Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian/American poet who has continued the long-held linkage between Middle Eastern culture and aphorisms. For his work, he has been nominated twicefor the Pushcart Awards, poetry’s most prestigious prize. Lababidi sat down with eniGma’s Mahmoud Al Badry for an interview that delved into poetry’s powerful resonance, as well as the influences on his writing and his poetic journey.
What drew you into poetry?
I believe that the artistic life is a calling, and a life of service. Specifically, there are many factors that conspired to make this possible. Part of it is nature: I was named after my paternal grandfather, Yahia Lababidi, who was a celebrated poet and musician. Part of it is nurture: I was raised in a fairly creative environment, with my parents hosting an informal literary salon. Khalil Gibran was an early and inescapable influence. Then there were various poets, novelists and philosophers that I felt called out to me as a young man, such as Herman Hesse, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Franz Kafka. Increasingly, I drew sustenance and inspiration from Sufi saints and mystics.
Do you view poetry as a method of expression or is it a tool to teach or provoke?
It’s how I make sense of the world around and inside me. The poem teaches the poet. So, I write to learn and then share what I have learned. More and more, I am coming to think of poetry as a way of giving thanks or praising.
Were you surprised that your work has resonated with so many people?
Words, I believe, have a life of their own and are able to touch strangers. Invariably, what I think is too intimate to publish, is what will connect with strangers. This emotional vulnerability is what I believe the public expects from artists, to speak their silences and give shape to their longings.
Do you think your mixed heritage has benefited your work?
I think so, yes. While I regret that I cannot write in Arabic, I am influenced by the musicality and richness of the language. Growing up in Egypt, I was enamored by proverbs and how they managed to condense so much wit and wisdom in a line or two. Living in the US for the last decade, at this particular moment in history when there is so much unfortunate suspicion of and even hatred directed at the Muslim/Arab world, I also feel some responsibility to act as a sort of bridge between East and West, and for my poetry to serve as a form of peace-offering towards healing our collective wounds.
Do you feel that putting work into a book prism adds to its value compared to releasing each poem or aphorism on its own?
A book gives you a broader idea of the writer’s concerns and style, at a particular stage of their career. Read together, all my books will give a fuller picture of my development as a thinker and poet. But for me, as a writer, what is most interesting is always my next, still unpublished book – where I hope to encounter my future self and collect an additional piece of the puzzle to help me better understand where everything fits.
In retrospect, what kind of impact do you feel that your journey has had on you?
In leaving my life in Egypt behind 10 years ago and moving to the US, I’ve been gifted a new life. In a sense, I feel that everything to date has been apprenticeship and my true life might just be beginning at 42.