Posts Categorized: Poetry

INTERVIEW WITH 2021 POETRY PRIZE JUDGE, ZEINA HASHEM BECK

Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Poetry Prize until March 31st, 2021! In this interview with Poetry Editor janan alexandra, 2021 judge Zeina Hashem Beck opens up about her forthcoming collection of poems, O, writing in both Arabic and English, and the musicality of poetry.

Photo credit: Veronica Maria

To read her full bio, visit her website here.

To begin, congratulations on your forthcoming collection, O (Penguin, 2022), your third full-length book of poems. What most excites you about this project? How do you see this work in conversation with the rest of your catalog? 

It’s a strange thing, to be excited about this project in the middle of a pandemic, after the August 4 Beirut explosion, and also inside the likeliness that my family and I might be moving country after a decade in Dubai. It’s been a difficult year for me, mainly because of what’s been happening in Lebanon. But contains celebration and wonder, and I am indeed excited about it, despite my anxious brain, and even if I haven’t fully processed this yet. I’m trying to visualize the book in the hands of people who will find it useful, and I’m trying to visualize myself on tour (will this be possible, in 2022?), reading with beloved poets. Inshallah (insert blue eye emoji). 

How is in convo with the rest of my books? While the collection contains my eternal preoccupation with language and place, I think I see it as a quieter, more personal, more inward-looking book of love poems for the body, for friendship, for motherhood, for the divine and the profane. 

I’m thinking a lot about the musicality of your work, and by this I mean at least two or three things: both the explicit references your poems make to beloved singers from the Arab world—Um Kulthoum, Abdelhalim Hafiz, Samira Tawfiq, among others—and the lyricism of your language. I’m also thinking about the beautiful ways you read and perform, which is itself an art form. Of course poetry is fundamentally an oral tradition, but sometimes this can get lost in our contemporary literary landscape. Will you tell us more about your relationship to singing, storytelling, vocalization, and music? 

All the art forms I love have performance in common. I’ve always wanted to be a singer, but I’ve never had the voice for it (though this doesn’t stop me from subjecting my friends and family to my singing). I’ve always been in love with the theater, and when I left Beirut and then had my two daughters, I could no longer work in it. I’ve always loved poetry too, of course: the quiet reading of it, the writing and speaking it out loud to yourself, and the gifting of it to an audience, with the energy and possible connections this engenders. My first encounters with poetry in French and Arabic at school always involved reciting poems, and this was my favorite kind of homework. 

I wrote the poems for the singers of the Arab world that you mention at a time where their music helped me grieve and dance. Their music is one of the homes I carry with me wherever I go. And you know when you listen to a song and it resonates, and you are deeply moved (sometimes to tears, sometimes to think differently about something)? Yes, that’s what poems should do (for me, at least). 

You write in both English and Arabic, and you explore your relationship to these two languages in many of your poems. At a poetry reading, you once said, “English is a wound,” which resonated so deeply in my body as a writer of the Lebanese diaspora who, through the complicated legacies of colonization has been painfully estranged from Arabic (my parents, for difficult and meaningful reasons, never taught us Arabic). I’m thinking about your Arabic-English duets and your reflection, “I found out that I am probably kinder to Lebanon in English.” I think a lot about what particular languages can make possible or impossible for us (humor, intimacy, legibility, safety) and I’m wondering how else you relate to or experience this, on and/or off the page? How do poems make possible your constellational identities? 

This is a difficult question, which has so many possible layers, and which I won’t pretend to have formulated a definite answer for. But I’ll do my best to discuss part of it here. 

I’ve been thinking about why I said “wound” and whether it’s the word I’m looking for. I think I need to process this more, and probably not alone, but with fellow writers who grew up in Arabic and write in English. Perhaps, what I’m trying to say, is there is inside me, simultaneously, the impossibility of saying what I want to say only in English and the fact that English is the language I can most easily poem in. I wonder, too, whether all language is wound, or at least rift? Doesn’t writing poems come from an impossibility? 

There’s also the question of audience, an awareness that some people who will read my poems (since I’m an Arab who writes in English) might exoticize me: I try to be aware of that, while at the same time not letting it paralyze me or make me avoid certain topics that could be “misunderstood.” 

Also, I was raised on the idea that my access to 3 languages is a privilege that could help me tap into more layers of meaning and being. This isn’t to say there are no colonial powers at work within these languages and in the circumstances that led me, for example, to attend a French school and then write in English. But I’m not US-centric in my writing, and I don’t think much of the US on a daily basis. I’m aware of it of course, but also aware of the worlds of Englishes beyond it and within it. On the other hand, a question I’m often asked when I read in Arab cities is why I don’t write in Arabic. Sometimes, the question is a reproach. I’m learning to let go of my guilt toward Arabic, because it comes from a near deification of the language, and when a language becomes God, it also becomes inaccessible and stiff. I don’t owe anyone an explanation. Neither some Arabs who insist I must write in Arabic, nor some foreigners who aren’t capable of seeing me, nor some fellow Arabs who feel “we” must always be on our guard about what to say about “us.” I believe poems will always find their way to the readers who appreciate or need them. I’m grateful for the work of so many poets and writers around the world, writing in many languages. I’m trying to exist as I am, to write as I am, to remain curious. And I’m not interested in cynicism. 

