Interview with Zeina Hashem Beck
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet who won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize for her second collection, Louder than Hearts, about which Naomi Shihab Nye wrote, ‘Everything Arabic we treasure comes alive in these poems’. Zeina is also the author of two 2016 chapbooks: 3arabi Song, which was selected as winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and There Was and How Much There Was, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy. Zeina's first book, To Live in Autumn, focusing on Beirut, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize and was a runner-up for the 2014 Julie Suk Award.
“ Wanting to write something particular to my experience as an Arab woman living in the Arab world today and writing in English—poems that resist an oppressive perception of “universality,” a word I feel often erases. I wanted to write my reality, wanted to use English my way. ”
“The universal is in the personal, not in the erasure or dilution of it. And the only way of showing that our stories matter is to write them. ”
“The divine and the human are inseparable for me—I do not see a contrast between the two. I believe there is prayer in many things we do daily—eating, walking, writing, breathing, making love, laughing.”
Maria Isakova-Bennett: Zeina, I came across your work over a year ago and love the beautiful fluid musical way in which you write. It was on reading There Was and How Much There Was that I really wanted to know more about your work and it’s great to now have this opportunity to talk to you.
Zeina Hashem Beck: That’s so kind of you to say. Thank you for this conversation, Maria.
MIB: I have just read Louder than Hearts and found it alluring and compelling… full of passion and power. The judge of the May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize, Betsy Sholl, said (amongst other things), that your voice is ‘…God-soaked and edgy, able to carry both loss and beauty…’. I love that contrast reflecting some of the conflict you explore in your work.
I wonder if we could work backwards in a sense, talking first about your latest collection? Could you talk a little about how this latest book came about and what keeps you writing so prolifically and passionately?
ZHB: In some ways, Louder than Hearts is an expansion of my chapbook 3arabi Song. I think both started in grief – the personal grief of losing my cousin to a shooting on the street in Tripoli, Lebanon, and the collective grief of witnessing the daily loss of homes and lives in the Arab world. The dedication at the beginning of Louder than Hearts is “To our broken languages & our broken cities.” But the poems couldn’t only exist in mourning; they had to celebrate too, because there’s a lot to praise in our broken language(s), songs, stories, and cities, and I wanted to make sure the book does that as well.
Louder than Hearts also comes from the urge of wanting to write something particular to my experience as an Arab woman living in the Arab world today and writing in English—poems that resist an oppressive perception of “universality,” a word I feel often erases. I wanted to write my reality, wanted to use English my way.
I’d like to add though, that I wasn’t thinking (would never think), “Oh I want to write a book that represents the Arab world.” What does representation mean? What does the Arab world mean? How many countries/cultures are cramped under this category? Also, all this analysis about how the book came about was mostly done after I’d written the book. I didn’t realise what the book was “about” as I was writing it, at least not at the beginning. Only later did I come to see connections between the poems. The initial process is to just let the poems be.
As for your question about writing prolifically and passionately: I don’t think I write prolifically, but passionately? Hell yeah! Is there any other way to write!
MIB: Yes. I agree about the passion. I admire that.
I certainly have a sense of how prolific you are when I think of the four publications you’ve had over the past two years – something many poets only dream about. Congratulations on that. I know that you said that Louder than Hearts is an extension of 3arabi Song, butI wonder if you could talk a little about the genesis of your other books, There Was and How Much There Was, and To Live in Autumn?
ZHB: Thank you. I guess that in my head, the term “prolific” is for poets who’ve been writing for longer than I have. But yes, I did have this period of intense writing before my chapbooks and second book were out, and I’m extremely grateful for what 2016 and 2017 have brought for me in terms of publication. It is all still a bit surreal for me. What matters, in the end, is that you do the work. You just show up for what you love and do the work.
The poems in There Was and How Much There Was weren’t something I had intended to publish, not just yet. I had been writing, for quite some time, these poems about women and mothers, but I didn’t feel I was ready to let them out into the world. Some were personal, many were too intense. But then Peter Sansom from smith|doorstop emailed me, said Carol Ann Duffy suggested me as a Laureate’s Choice, and asked if I had material for a pamphlet. I took this as a sign that it was time to let these poems out. I spent a few weeks revising and arranging the poems, but I also wrote new ones that I knew I wanted to be in there: Layla, Fatimah (the Mother of Her Father), and There Was and How Much There Was. I had been taking notes for what would eventually become the long title poem, but hadn’t actually written it yet. I almost completely shut myself off for a week (or two) to complete it, told my husband he should consider me gone until I re-emerged.
I started writing To Live in Autumn around 2006, when I left Beirut, and the book initially came out of my nostalgia for the city. I wanted to summon Beirut back to me in writing, to re-member it and try to portray its complexity and the love/hate relationship I have with it.
MIB: Just returning to your desire to write poems that resist the ‘oppressive perception of universality…’; could open this out a little more and talk about ‘universality’?
