knees. Now, I only hope to give thanks, through my art, and admit my ignorance before the All Knowing.
KNOT: You are a stunning aphorist. It is said that aphorism needs a lot of wisdom, how did you learn to be wise? Can we say that it stems from your love for philosophy?
YAHIA: Thank you. I define aphorisms as what is worth quoting from the soul’s dialogue with itself. I do not think one can learn to be wise, or that is wise to speak of such matters. Humility might be the first step on this path…
KNOT: A poet, a writer, and an aphorist. How did you learn to become all of these?
YAHIA: Again, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the honest answer is that I do not know. The literary life, I believe, is a calling. I began reading, seriously, as a teenager and the rest is mystery.
KNOT: Many say that language betrays us and it is often incapable of expressing our thoughts. Can poetic language speak the unspeakable?
YAHIA: Yes, I believe poetry is better at keeping secrets than prose.
KNOT: Who is your favorite poet and aphorist?
YAHIA: If you had asked me this question, a decade or so ago, I would have given you very different names. Today, I would say Rumi and Ibn Ata Allah.
KNOT: Which poet or aphorist has most influenced you?
YAHIA: Gibran was an early influence. T.S. Eliot, too, as well as Rilke.
KNOT: What inspired you to write the poem “Dawning”?
YAHIA: A broken heart. I recognized that it was time to leave my old life behind and throw myself into the unknown…
KNOT: In your introduction to your brilliant book Learning to Pray: A Book of Longing, you said that “With organized religion losing ground, all sorts of substitutes rush in to fill the God-shaped hole. One particularly effective and time-honored balm for the aching human heart is literature” How can literature sate our spiritual hunger?
YAHIA: Literature can address difficult to reach regions of the soul, by reminding us of what is indestructible in ourselves, the world and Beyond…
KNOT: Your poems are very tense and loaded with elegant imagery that appeals to the reader’s senses thanks to your versatile metaphors. Is there any process that you employ when you write?
YAHIA: Thank you. I have no process that I’m aware of… I try to listen, deeply, and vacate myself, so that I might overhear better.
Yahia Lababidi is the author, most recently, of LEARNING TO PRAY: a Book of Longing (Kelsay Books, 2021). Previously, Lababidi published REVOLUTIONS OF THE HEART (Wipf & Stock, 2020) a collection of essays and conversations, at the intersection of literature, social activism and mysticism. He is, also, the author of 2 critically-acclaimed books of aphorisms: SIGNPOSTS TO ELSEWHERE (2019) and WHERE EPICS FAIL (2018).
Saloua Ben Amor is a Tunisian educator and holds an MA in Canadian Literature. She is a committed educator and instructor. Ben Amor is known for her translation work in English, French, and Arabic. She will publish in the forthcoming San Diego Poetry Annual, 2022