Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli: ‘Without experimentation, the poet digs his own grave’

As he finishes edits on two new works of poetry, Zoli shares his creative process, and the wisdom that comes with knowing when to set down his pen.

Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli
Peter Csuth
Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli

Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli: ‘Without experimentation, the poet digs his own grave’

Despite having published more than ten poetry collections, Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli is still preoccupied with an existential question: "Do I write poetry, or does poetry dictate what I write?”

As he puts it: "A poem is not a house cat that follows its master whenever he pleases, nor is it a fine leather wallet that the rich put in their pockets and take out when they want." Instead, a poem is choosy – it decides when, where and how it wants to be told.

For Zoli, these poetic whims have come to him for decades, starting with his first collection, Gradually Towards the Earth, in 1996. He has since titles such as Personal Guards for Solitude and Trees Fleeing the Maps, among others.

Al Majalla speaks to Zoli about his style, creative process, and recent book, ‘Emergency Exit - Open Texts’.

You opted for prose poetry as your poetic style. Did you consider other methods?

A poet who is content with one style is a poet who does not look to the sun or the future. True, I was never one to burn through writing stages at random. I started by writing traditional poetry with rhymes and minor and significant variations. But as soon as I noticed my writing becoming repetitive and monotonous, I ventured into metered verse. And because I believe in innovation, I eventually turned to prose poetry.

'Infamous Songs' by Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli.

I don’t take credit for this. The spirit of adventure has always been in me. He loses everything when the flame of adventure goes out from the poet's soul. He relapses and retreats into a lonely, miserable corner where he’s trapped for the rest of his life. Without experimentation, the poet digs his own grave.

How do you view prose poetry?

According to Nietzsche's description, I aspire to convey in ten sentences what others say in a book. I think the new poem renounces the luxury and excessive extravagance of eloquence, which can ruin a text. It is moving steadily towards word economy, which completely abandons anything that serves to distract from the essence of a poem.

According to Nietzsche's description, I aspire to convey in ten sentences what others say in a whole book. 

Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli

Some poems tend to diverge from the path of beauty, resulting in a different message than what the writer had intended to convey. The writer's imagination, while inherently ambiguous, poses challenges in accurately expressing their vision, leading the reader astray and into various confusing passages that don't align with their creativity.

How do you end a poem, and decide it's finished?

A poet has to know when to put down his pen. He has to learn to erase rather than prolong. The poem knows no chatter; the time for epic, lengthy poems is over.

When I finish writing a poem, it seems to me that the sorrow and misery recede from the faces of the people, the winds pray peacefully amidst the fields, and the storms close their eyes to the deserts. At this moment, seagulls emerge from the sea in front of the fishermen and the luggage is freed from the burdens of travel.

Ibrahim Zoli.

As soon as I finish writing a text, I feel my humanity and that I am, once again, part of the world of the living. It's like I've completed a military mission, or like I'm an Olympic champion who has set a record in a race.

A poem doesn't always end quite how we think it will. The ink refuses to dry, and it continues to follow you. Yes, it ends in a way, but for a long period, there are additions and revisions. That's why I learned to shorten my texts instead of making them unnecessarily long.

You recently published the book Emergency Exit - Open Texts. Can you give us a glimpse into it?

There are meanings, insights, and perhaps ideas that require other channels, other forms of expression than poetry. I did this in my book Makhraj Al-Tawari' (Emergency Exit), and added the subtitle Nusus Muftuha (Open Texts). Perhaps because it is an open term that encompasses all literary genres, including prose, poetry, and Shathra art, with many visual arts such as cinema, imagery, and plastic arts.

You might notice that in his letters to Milena, Franz Kafka distanced himself from his language and the fantastic world that characterised his narrative masterpieces such as The Metamorphosis and The Trial.

However, these letters are characterised by a great linguistic rigour and eloquence that appears within limits, just as Rimbaud did in his letters to his sister, Isabelle. Saadi Youssef, (Mahmoud) Darwish, and Nizar Qabbani also followed their path, and carried out their experiments in prose, regardless of the specific form of prose.

I am also an avid reader of novels, especially international novels, and I read them perhaps more often than I read poetry. This is because timeless works of fiction are full of poetry, storytelling, philosophy, and even cinema.

I am an avid reader of novels, especially international novels, and I read them perhaps more often than poetry. This is because timeless works of fiction are complete with poetry, storytelling, philosophy, and even cinema.

Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli

Anyone who reads the works of Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison, Kenzaburo Oe, and J.M. Coetzee is hesitant to embark on the adventure of writing.