Finally, since you asked about the bilingual Duets: I switch between English and Arabic all the time when I speak, so it’s interesting for me to see what happens when poems do that as well. I think of them as an experiment to try to bring both Arabic and English unto the page and see what conversations happen, and to consider how perception could change with the change of language. Why, for example, in one Duet, does the speaker in Arabic say the city doesn’t remember them, whereas in English, the speaker believes the city won’t betray? There are no answers of course, no formulas, and there’s a lot of space for contradiction.

This is a behind-the-scenes art of poeting question, and one that I think we all have to sort of figure out in our own way, but: what does your creative practice look like at this stage of your career, and what have you learned over the years about your own methods of research, making, noticing, revising ? Who are some of your guides?  

It’s been very difficult for me to follow any sort of creative process in this pandemic and with Lebanon falling apart, and I wonder whether this would eventually lead me to a different process. But if I were to describe my “usual” practice: I don’t write every day, I try to read every day, I don’t rush poems, and I don’t feel I need to be a poetry-producing machine. Yes, I get anxious when I feel I’m not writing as regularly as I should, then I remind myself to resist this capitalistic way of thinking and that work comes in many forms, not just words on the page. I listen, I take notes, I wait. I always take guidance from the writers I happen to be reading, and these are some writers I’ve been reading recently in English and Arabic: Audre Lorde, Italo Calvino, Edward Said, Asmaa Azaizeh, Mourid Al-Barghouti (who has recently left us, may he rest in power), Golan Haji, and Lina Mounzer. And I’ve been listening to James Baldwin too, via Joey Ayoub (shout out to his podcast, The Fire These Times), who always reminds us in his newsletter to listen to Baldwin. 

Lastly, and thanks again for sharing so generously with us, what are you thinking about—or reading / listening to / watching / studying—these days? What is moving you? 

I’ve been working on a podcast in Arabic about Arabic poetry, titled Maksouda; the project was an idea in my head for a couple of years, and I’m extremely excited to be working on it with friend and poet Farah Chamma and the network Sowt. Recording this podcast, and doing so in Arabic (to go back to the convo about the many languages that intersect in us) has been feeding my soul! I’m also excited that Hala Alyan and I have found a home for our poetry anthology of love poems by poets of Arab heritage. 

What I’ve been thinking about? Mental health, and ways we could take care of ourselves and each other. Friendship and community. Long voice notes from friends. Lebanon and its heartbreak. Strange and familiar cities. Turning 40 in April. Bougainvillea. How much I miss hugs and dancing with loves. Love.  

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ANNOUNCING THE 2021 BLUE LIGHT BOOKS PRIZE WINNER

We are thrilled to announce that prize judge Nandi Comer has selected J Girls TV by Rochelle Hurt as the winner of the 2021 Blue Light Books Prize! Thank you all for your submissions and for making this year’s Blue Light Books Prize possible. J Girls TV will be published by Indiana University Press in 2022 as part of the Blue Light Books Series, which includes previous prize-winning collections, Girl with Death Mask by Jenn Givhan, God Had a Body by Jennie Maria Malboeuf, and The World of Dew and Other Stories by Julian Mortimer Smith.

On J Girls TV, Nandi Comer said:

“What does it mean to become a woman? In J Girls TV, Rochelle Hurt has produced a cinematic anthem, a war cry against gender norms, and a sad reminder of how little has changed for girls traversing the rocky journey into adulthood. The strength of this collection is in the collective experiences where the body becomes an object of desire and the origin of resistance. These poems are unapologetic and tender. Part theater, part screenplay, part poetry, J Girls TV is a genre-blending collection demanding the reader see these archetypes as real people with real stories and real unspeakable trauma.”

FINALISTS

Abigail Goodhart, Neither Kind of Body

Keith Donnell, Jr., Huck

Michael M. Weinstein, Pretender

Joanne Mallari, Echo is the Ghost of Sound

Interested in more publishing opportunities with IR / IU Press? The Don Belton Fiction Reading Period is open May 1 – May 31. Send fiction manuscripts up to 80,000 words for a chance to win $1,000 and publication.

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42.2 SNEAK PEEK: I LOOKED AT YOU AND I SAID YES by WO CHAN

Chan_ILookedAtYouandISaidYes

Wo Chan is a poet and drag performer. Their chaplet Order the World, Mom was published by Belladonna* in 2016. Wo’s poems appear in POETRY, Mass Review, No Tokens, The Margins, and are further anthologized in Vinegar & Char (University of Georgia Press), Go Home! (Feminist Press), and Bettering American Poetry (Bettering Books). As a member of the Brooklyn-based drag/ burlesque collective Switch N’ Play, Wo has performed at The Whitney Museum of American Art, Joe’s Pub, National Sawdust, and New York Live Arts. Wo was born in Macau, China, and currently lives in New York. You can find them online @ theillustriouspearl (IG) or their website wo.bingo.

