flourishing in the margins: an interview with Zeina Hashem Beck
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet now based in Dubai where she founded and hosts the open mic night PUNCH. Her first book, To Live in Autumn – a love letter to Beirut – won the 2013 Backwaters Prize, while her second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts, was awarded the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in many international magazines, including POETRY, The Rialto, Poetry London, Ambit, Ploughshares and World Literature Today. Here, she tells harana poetry about what led her to write poetry in English, the bilingual poetic form she devised called The Duet, and why poetry is more than what you put on the page.
To begin, can you tell us a little about your growing up in Lebanon?
I was born and raised in Tripoli, a city in the north of Lebanon. I went to the French school there, so my education was bilingual, French mainly, and Arabic, until I was 12, when English was introduced. Then I moved to Beirut at 18 and attended the American University of Beirut, where I studied English Literature.
I grew up in civil-war Lebanon but have vague memories of the war. Tripoli was probably less war-torn than Beirut. To a child and to anyone living in Lebanon, electricity outages or discontinued tap water were just daily things you dealt with, still deal with. I remember getting stuck in the elevator a lot. I remember a blur of going to Cyprus when my parents fled the violence for a short period of time, and that trip felt like a vacation. My summers were always spent on the beach in Tripoli, all day every day. And in the midst of a sectarian war, I went to a secular school where the atmosphere was pretty tolerant. Lebanon is nothing if not an absurd mixture of contradictions.
When did you start writing poetry and what inspired you to do so? Who were your first influences?
I always wrote, for as long as I remember. There was a red typewriter Mom got me on my 11th or 12th birthday and that, for me, was the best gift in the world. Somewhere I still have this – 1989? – agenda my father once gave me, and in it are all kinds of writing: ‘stamps’ I’d drawn with words underneath them – things like ‘This is a watermelon’ – stories I’d made up, Arabic poems I’d copied, song lyrics, and a page with flower names I’d copied from a flower book, followed by descriptions of the flowers in my own words. And isn’t this part of being a poet? Looking at the world and translating it in your own language? So I always say my first influences were the sounds and stories and people around me. But if you mean my first memorable exposures to poetry, then I clearly remember the day I memorized and recited Victor Hugo’s ‘Demain, Dès L’aube’ at school, how the poem shook me so much. As a university student, I was obsessed with T. S. Eliot when I first read him. After I’d given birth to my first daughter and started reading more contemporary poetry, reading Dorianne Laux was so essential for me. And Wislawa Szymborska too.
What led you to write poetry in English?
I believe it’s a mixture of things. The adolescent post-colonial mind going, ‘Oh if you write in English then it’s more “universal.”’ My curiosity to explore another language more deeply. Me wanting to go only to the American University of Beirut because it was heaven for an 18-year-old girl from Tripoli. And gradually, it became the language that comes easiest for me.
Your first full-length collection, To Live in Autumn, is a love letter to Beirut. The sounds of the city as described in your poems create a language in itself. Can you tell us what it was like writing the collection?
Thank you for reading To Live in Autumn! It’s been a while since I’ve gone back to this collection. I started writing the book the year I left Beirut, in 2006, because I missed it so so much. It took several years to finish because I was slowly learning about myself as a poet – I still am – and I gave birth to two daughters in the span of two years. So for me, writing To Live in Autumn is inseparable in my mind from that early motherhood period where I was stealing every moment I can to read and write poetry. I now look at it as a love letter to the city with which I have a complicated relationship.
Transliterated Arabic threads its way through To Live in Autumn but seem to become an integral part of your second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts. Did you make a conscious decision to use Arabic in conjunction with English and what encouraged you to write this way?
I don’t think it was a decision as much as a natural evolution of the writing and some confidence I’d acquired about giving myself permission to do so if I felt the poem demanded it.
You devised a poetic form called The Duet. Can you tell us more about it? Were there any unexpected challenges you encountered or/and considerations you made when developing this form?
The Duet is a bilingual form where the poems in English and Arabic exist separately and in relationship to one another. There’s an English poem in there, and an Arabic one, and an English-Arabic poem for bilingual readers. When the English and Arabic are within the same stanza, this means these particular lines are a translation or an echo – and sometimes a contradiction – of one another.
I’d say that one challenge of the Duet is how to make the languages flow in and out of each other, when you’re reading the poem bilingually. There’s also the question: what third meaning/dimension opens up when you read them together?
