Zeina Hashem Beck: I always had a love of words and it was always poetry

Zeina Hashem Beck: I always had a love of words and it was always poetry

Dubai - Dubai based poet Zeina Hashem Beck talks to City Times about her latest collection Louder Than Hearts, dealing with rejections and the internal journey that lead her to tell the world that she is a poet

By Maan Jalal

Published: Mon 22 Jan 2018, 3:25 PM

Last updated: Sun 28 Jan 2018, 1:38 PM

Ask any writer or reader and they will tell you that poetry is the highest form and use of language. So much so that poetry is almost intimidating. It can, at times, feel too pure, too out of place with how we usually interact with words on the page, with words performed in song or on the stage.

For some reason people assume that they need to read poetry and understand it instantly. That the meanings, images, the nuances and the thought process of the poet need to be transparent and plain for the reader to pick up on from the first reading. This isn't, it probably shouldn't be the case. Reading poetry shouldn't be hard but it shouldn't be a transparent and banal exercise either.

Poetry is an experience. It is an interaction with ideas that the reader doesn't necessarily need to understand if not initially then at all. It is in a way a cathartic connection with a cloud that holds emotions, imagery, ideas and experiences shaped and molded by the poet in a certain form.

Once you understand this, reading a poem can be a completely different experience that bears a lot of fruit. This art form is also a bridge connecting ideas, expressions and cultures allowing us to experience the other in new and profound ways. It is for this reason that the poetry of Dubai based poet Zeina Hashem Beck in her latest collection Louder Than Hearts is pivotal, ground breaking and essential.

The Lebanese poet with a BA and an MA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut, won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize in April last year for Louder than Hearts which is her second full-length collection.

Arabic finds a new life in Louder than Hearts. References and experiences, history, poetry and music make their way flawlessly imbued in Zeina Hashem Beck's voice and her storytelling.