Imagine when the Argentine writer Borges was asked: "Why don't you write novels?" He said: "I can't because I'm lazy and novels require effort. After all, we write what we can, and, in my opinion, it is essential that only four or five pages remain of what each writer writes."

We know that J.D. Salinger wrote his novel The Catcher in the Rye over a period of ten years. That's about the same amount of time it took Margaret Mitchell to complete her famous work, Gone with the Wind. The French poet and novelist Victor Hugo spent twelve years writing his timeless work, Les Misérables.

Many poets, including Ibrahim Nasrallah, Ali al-Muqri, Abbas Beydoun, and Charbel Dagher, were fascinated by the charm of storytelling.

If the missing spark returns to poetry, what would those who gave it up do? Will poetry accept their remorse and welcome them, or will it rebuke and banish them forever?

Do you think that the awards allocated for novels in the Arab world have contributed to the explosion of novelists?

Storytelling in the West began before the birth of Christ, but none of its theorists claimed that poetry was dead. In our Arabic literature, according to the most optimistic claims, the novel appeared as a complete art form with its own conditions only a century and a half ago. Yet we have a feverish debate about the idea of "killing poetry" or "death of poetry."

These awards have driven quite a few semi-creative authors to write novels, some of whom had never published before and had no experience in any literary genre. They are solely motivated by market demand or "what the public wants." "Established" novelists produce novels every year, and their publishers submit them to these competitions in the hope of winning awards. This pattern is shameful because it involves the commercialisation of creativity, which they coldly offer as a sacrifice at the altar of profit and gain.

In recent years, however, this obsession has waned significantly. Cultural observers noted a decline in the publication of novels, suggesting that it was more of a passing trend, a response to market demand and the whims of some Arab publishers, which, like any consumer product, were created haphazardly and without consideration for higher artistic values.

How important are festivals and poetry evenings to you?

Every poet, regardless of his level of fame, aspires to recite his poems in front of people because his recipients and their moods can validate the poem.

Ibrahim Zoli with the researcher Mohammed Al-Qashmi at a book fair.

This applies not only to poets who have a wide readership but also to those who write prose poems that are better read than heard; the pacing and presentation of these poems are designed to be enjoyed in the written word, not to be recited aloud.

But I say that even these poets, while writing prose poems, did not isolate themselves from the public and poetry evenings.

You were a member of the Poetry Forum Committee of the Jazan Literary Club. What did you want to achieve there?

For nearly fifty years, literary clubs in the Kingdom have played a cultural role among writers, showcasing creative talents across all genres. They have hosted poets, thinkers, storytellers, and published novelists, as well as organised seminars and festivals.

For nearly 50 years, literary clubs in Saudi Arabia have played a cultural role among writers, showcasing creative talents across all genres. They have hosted poets, thinkers, storytellers, and published novelists and organised seminars and festivals.

Saudi poet Ibrahim Zoli

One such club is Jazan Literary Club. Through my membership in the Poetry Forum, my colleagues and I organised poetry festivals and critical readings, inviting some of the most prominent cultural figures from the Kingdom and the Gulf. The great poet Mohammad Al-Ali was also honoured.

However, there is a risk that these institutions and their cultural and artistic counterparts will disappear. This phase requires significant changes, such as the establishment of cultural and civilisational centres, which represent the rapid growth happening in various areas.

What makes the Saudi poetic scene unique? How did the transformations that took place in Saudi Arabia affect the creative scene?

Saudi poetry is an integral part of Arab poetry that expresses the nation's identity and consciousness. It is an important and necessary component of history deeply rooted in human heritage.

Ibrahim Zoli with the great poet Mohammed Al-Ali.

The transformations that Saudi Arabia has witnessed have had a significant impact on the creative scene in general and poetry in particular. The Kingdom has experienced remarkable economic, social, and technological developments, which have led to changes in the lifestyles, values, and concepts of its citizens, hence impacting cultural dynamics.

However, as is well known, poetry does absorb huge changes quickly, and poets take a long time to react to them. I am talking about real poetry, rather than occasional poems.

Nonetheless, the Saudi poetry scene has evolved significantly in recent years, becoming more diverse and responsive to current realities.

The profound transformations that have taken place in Saudi Arabia have also enriched the cultural scene and renewed its vitality. There is no clearer evidence of this than the official declaration of this year as the Year of Arab Poetry.

I believe that this decision is considered exceptional and unprecedented and confirms without a doubt that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to advance towards human development, forging a historic alliance with the future.

Do you have any new work planned for the near future?

I am working on the final revisions of two works of poetry. I hope they see the light soon. One of them is entitled A Sky That Doesn't Praise the Ancestors and the other is titled Rain Reveals the Roof.

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