Zeina Hashem Beck

One of the 2016 Laureate's Choice poets, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy. 


Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her first collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. Her second collection, Louder than Hearts, won the 2016 May Sarton NH Poetry Prize. She's also the author of 3arabi Song, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize. She's been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Forward Prize. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and the Rialto, among others. She performs her poetry both in the Middle East and internationally. Her website is www.zeinahashembeck.com 







'Whether drawing on myth or fairytale, or writing directly from women's experience, these are powerful poems by a new writer with a remarkable gift for storytelling.' – Carol Ann Duffy on Zeina's collection, There Was and How Much There Was 


'From the beginning, 3arabi Song opens the broken world and finds the shards beneath shimmering with beauty and hope. These poems ache with the music of reverie, balm for a torn country where grief and loss are as common as prayer. War, ritual, songs on the radio, lovers, friends and family all echo in this haunting [chapbook], the poems calling us to return over and over, to endure…' – Dorianne Laux, about the chapbook 3arabi Song


'I thought- judging this contest- "This person is going to be an important writer."   And I still think so. Read her book and you will too.' — Lola Haskins, 2013 Backwaters Prize judge, about To Live in Autumn


'These poems are brilliantly balanced between languages, between nostalgia and news, between Self and Other. I could read them over and over like, well, playing a favourite Fairouz record, but here the words are the music and the words recreate a world I love, savour and mourn.' – Marilyn Hacker  


'Zeina Hashem Beck’s manuscript, Louder than Hearts, has it all—compelling language and a sense of moral gravitas, personal urgency and the ability to address a larger world with passion and artfulness. These poems are sensual and serious. They have grit and spirit, grief and music. They give us a contemporary woman making her complex negotiations with history and culture in voice that is strong and discerning, God-soaked and edgy, able to carry both loss and beauty, to make music out of personal longing and cultural tragedy. By threading Arabic words throughout the book Hashem Beck creates a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of translation, cultural and linguistic. And yet, how clearly these poems speak to us all. Louder than Hearts is certainly timely in the way it provides a lens through which to see life in the Middle East, and hear the musical mix of English and Arabic. But the poems are also timeless explorations of love and loss, of an individual’s attempt to understand her own intimate experience within the larger context of world events and the spiritual realities that permeate them.' – Betsy Sholl on Zeina's collection, Louder than Hearts


I am tired of the love poems Qays keeps

tracing for me in the sand. What a luxury,

to roam mad with love, be punished only

with a tender name—Majnun. The world will always

forgive the foolishness of men. I’m the one who endures

the weight of another in the night. I remind myself

to cup my breasts and say they are mine. My thighs

mine, mine. Sometimes I tell him no, not tonight,

I’m bleeding again, and he believes me.

It’s easy to believe anything about a body

that splits itself open and survives,

produces milk the next day. If I keep still

long enough, I hear the music inside

my veins; it sounds like women, singing.


Note: Layla was the lover of Qays Bin Al Mulawwah, 7th century Arab poet. He is known as “Majnun Layla,” which would translate as “gone mad with love for Layla.” The story is that Qays and Layla fell in love, but her father didn’t allow them to get married. He is said to have lost his mind and exiled himself into the wilderness, where he spent his time composing love poems for her. The name Layla means “one night.”



i)How did you start writing? 


I’ve written for as long as I remember. I’ve always been fascinated with words—their sound, their power, how they create meaning. I’ve always loved performance too. So I guess I was naturally attracted to poetry because, for me, it is both condensed language and performance, both quiet and out loud. I love the effect it has on the reader and listener: how it moves, tells stories, connects, and disrupts.


One of my earliest memories with poetry is when our French school teacher asked us to choose a poem from our textbook and memorize it. Perhaps I was ten. I discovered there, among the pages of the thick anthology, Victor Hugo’s “Demain, Dès L’Aube,” an elegy for his daughter. I was extremely moved by it, and I kept reading and re-reading it out loud. I memorized and performed it (quite dramatically) to the class. I had a similar moment with T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I was an English Literature student at the American University of Beirut. I remember reading the poem on a sunny afternoon and thinking, “Oh wow. I don’t fully understand this. But I love it!” And I kept repeating it out loud for the entire term.


I also believe my mother, who never finished school, is a first influence—she’s a poet at heart; it’s in the way one narrates, pays attention to the world, reacts intensely to it. She always told me I was a writer, said (and still says), “I see you. I’ve always seen you read in front of an audience.” And she bought me a typewriter for my eleventhbirthday.