Readers will experience a new and reflective way in which Arabic and English meet, interlock, and co-exist in a meaningful, poignant and playful use of words, rhythm and pace. Zeina Hashem Beck weaves her own experiences through great influences from legendary Arabic poetry and music to classic and powerful English voices in literature and song. Home, existence, nostalgia, identity, culture, family - these stories although personal are also universal and in Zeina Hashem Beck's work accessible to many.
City Times sat down with the poet for a fruitful discussion on her journey as a poet, her influences, the rejections she faced and how to define poetry.
When did this idea of putting words together to create poems start? Did you always have a love of words?
I always had a love of words and it was always poetry. From the beginning it was poetry rather than any other form of writing for me. Of course I didn't always know I was a poet. Though I do believe that you are born with this affinity. Like this isn't something you can make up but you can either choose to continue and do the work or not. I do believe you're born with this affinity, to explore these connections with words and images. My favourite activity as a student, which is very nerdy, was to memorise poems and recite them to the class. These were in French as I was French educated. I learnt English when I was 12. I also recited Arabic but more French. My favourite activity was to memorise poems and recite them out loud. I loved that and for me, poetry and performance were interlinked. No one told me you have to perform it but I always sort of "performed it". I always heard the music in it. So that was present at a very young age.
When and how did you make that decision to be a poet in the sense to get your work published?
I think the year that I realised that I should start working on this, that I should start thinking about how to get my work out there was in 2006. That was the year that I graduated and got married and moved out of Lebanon. Big year. I think the moving away from Beirut triggered the first book because I was suffering from nostalgia. It was also the year that you're out of University now you're no longer a student you have to do something. I was teaching and I loved that and so I had to decide that year, am I going to pursue this idea to be a poet? I loved poetry so much I wrote it, but how do you actually do it? That year was pivotal for me because I decided by the end of it, okay, we are going to sit down and do the work.
And how does one do that work?
I was going to start submitting to literary magazines and read more and write more and revise. My first book didn't come out until 2014 so it's quite a gap. I also coached myself to answer the questions, so what are you? I dare say I am a poet. Because there is almost a shame or a taboo you know when people ask you what do you do and I kind of hate this question cause you do a zillion things. we are all very multiple, but we all ask this question. So I started saying that year, I'm a poet. That was a pivotal year, internally for me. 
How did you deal with initial rejection?
It was very disheartening at the beginning getting rejection, after rejection, after rejection. But I'm stubborn by nature. So if I make a decision, I make decision, I go for it. I think at the end of the day even what I tell myself now, even after I got published is that it's important to do the work. Really why did I begin doing this? Of course, I want to get published. Of course, I want people to read my work and discuss it. It's a really beautiful part and an essential part of being a poet. But really first and foremost what gives me the upmost pleasure is when I'm creating the work, when I'm doing what I love doing. It's not like I could have given up because it's in spite of me. Some days you think, I wish I could just give up. You have this urge that you can't stop. I think this is what kept me going. You can't help but do the work. I trained myself to think that editors too are people. With certain magazines they receive hundreds of thousands of submissions so it's a whole process. And little by little the poetry scene is changing in the US; it's opening up a lot more to voices from the margins.
Do you think the issue there was that literary magazines weren't listening to the voices from "the margins"? Did the Arab voice in poetry not exist or do you think you weren't good enough yet?
It's a mixture of all of these. The Arab voice always existed. It just wasn't given the space. Because a lot of editors were white and male. Even female voices weren't given the space that they are given now. So there is this evolution that the world of publishing has gone through and it's now "easier" because so many editors now are writers of colour who want to champion other writers of colour. But I do believe that some of my earlier poems, thank God, were rejected, because they weren't good. In a way the time it took for me to get published, for me personally, was beneficial. Because it allowed me to grow into my own voice. 
You speak Arabic, English and French, how does occupying that space, between languages affect, influence your poetry?
I'm definitely much more comfortable writing in English. But when I speak with my husband, with my kids, it's Arabic. If I'm with an Arabic person, I have the need to switch into Arabic. French is in the back of my head somewhere. It's strange how the mind works. I think they are all in there. And definitely in terms of poetry, the poetry I write exists in that space and the English I write in is very different to the English a native speaker would write. 
Many writers of colour prefer to write in English even if it isn't their mother tongue. What is it about English that we are so comfortable in?
I don't know if the language itself. I just felt an ease in it, more than even French which is a language I studied in for the first 18 years of my life. So I don't know if it's "easier" but I don't think that's the point. I think the reason why we are comfortable in English is because we have been colonised. It's the language of the empire. It's every where, it's on TV, radio, it's the language of technology, it's the language of power. It's around us and we internalise this. I don't think it now, but I do think when I was a little girl, a part of me thought that if I wrote in a language other than Arabic. that it will get me more places. That's the colonised mentality, that you feel inferior. It's very sad but its true. I felt that even as a little girl that his language had more power. And now that I realise because we have been colonised and our Arabic is beautiful, we should try to read more writers in Arabic and encourage it - that's part of what I'm trying to do in this book. 
What influences your poetry?
It's definitely other poets. I learnt by reading other poets. I learnt by reading. My influences keep shifting and changing. For this particular collection, music was a big influence. It all started with me listening to Umm Kulthum and I thought how do you write about that? How do you convey this in a poem in English? Which is a crazy idea, you're setting yourself up for failure, really you can't, but its good to try. So I wanted to celebrate all of these singers that I grew up listening to and hence the presence of Warda and Abdul Halim and Umm Kulthum. Music was a big influence.
An alien arrives on earth and asks you, what is poetry? How you would you answer this question?
That's a very tough question. Has anyone answered it? In terms of words on the page and language I think it's one of the most condensed uses of language. It's language at its most highly condensed form. You do not have to completely understand what you're reading and listening to in order to enjoy it. Just like music. Music is a very important element in poetry of course. It's about really paying attention, looking at the details, looking at the world and trying to question and invert and subvert and see differently. But that can be the definition of any art form. With poetry though you use it for words. One could also say that poetry is a way to try to express what can't be expressed, to use language to go beyond language. Something like prayer, or rather, for me, it is prayer.

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