Jassim Al-Souhaih: Poetry is the oxygen of the soul

"When I experience a creative block, I feel powerless on all fronts, falling into deep melancholy."

Saudi poet Jassim Al-Souhaih.
Saudi poet Jassim Al-Souhaih.

Jassim Al-Souhaih: Poetry is the oxygen of the soul

How long could you survive without oxygen? How about poetry? To Saudi poet Jassim Al-Souhaih, the two are interchangeable – both key life sources indispensable to his existence.

"Poetry is the soul's oxygen,” he tells Al Majalla. “It makes me feel alive. When I experience a creative block, I feel powerless on all fronts, falling into deep melancholy."

As for how he maintains this oxygen, he adds, "It’s a constant concern that never ends, never rests, and never settles. Our creative energy reserves, which store our poetic oxygen, are limited and can only be sustained by constant cultural nourishment. That’s what I strive to do, whether reading or experiencing life. That’s how I stay in touch with poetry, no matter how challenging my circumstances.”

This life-sustaining relationship with the written word has turned Al-Souhaih into one of the most renowned poets in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.

This life-sustaining relationship with the written word is what has turned Al-Souhaih into one of the most renowned poets in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.

He's earned over a dozen awards, including the Best Poetry Collection in Al-Babtain Prize for Poetic Creativity and the Souk Okaz International Prize for Arab.

Despite the accolades, Al-Souhaih believes that he doesn't seek awards at the mountain's peak. "They simply symbolise our ongoing endeavour to ascend. They motivate us to continue exploring new territories," he says.

Restless exploration

To date, Al-Souhaih has 14 collections of poetry to his name.

Some of these titles include Tadarees Al-Hathayan (Landscapes of Delirium), Al-Tuyur Tuhalleq Fi Al-Masyada (Birds Soaring in a Trap), 'Inaq Al-Shumu' Wal-Dumu' (The Embrace of Candles and Tears), Hama'im Taknus Al-'Atamah (Doves Sweeping the Darkness), A'shash Al-Mala'ika (Nests of Angels), and Kay La Yamil Al-Kawkab (So the Planet Doesn't Tilt).

Each one contains a multitude of topics and explorations, never languishing in one spot for too long.

"From the beginning, my relationship to poetry collections has been based on the belief that the poems within them should be as diverse as life itself. I tend to avoid printing a literary work or collection whose entire poems revolve around a single theme," he says.

He believes that when readers buy a collection, they desire to "journey through the streets of life via its poems, not to remain strolling in one place." On the other hand, he contends that single-topic collections also have a well-earned place in the literary world, with many admirers.

"For instance, the collection Al-Jidariyah (The Mural) by the great poet Mahmoud Darwish represents a singular literary work. It's considered, by some critics, his most significant collection," he says.

As for Al-Souhaih, he is always preoccupied with painting with words and creating images that play in the reader's mind. These images are derived from his "personal definition of poetry, which is the closest to myself. Poetry is a human experience presented in a musical, rhythmic, and symbolic language. Poetry is the process of transforming an idea or vision into an image."

And yet, it's never a direct or literal image – but rather, a suggestive one.  "That's what frees the reader's imagination," he says.

Historical figures

Al-Souhaih often borrows inspiration from ancient history. He summons Sufi luminaries such as Rumi and Al-Hallaj. Venturing further back, he evokes the final moments of the philosopher Socrates from before the Common Era.

"We cannot write devoid of a heritage that encompasses symbols, myths, facts, and events," he explains. "Personally, I've called upon many characters from our heritage, either in poetic dialogue with the characters themselves, as in my poems about Antarah ibn Shaddad, Al-Mutanabbi, or Al-Ma'arri, or through the surprise appearance of other characters, such as Al-Hallaj, our Mawla Jalaluddin Rumi and Tarfah bin al-Abd."

We cannot write devoid of a heritage that encompasses symbols, myths, facts, and events. Historical narratives and myths are the intellectual ammunition that a poet arms himself with to enter the battlefield of poetry.

Jassim Al-Souhaih, poet

As for how he decides who of these to include, he looks at the predicaments they've lived through, and finds the ones that most closley resemble his own.

"For example, Al-Ma'arri is the quintessential metaphysical poet because he lived in a struggle with the unseen and wrote about it. Therefore, in the moments when I feel haunted by metaphysical thoughts, I summon Abu al-Ala' al-Ma'arri and argue with him in my text," he says.