You cover a variety of worldwide, timely and relevant topics, from what it means to be an Arab woman, culture and religion, to family and exile. Your narratives are wonderfully lyrical. Please tell us about your process. What kick-starts your idea for a poem and how do you explore that idea?
I feel my process has and hasn’t changed throughout the years. What changed is I’m now trying to be less anxious about the production of poetry. I realize writing is not just about producing poems on the page. It’s also – and perhaps more – about reading, breathing, slowing down, paying attention, being quiet, going to yoga, playing with your dog, talking to your kids.
What hasn’t changed is that anything can kick-start a poem: another poem, the news, the way the sun hits my desk this morning, a memory, a friend’s laughter. Anything, as long as you’re paying attention, as long as you’re doing the work. Sometimes the poem comes in one shot – and this probably means I’ve been thinking about it for some time – and sometimes it’s much slower. I keep notes about images or poem ideas on my phone, on post-its, on papers, or in notebooks. I carry some poems for months before I finally sit down to write them.
As for my preferred work environment, I usually need complete silence in my room. I also function better in the morning, after having read for a while, and when uninterrupted for several hours. But I realize I can’t always have that, and that’s OK.
You live in Dubai, where you founded and host an open mic night called PUNCH. What’s PUNCH like? And what is the poetry scene like in Dubai?
PUNCH is a poetry open mic night I founded in 2012, and it’s a very informal thing where people sign up via e-mail and read. There’s usually a mixture of ages – though I try to keep the minimum age at 18 – nationalities, and levels of experience. The atmosphere is super supportive and loving – people who love poetry and spoken word coming together to drink coffee or grab a bite, listen and have a nice time. I’d like to change the format one way or another at this stage, but I’m not sure how. Perhaps have featured readers followed by an open mic. Perhaps facilitate writing sessions or make space for a conversation about poetry within PUNCH. The poetry scene in Dubai is definitely changing, as there are many open mic nights that have emerged over the past years, the most active this year – to my knowledge – being Blank Space, Dubai Poetics, and Dubai Literary Salon.
Are there pros and cons to being a poet who writes in English as a second/parallel language but does not live in an Anglophone country? For example, how does this influence your decision-making when it comes to submitting to publications?
It took me quite some time to figure out there are literary magazines out there and to learn about the submission process. I definitely wasn’t in a program that familiarized you with literary magazines, and these publications were not in my local bookstore. So, thank God for the internet. I remember a time where lots of magazines were still only in print and how I felt my lack of access – how frustrating that was. I’m therefore grateful for magazines with an online presence.
Another frustration is not having a public library that has contemporary poetry collections. I mean I’d die to have something like the London Poetry Library near me. One can’t buy all titles one wants to buy, and so again, it’s very important to have more access to more poetry written today. Yes, there are days where I think about what it would be like to live in the US and be able to attend festivals I want to attend, do readings tours I want to do, and listen to poets I want to listen to. But on the other hand, I love where I come from, I love living between Dubai and Lebanon, existing between languages, being connected to my Arab readers here, travelling from time to time and connecting to readers abroad, and I think all this somehow informs and enriches my poetry. And shouldn’t we decentralize culture? Doesn’t poetry flourish in the margins? At the end of the day, no matter where you live or language(s) you write in, it’s the poetry, the work, that matters the most to you.
Which contemporary poets do you read and admire? Any recommendations from the Arab world?
Oh, the list is ever-growing, and I always feel guilty about not being able to name everyone: José Olivarez, Tiana Clark, Leila Chatti, Ada Limón, Martín Espada, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Carolyn Forché, Kaveh Akbar, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Hayan Charara, Raymond Antrobus, and many more.
I’m still familiarizing myself with contemporary Arab poets but some that I recommend are Iman Mersal, Najwan Darwish, Tamim Al-Barghouti, and Jawdat Fakhreddine. An excellent resource about Arabic literature today is arablit.org.
What would you advise someone for whom English is not their first language, but wish to write in it?
Read as much as you can, in all the languages you’ve got. Write only what feels true to you. Do not ‘perform’ what you think is expected of you as non-native English speaker. Poetry is beyond English or Arabic or or. The true language is poetry, and that’s what we all are trying to tap into.
Finally, if you were to advise someone visiting Beirut to do just one thing, what would that be?
The thing I would do is walk down Bliss Street, where so many memories live, and where I often have an uncanny feeling of a me passing me by.