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.
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 O 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 O 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.