Poet Zeina Hashem Beck: Not Choosing Between Arabic and English

/ 04 Jul 2020

Poet Zeina Hashem Beck: Not Choosing Between Arabic and English

When the poet Zeina Hashem Beck was small, most of what she read was assigned by her teachers in Tripoli, Lebanon. “We didn’t have lots of books around,” she said. “It was the civil war.”

Although her parents did have some books, they weren’t for readers her age. Thus, she says, her earliest literature was made up of songs, family lore, and “the sound of the street outside our home.”

These elements—family tales, Arabic music, street noise and political conflict—have become essential ingredients of Hashem Beck’s acclaimed poetry, which weaves between a fierce, embodied intimacy and a shared Arab history. Her first collection appeared in 2014. Since then, she has published another full-length collection, two award-winning chapbooks, and dozens of individual poems.

Hashem Beck says she was always attracted to the language of poetry, and particularly to voicing poetry aloud. She remembers memorizing Victor Hugo’s “Demain, dès l’aube” in elementary school and performing it for her class.

“My education involved memorizing both French and Arabic poems,” she said over email. “I instinctively … gave little dramatic performances as I read them to the class (or classes—sometimes I was paraded around). One of my favorite things!”

But her early relationship with Arabic poetry was sometimes more difficult. “My memory of Arabic poetry in school is that it heavily relied on learning meter, almost completely disregarding the spirit of the poem. And if a poem isn’t about its spirit, then I’m already disinterested.”

Beirut and Dubai

Hashem Beck’s first manuscript, To Live in Autumn, won a Backwaters Prize in 2013 and appeared in print the following year. The poems in this book focus on Beirut, even though, by then, Hashem Beck was living in Dubai. But while Dubai gave her time to write in isolation, she also needed to belong to a poetry community. That year, she co-founded PUNCH, a poetry and open-mic collective. Rewa Zeinati, a fellow Lebanese poet, says the name was a fusion of “poetry” and “bunch,” meaning “a bunch of poets, but also the idea that this bunch will use their voices as a punch in the face of distorted mainstream ideas and misuse of language and meaning.”

“I instinctively … gave little dramatic performances as I read them to the class (or classes—sometimes I was paraded around). One of my favorite things!”

Zeina Hashem Beck  

Danabelle Gutierrez, a Dubai-based poet who has been with PUNCH since the beginning, said, “I think Zeina was also surprised at how much PUNCH grew as a community.” The group of poets shared a love both of craft and of performance, and Gutierrez said they’ve hosted events “where so many people showed up that it became standing-room only.”

The group, Zeinati adds, “transcended nationality, age, experience, gender, politics, et cetera, and it grew into a close-knit community of writers and poets who kept pushing and challenging each other’s work.”

While her star rose in English-language poetry circles, Hashem Beck remained a core member of the group. Her two chapbooks, 3arabi Song and There Was and How Much There Was, both won prizes in 2016. The latter, which gives voice to many of her aunts’ personal stories, was selected for publication by Britain’s then-poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

Her most recent collection, Louder Than Hearts, appeared in 2017. As in her earlier books, Louder Than Hearts shuttles between English and Arabic in ways that make both feel new.

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This collection also re-mixes work by some of Arabic’s most brilliant twentieth-century artists. The relentlessly beating poem “Ghazal: This Hijra” knits together Hashem Beck’s words with those of the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, calling out, “Ya Sayyab! Sing us the song of the rain, of this eve, this hijra.” In “Messages in the Dark,” texts scroll across the bottom of a TV screen, joined to the image of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

Indeed, Hashem Beck’s poetry—unlike that of some of her contemporaries—doesn’t hark back to a distant Arab past. Instead, she layers twentieth- and twenty-first-century histories. The Palestinian poet and editor Jehan Bseiso noted, over email, that the imagery in Hashem Beck’s poetry is “not unlike the Russian ‘Matryoshka’ doll; each image contains another image, which opens the door to another image and you always end up with more than what you started with.”

‘Duets’

Up through 2017, the Arabic that Hashem Beck used in her poetry was largely transliterated 3arabizi, a combination of Latin letters and numbers. But after Louder Than Hearts, she began to work with a new poetic form, which she calls “duets.” In the duets, English stanzas are on the left side of the page, the Arabic stanzas are on the right, and the two languages sometimes share space in the middle.

“For me, Hashem Beck’s poetry reveals what becomes possible when we don’t have to choose between Arabic and English.”

Jehan Bseiso   A Palestinian poet and editor

“The idea is that the poems exist both independently and in relationship to one another,” Hashem Beck said in a recent Instagram video. Readers can appreciate only the English, only the Arabic, or the two languages together. For those who do the latter, “a third poem should open up in the conversation between the two languages.”

All the duets have bilingual titles. Some are more straightforward translations, such as “daily / كل يوم,” while others, such as “Dear White Critic, / رفيقي في الرحيل,” point to two different readings. In this poem, the English title addresses a “White Critic” while the Arabic is to “My Friend in Departure.” That poem was turned into a special limited-edition broadside by its publisher, The Adroit Journal, and an Instagram-video performance by the poet.

Page vs. Performance

Dear White Critic, / رفيقي في الرحيل” thus exists in two different modes: visually and aurally. While some critics make a distinction between “page poets” and “performance poets,” Hashem Beck is decidedly both.

“Performance in front of an audience is how I get to experience people’s possible reactions to it: I mean, how beautiful is it, to get to share this poem with the vessels of your body and voice? I’m not dead! I’m alive! I can read you my poems! But also buy books.”

In recent months, Hashem Beck has also started sharing short, informal video performances on Instagram. “Perhaps I started because I haven’t done many readings this year. Perhaps the pandemic also added to that, though the first videos were before Covid-19. So we go back to the idea that I need to share poetry out loud.”

But Hashem Beck doesn’t share solely her own verse. As she worked on her duets, she began seeking out more Arabic poetry. And, as she read more Arabic work, she wanted to share that journey with others.

“The poet Farah Chamma and I have been talking about starting a poetry podcast in Arabic as a way of learning more about Arabic poems and just talking about poems we like in Arabic,” Hashem Beck said. “I feel we need that kind of content out there about Arabic poetry.”

Although Hashem Beck’s work is broadly admired in English-only poetry communities, it has had a particular impact on writers who move between two or more languages, who have often been told they must master one or the other. “For me,” Jehan Bseiso said, Hashem Beck’s poetry reveals “what becomes possible when we don’t have to choose between Arabic and English.”

Watch more performances of Zeina Hashem Beck’s poetry on her Instagram and YouTube accounts.

Read more of her poems here.




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