Yahia Lababidi, Egyptian-American thinker/poet, is the author of 6 critically-acclaimed books and has been featured on PBS NewsHour, NPR, Best American Poetry, World Literature Today, On Being with Krista Tippett, The Guardian and Al Jazeera, among several other places.
His forthcoming book, WHERE EPICS FAIL, is to be published by UK publisher, Unbound, in partnership with Penguin Random House, and has been endorsed by Richard Blanco, Obama’s inaugural poet. “Epics” is now available for pre-order.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I could hold in my hand and share with others, what I previously carried in my head and heart. After 5 books of different genres (essays, poetry, conversations), over nearly two decades, I am returning to writing another book of aphorisms. It is different in that I no longer worship at the altar of the mind, and don’t mind professing ignorance and bowing before the Spirit.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Growing up with a Lebanese father, Gibran’s Prophet was an early introduction to poetry (in my teens) followed by Wilde’s De Profundis and TS Eliot Four Quartets. As Eliot says: ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ It stirred me to the depths, without my fully knowing how or why.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Prose (essays, etc…) requires structure, mapping out all I know, creating outlines and fleshing them out. Poetry appears from thin air. It lets me know when it’s ready. The harder it is to write, the more I suspect that I am stealing from myself, and picking unripe fruit.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I proceed in fits and starts, I get bits and pieces, an image, a line, here, a limb or a tail there… I do not fully understand what I am working on until it’s complete. My books, too, are not so much composed, as they are cobbled together.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Shy show-off that I am, on paper, I still struggle with readings. It seems unfair not only to lay one’s heart bare, and reveal all your secrets in books, but also to have to stand completely naked under strong lights, in a room of clothed strangers, and confess one’s strange sins.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The poem teaches the poet. I write to learn what I know. Liberation and transformation are giant themes that occupy me on the page and off. Each time one sits to write, it’s a wrestle to set the ego aside, the limitations of specificity, and an attempt to practice the art of dying, anew.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Witness, Conscience, Voice for the voiceless.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It depends. Ultimately, if they are sensitive to the work, and able to set their ego aside and serve the writing, it’s a gift. Here is Nietzsche weighing in: I think artists often do not know what they can do best, because they are too conceited… their love and their insight are not of the same quality.”
So, it’s a matter of pruning. Or to mix metaphors, and I can’t remember who said this, but a good editor rescues the fire from the ashes.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write what you know. Up to a point. And, then, vacate yourself, and let what you don’t know be written through you.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
Different genres represent different stages of our life, intensities, or facets of our personality, perhaps, even our being. Not a wholesome practice to divide one’s self thus, but I used to think my essays were my mind, my poetry my heart, and my aphorisms my soul.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
None. I have no routine or typical day. Reading helps, sometimes; other times, silence.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading, and silence.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home is Egypt, which I’ve not returned to in over 11 years. I suppose, complex spices and exhaust fumes.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Silence is a great master, and of course, Everything Else! But one must pay attention, and listen closely, so that they might overhear the Conversation of All Things that is always taking place. This is what good art does. It takes a pebble in the road, or a human being, and it concentrates on them until they begin to glow. I think the concept and the notion of blushing is very important in art, and in my kind of art. You know, the artist concentrates on the detail of the object until it blushes in the way the love object blushes when a lover gazes at it with that particular intense gaze. That is what art should do. It should make the world blush and give up its secrets. - John Banville.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Increasingly, mystical utterance, specifically, the Sufi saints (mystical branch of Islam).
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I don’t know if I’m capable of a children’s story, or a play, but I’d like to try my hand at them one day. Perhaps, if I find the right collaborator, co-conspirator.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I wanted to be a lawyer, a singer, a monk. I suppose the writer that I am is a mix of all three.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I write myself sane. Anne Sexton.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: The Revelation of the Veiled, an early Persian treatise on Sufism.
Film: Perfume, already 11 years old, from a purely aesthetic POV, I found to be heady and hallucinatory and intensely lyrical
20 - What are you currently working on?
Where Epics Fail: Aphorisms on Art, Morality and Spirit, over 800 aphorisms composed over the last decade or so, that are in the process of rewriting my soul. It is now, available for pre-order; and, as a thank you, those who pledge on the book’s webpage will have their names included in the back of the limited hardcover edition.