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.”