Al-Souhaih also explores and interprets major historical events through his poetry, such as the story of Cain and Abel, the journey of Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality, Noah's flood, and much more.

"Historical narratives and myths are the intellectual ammunition that a poet arms himself with to enter the battlefield of poetry," he says. "Leaning on these influences, and using them skillfully, enhances the expressiveness of the texts and lends them beauty."

Contemporary issues

Back in the present day, Al-Souhaih also engages poetically with contemporary issues and catastrophes occurring in the Arab world. But his approach to this is more complex.

"Creativity loses much of its beauty when it is confined to a religious, political, or social issue because it only responds to the emotional moment experienced by the creator. However, it is important to know that creativity also has human roots. It's not just hallucinations or delusions that strike through our heads and are then spilt onto paper," he says.

"Poetry is not beholden to a social goal or an ideological framework. The more it aligns with a particular cause, the more it risks losing its intrinsic poetic essence.

"However, poetry, at the same time, is not neutral in its view of life and the world around it. Based on this, I write about every issue, and I address it as if it were fundamentally a poetic issue. I approach it with a whisper of suggestion, instead of an explicit shout.

"I try to humanise the issue, allowing it to escape ideological entanglements and find solace in the realm of poetry."

Al-Souhaih believes that the poem is endless – much like life itself is endless.

"There is a secret thread that extends between life and the poem. A poet cannot possibly express all of life, so the poet will continue toiling in the fields of poetry. Poetry shall endure until the last human departs," he says.

There is a secret thread that extends between life and the poem. A poet cannot possibly express all of life, so the poet will continue toiling in the fields of poetry. Poetry shall endure until the last human departs.

Jassim Al-Souhaih, poet

However, he adds that for poetry to become an "everlasting river" for any writer, the writer must be able to "carry the shovel of his culture, dig into the ground and plough through the fertile soils of language, and reach the springs within them that converge into the river of poetry."

As for Al-Souhaih, poetry seems to be the only creative outlet he is entirely devoted to.

"I attempted writing novels and plays, but I didn't have the passion to succeed. Perhaps it was because I lacked the tools to work in those fields so that I couldn't continue," he says.

Throughout his journey, Al-Souhaih has held onto one crucial habit – reading.

"Reading is the main source that nourishes the well of talent, ensuring its continuous flow. But it can create a mental barrier to writing poetry, too."

"Poets must maintain their sensitivity, ensuring that the infusion of cultural knowledge into a poem doesn't overshadow its poetic core. After all, poetry begins where knowledge ends."

New culture

Fans of Al-Souhaih will soon be able to catch him on television again, on the new cultural channel Al-Thaqafeyah.

He previously presented a programme titled You Are the People, where he interviewed Saudi poets from various generations.

"The new programme involves preparing and presenting episodes about an elite group of Arab poets from pre-Islamic times to the modern era. It will be aired on a new cultural channel launching in Saudi Arabia in September, as part of the MBC network," he says.

Al-Souhaih says that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has "transformed into a dynamic cultural hub that reflects the magnitude of the massive cultural changes that the country is witnessing at the moment."

"At the same time, it communicates the new cultural strategy adopted by the Ministry of Culture based on the vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. May God protect and preserve him."

He adds: "The Ministry has established associations for each cultural sector, with the number of these associations announced reaching approximately sixteen professional associations across many non-profit cultural sectors. Among them is the Literature Association, which serves as an umbrella for literature and writers in Saudi Arabia, similar to writers' unions in some Arab countries.

"Additionally, the ministry has opened the door to obtaining permits for launching cultural associations on a social level."

He further explains: "The ministry's cultural vision has changed from the traditional one, limiting cultural activities to an evening of poetry, short stories or novels, or mere critical seminars aimed at the educated elite.

"Instead, it has embraced popularising culture and an openness to all contemporary civilisational achievements at the cultural level. It has worked on global cultural awareness, and attempted to make Saudi society known to the world through all forms of artistic expression, such as fashion, Saudi cuisine, music, folk singing, and more – all without society losing its authentic heritage and identity."

As for Al-Souhaih, he is most looking forward to the launch of the Saudi Literature Association – under which he will oversee several activities – as well as spearheading his upcoming television programme.

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