ZHB: Well, you know, the poetry I was exposed to when I was growing up was that of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Hugo, etc. (I was French educated). Basically, and unsurprisingly for the canon, the poems were by white males. I enjoyed reading them because they were good and I love poetry, but there was no one that resembled me in them. So I grew up thinking that in order to be “universal,” one has to write like that. That my characters, for example, couldn’t be named Zeina or Ahmad or Rami. And that kind of reasoning (that I have to write like white men) is oppressive. With time, I began reading more widely and writing MY stories. I decided to write only for ME. And I expected the western reader to do some effort (for God’s sake there’s Google, and there is the context of the poem, and there are my notes). If I can read a New York poem by Frank O’Hara though I’d never been to New York, then someone from New York could read about Tripoli and Beirut too. The universal is in the personal, not in the erasure or dilution of it. And the only way of showing that our stories matter is to write them.
MIB: One of the things I found especially powerful in your work was the contrast you create. I felt that in There Was and How Much There Was, amid the sorrow and loss there were oases of peace and joy. I felt for instance that a pause for prayer was created with two poems [Fatimah (The Mother Of Her Father), Say Love Say God] touching on the humanity of God, before the final longer title poem. I wonder if you could talk a little about to what extent the idea of prayer and God is part of your work. For myself, I love the sense of the presence of these elements, but how it is not overt, and that there is a beautiful sense of openness.
ZHB: I don’t think I’d realized how present God is in my poetry until people started pointing it out. In Fatimah (the Mother of Her Father), I wanted to comment, through the voice of a powerful Muslim figure, on the refugee crisis and the crimes committed by ISIS in the name of Islam. I also wanted to write about the motherhood of God. Say Love Say God came from my interfaith marriage. The divine and the human are inseparable for me—I do not see a contrast between the two. I believe there is prayer in many things we do daily—eating, walking, writing, breathing, making love, laughing.
MIB: I grew up with a paucity of female community and love the way you create a sense of female company and communication in There Was and How Much There Was. I felt part of it! This great skill of storytelling seems to come naturally to you. Could you tell me a little about the importance of the idea of narrative to you and to the communities you grew up in?
ZHB: I’m happy you felt part of the female company in There Was and How Much There Was—it means the poetry bridge was built! I’ve always loved it when women gathered, talked, complained, joked. There’s so much there, in what is and isn’t said. I wanted the title poem to echo this fascinating universe filled with hurt, humor, love, craziness, and power. Oh and my mother is a natural storyteller; I feel I’ve inherited this from her. She’s my first literary influence.
MIB: Lovely to hear this. Could you tell us about some of your other literary influences and if you could suggest work— poetry or prose, that you might recommend to a western reader to help them to become acquainted with Arab culture and writing.
ZHB: I feel I personally need to catch up on my Arabic reading—I mean Arab poets who write in Arabic. Some of my favorites are Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, Mourid Barghouti, Majnoon Layla, and Badr Shaker al-Sayyab. Some non-Arab influences are T.S Eliot, Victor Hugo, Wislawa Szymboska, Martín Espada, Carolyn Forché, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles Baudelaire, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, and I’m sure I’m forgetting many more.
There are a lot poets of Arab heritage writing in English today: Leila Chatti, Safia Elhillo, Fady Joudah, Phil Metres, Khaled Mattawa, Hayyan Charara, Hala Alyan, Lena Tuffaha Khalaf, and Deema Shehabi are among them.
There are also literary magazines with an Arab focus, like Mizna and Sukoon. Definitely check out Marcia Lynx Qualey’s blog Arab Lit, about Arabic literature (in English). And take a look at this useful list, compiled by Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar, of “New and Forthcoming Books by Writers from Muslim Communities and Muslim-majority Countries:”
MIB: Thank you for this expansive list of references! Extremely valuable. I read with interest and admiration about the Open Mic events you have set up in Dubai. Can you tell me something about your life as a poet outside of your own writing?
ZHB: I started PUNCH Poetry and Open Mic about four years ago, out of a selfish need: I wanted to be around people who love poetry and spoken word, I wanted to make some poetry friends in the city! The night has grown considerably since, and is usually very well-attended. It’s not a professional platform—yes, there are some professional poets who participate, but there is space for young amateur readers, especially on the open mic. The hope is that we learn from each other. The atmosphere is laid-back and familial, and it’s always a lot of fun to host these evenings. I make jokes, scream, take videos of the waving audience, and I always come out feeling energized. The hope is to be somehow useful, to show people what poetry CAN do. And I love it when I get to hear a passionate 16 or 18-year-old read.
I don’t run workshops very often because of time constraints. I ran a few months-long poetry workshops for teenagers (and once for adults) when my time permitted: we read, wrote, revised, and then we put on a performance based on the poems. It’s exhausting and exhilarating.
MIB: Your energy and commitment to poetry is inspiring. I know you’ve travelled widely reading your recent work. I wonder whether you’re managing to write at present and whether you could finish by telling us something about the poetry you’re working on at the moment.
ZHB: I feel I’m in this almost-bureaucratic, semi-nomadic, post-book-release phase, where a lot of your energy goes into spreading the word about the book. The new writing is coming very slowly, if at all. I don’t know where it’s going yet—I’m letting things marinate. I’m trying not to panic (yet) about this pause, but I know I will feel restless and miserable if I don’t start writing again soon. Sitting down and working on my writing is what keeps me sane and happy. There’s nothing like it.