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Announcing the 2020 Poetry Prize Winner

We are excited to announce the winner and runners-up of the 2020 Poetry Prize, judged by Javier Zamora. Many thanks to everyone who submitted their work and made this year’s prizes possible!

2020 Poetry Prize Winner

“I Looked At You and I Said Yes” by Wo Chan

Javier Zamora says, “What draws me into a poem is tension, the very first opportunity for such tension being the space between title and first line, and then, first line to second line, moving all the way down the page. Sometimes I call this speed, force, duende. When you couple this tension/speed with surprise (be it in language, content, form, etc.), then, you have achieved something that the best works of art do: spark multiple emotions we didn’t know we had, or we weren’t aware we had, or, we weren’t aware we hid them.

‘I Looked At You and I Said Yes’ sparked so many emotions in me that I didn’t know what to do with their juxtaposition. Part Elegy, part Ode, part just shooting the shit, and throughout it, a confession of love, humanity, friendship. I smiled, I nodded, I frowned, shook my head, almost cried. The deeper I dug into the poem, the more it revealed the hardships, the fucked-upness of the world we live under. Let this poem be the beginning of some sort of change. Change we all know we need, especially now. Change some of us have known we needed for years.”

Runners-Up

“Corpse Pose” by Rachel Galvin

“HORS_” by Day Heisinger-Nixon

Finalists

Marissa Davis

Karstin Hale

Ae Hee Lee

Parker O’Connor

Clare Paniccia

Daniel Schonning

Stella Yin-Yin Wong

The winner will be published in the Winter 2020 issue of Indiana Review.

Interview with 2020 Poetry Prize Judge Javier Zamora

The 2020 Poetry Prize is open until March 31! In this interview, our poetry editor Soleil David sits down with prize judge Javier Zamora to talk about his influences, the voices in his family, and his forthcoming memoir.


Javier Zamora was born in El Salvador and migrated to the US when he was nine. He was a 2018-2019 Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard and has been granted fellowships from CantoMundo, Colgate University, the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and Stanford University. Unaccompanied is his first collection. He lives in Harlem where he’s working on a memoir. Visit his website to learn more about his work.


Your full-length debut, Unaccompanied, includes a number of poems in which you speak in the voice of a family member as a young person, from ages 11-19. What did writing in the voices of children and young adults teach you?

The voices are of my family members. The content came from interviews or stories they’d told me about their lives during the war. I was trying to understand how/why we had fled to this country. Attempting to write through their perspectives, their point-of-view, gave me just a glimmer of what they must’ve felt then. But essentially, it taught me to listen more.

I was listening to your NPR radio documentary “The Return” and I was especially struck by what you said about your grandma, her being the “physical embodiment of what immigration does to a person, and to a family.” I also migrated and left my own family at a young age, and I continue to grapple with the effects of immigration on my own family, so I was particularly moved by your declaration. Can you tell us more about what you meant when you said that about your grandma?

For my family, immigration is the ultimate manifestation of many factors engrained in 1980s-90s Salvadoran culture: domestic abuse, war-trauma, hatred toward women, all stemming from toxic patriarchy. Most of us left. Grandma hasn’t been able to leave. She has not only absorbed all of these daily abuses (my Grandpa no longer drinks but is still verbally abusive), but Grandma has also had to endure us—her loved ones—leaving her side. My cousin has stayed, yet she’s a young woman who has had to grow up in a very toxic environment. They’ve both absorbed it—the environment—and our migrations/abandonment. The mind and the body manifest these traumas in different ways. In Grandma’s case, she has not been able to leave the house in years. I do not mean that as a metaphor. In a very literal way, she has absorbed our traumas and they are manifesting themselves on her body. I take it as her protest. We have left and walked out of that front door and that front gate and never returned. She will not do that. She can’t.

How has the work you want a poem to do changed since you published Unaccompanied?

I had to write the sadness that is so prevalent in Unaccompanied, my immigration status was such that poetry gave me an element of control, of healing. Sadness and trauma as a stepping-stone for other possibilities. In many ways, my first book is narrow-minded. There isn’t much joy. Now, I hope to write a poem/book that touches many emotional notes because, on a personal level, I am not only my trauma and why should my art only be my trauma?

What are you working on right now?

I’m working my way through a memoir about the eight weeks it took me to get to this country. Since I’m tired of exploring my trauma in poetry, I thought prose could allow me to better understand my time through Mexico and Guatemala. A time that was very difficult, more so than my time in the desert, and perhaps the reason it was very hard for me to remember it in Unaccompanied. I don’t really talk about my weeks in Guatemala or Mexico. Prose has granted me that chance.

I’m also working on a second book of poems that are not about my personal life, but still try to critique the way the press (even the liberal press) approaches the “immigration crisis.”

What poetry and prose books have you been reading lately? What strikes you about these works?

I’ve recently accepted that I’m into poetry books that are not your “traditional” books of three sections, strict stanzas, most poems look the same, etc. Look by Solmaz Sharif, The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, and Clandestine Poems by Roque Dalton. These are some of my favorite books of all time, but I never really understood why I liked them so much. For right now, I think it’s their direct rejection of what a poetry book must be or look like. Or more precisely, what is allowed to be called poetry and what is not, the answer: anything.