In terms of “professionally” writing, revising, submitting, publishing, and working towards a collection—I’d say that started around 2006. It was during that year that I gathered up the courage to say it to myself, then out loud, then in answer to people’s questions: “I’m a poet.” And this matters.


I grew up in Tripoli, a city in the north of Lebanon, and I attended the French Lycée there. At eighteen, I moved to Beirut to study English Literature at the American University of Beirut, where I completed my BA and MA. My parents are secular Muslims, and they valued education above all. We weren’t rich, but they made sure we attended very good schools. My father used to say, “If I had to choose between educating my son or my daughter, I’d definitely educate my daughter.”

We didn’t have too many books in the house. I remember I once nagged to my mother about that, and she said, half-jokingly, “Read the big blue French-Arabic dictionary over there.” And that was good advice. So I didn’t read much outside school textbooks when I was growing up (that would come later). But I listened: to my mother, my aunts, the neighbors, the street, Arab singers, Egyptian plays… all these somehow became my early literature.


iii) Which are your favourite poets and poems? 


Questions about favorite poets/poems scare me. They really do. I immediately think, How can I possibly answer this? Then my mind turns blank, and I forget all the names out of fear of forgetting them!


But I’ll take a deep breath and try to name a few: Charles Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, Wislawa Szymborska, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Carolyn Forché, Carol Ann Duffy, Martin Espada, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marilyn Hacker, Elizabeth Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christina Rossetti, Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab, Majnoon Layla, Ilya Kaminsky, and Philip Levine.


There are also many younger poets whose beautiful work I’ve been recently reading on social media and online, and among these, Leila Chatti, Fatima Asghar, and Maggie Smith-Beehler first come to mind.


Three quotes I love:


“I prefer the absurdity of writing poems

To the absurdity of not writing poems.” –Wislawa Szymborska


“Two thousand years passed in a flash to shed

no more light than a wooden match
gave under the trees

when you and I were lost kids, more scared than
now, but warm, useless, with names
and different faces.” –Philip Levine


“Each time a train slows, a man

with our faces in the gold buttons

of his coat passes through the cars

muttering the name of a city. Each time

we lose people. Each time I find you

again between the cars, holding out

a scrap of bread for me, something

hot to drink, until there are

no more cities and you pull me

toward you, sliding your hands

into my coat, telling me

your name over and over, hurrying

your mouth into mine.

We have, each of us, nothing.

We will give it to each other.” – Carolyn Forché


iv) Where do you mostly write? What do you do instead of writing?


I mostly write in the house, and I have to be completely alone, and it has to be very quiet. When the weather in Dubai is good, I love to work on the balcony. When it gets very hot, I retreat to my bedroom, where there is a desk. Some mornings I work from cafés near my daughters’ school until it’s time to pick them up.


What do I do instead of writing? I’m a mother of two little girls. I run poetry workshops. I have founded PUNCH, a poetry and open mic collective in Dubai, and I try to host that every other month. In a way, all I really want to do instead of writing is writing. And by that I don’t just mean the act of writing, which tends to come in waves, but also reading, observing, dreaming up a poem, listening to music, dancing, thinking of a line, performing. All these are forms of writing. When I’m too busy with the family for a long period of time, I have to consciously tell myself it’s OK not to be working as much as usual, and that’s difficult for me to do. I’m obsessed like that, and I’m happiest (and a more pleasant human being) when I’m in my creative zone, or when I’m performing.


v) Tell us something about one of your collections.  


My recently released chapbook, 3arabi Song, which has won the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, came from a feeling of near suffocation I had upon writing poem after poem about war, refugees, and the unbearable pain we witness daily in the Arab world. So I decided to write about Arabic music and Arab singers as well. After all, they too are an integral part of that world; they mourn and celebrate.


One poem, “Hozn: Ghazal for Abdel Halim Hafez,” was initially titled “Upon Listening to a Radio Interview with Abdel Halim.” The first draft addressed him, using “you,” and described his final days in the hospital. For months after I wrote it, I listened daily to Halim’s songs. I also read a little about him and watched some interviews. I wasn’t too concerned with facts, but rather wanted the music to take me somewhere. The poem slowly metamorphosed into a ghazal in his voice, weaving together the Egyptian singer’s life story with the political reality of his day and ours. I like that it became a ghazal, a form befitting for a poem about Arabic music.


vi) What are you currently working on?


I’ve been working on the proofs of my chapbooks and getting ready to launch them. And I’ve just learnt that my second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts, has won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize and will be out in April 2017. But above all, I’m hoping to do some new writing. Perhaps it will follow from the poems in There Was and How Much There Was. Perhaps it won’t. I’m hoping it will surprise me.  

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