Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her third full-length poetry collection, O, was published by Penguin Books in July 2022. Her collection Louder than Hearts won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. She’s also the author of 3arabi Song, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook prize, There Was and How Much There Was, a 2016 Laureate’s Choice selected by Carol Ann Duffy, and To Live in Autumn, winner of the 2013 Backwaters Prize. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New York Times, Poetry, Ploughshares, World Literature Today, the Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Educated in Arabic, English, and French, Zeina has a BA and an MA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut. Zeina invented The Duet, a bilingual poetic form where English and Arabic exist separately and in relationship to each other. Her poem “Maqam” won Poetry Magazine’s 2017 Frederick Bock Prize. She’s the co-creator and co-host, with poet Farah Chamma, of Maqsouda, a podcast about Arabic poetry. After a lifetime in Lebanon and a decade in Dubai, Zeina recently moved to California.
Sara Elkamel: God seems to be an omnipresent character throughout this collection. But the speaker’s relationship to Him seems to be less of supplication and more of conversation, and curiosity. In “Ghazal: With Prayer,” you write:
When I interviewed God, I said I moved the plants toward the light,
forgot the water. Is love a lack, always imbued with prayer?
What is the relationship between poetry and spirituality for you?
Zeina Hashem Beck: The “O” in “God” is definitely one of the O’s of the book, which begins and ends with prayer; as I started thinking toward a collection, I discovered I had somehow taken the decision to move inward. Poetry itself is a sort of prayer, its language taking you on a transcendental journey. I’m always looking for the sort of poems I want to repeat to myself, and in repetition is ritual making. Poetry is of the body and beyond it, and the conversation with God is of course also a conversation with the self. At a poetry event yesterday, I was asked about poetry and its role, and I remembered a line by the late Palestinian poet Mourid Al-Barghouti. In his book-long poem “Midnight,” there’s a part that describes him going into an orange grove as a child and fainting from the intensity of the scent. His grandfather picks him up and kinda jokingly scolds him, “Do oranges kill you, boy?” So, at the risk of sounding too-much-Tripoli, perhaps poetry is to be constantly killed by oranges, despite everything. And isn’t that spiritual?
SE: That’s a gorgeous, and haunting, description of poetry! I don’t know if I will ever write a poem again without smelling oranges–which is coincidentally, another “O” word. You mentioned that the “O” in “God” is one of the O’s of the book: what are some of its other O’s?
ZHB: Love, Ode, Joy, Home, Mother, Memory, Sorrow, Body. I was telling a friend the other day that I wish the word “friend” had an O in it because friendship is an important part of the book. She joked and said, “frond.” But of course “friend” falls under Love—everything does.
SE: I’m thinking of all the rituals that each of these O’s dictate, so I wanted to ask you: Do you follow certain rituals as you write?
ZHB: And we are back at ritual, haha. The rituals keep changing, and it’s not like if I don’t follow this or that ritual, the poems won’t come, because poems sometimes come at a traffic light or in the midst of a crying fit on the bathroom floor. Generally though, I like being alone, and I like being in a space that has windows. I prefer pen and paper, and I prefer the morning. I like reading before I write, though I don’t always do that. Sometimes I put on music and dance. And coffee, of course.
SE: I am astounded by the musicality and the intricacy of your ghazals; the one that opens the book, for instance, travels from prayer, to civil war, to mythology. The form is one you keep returning to—what keeps you committed to the ghazal?
ZHB: It’s precisely this travel you describe that keeps me returning to the ghazal! I love the repetition (think ritual and prayer again) and variation that this form allows. I love that unity in a ghazal is against unity (or what received ideas one might have about it), that the couplets are unified (but also not, since each stands on its own) by how you will return to the rhyme and refrain differently every time. This gives you so much freedom to jump between realms, so much room for juxtaposition.
SE: The ode is another form that appears frequently throughout the collection. In contrast to the ghazal, which has clear constraints, the ode is a less ritualized form. How would you define your odes? Do you approach them differently than you do your ghazals?
ZHB: For me, the ode is a poem of praise. I realize there are different kinds and forms of odes, but I never studied them. I know the ode was supposed to be sung, and that’s interesting because in Urdu, the ghazal is sung too. Perhaps both have a performative quality to them that takes you on some kind of lyric trip. The odes in O are often odes for what one might consider unworthy of praise: the afternoon, disappointment, fear, leaving, hunger, and my body (which I’ve never managed to love fully). The poem “Ghazal-Ode for My Body” combines both forms, weaving ghazal couplets throughout a long ode.
The ode doesn’t have the formal rules of the ghazal, and doesn’t do the same kind of leaps, so yes, the approach is different, though juxtaposition and lyricism are still there.
SE: I find your bilingual poems, the Duets, astonishing. I admired how the two languages (Arabic and English) echo, deepen, and sometimes contradict one another. In “Prophecy” (“نبوّة”), for instance, the poem ends: “& I have not stopped looking for you” — and “I have stopped looking for you” (in Arabic). Could you describe your process of writing these poems?
ZHB: Thank you! Someone bilingual, like you, who’s also familiar with both cultures, is the ideal reader for the Duets because you recognize the echoes and contradictions and how switching languages might change perception. I think each of the Duets in the book had its own process. With “daily كلّ يوم” for example, the Arabic came first, almost the entire text, then I edited it and weaved in the English. “prophecy نبوّة” was a bit easier to write because it’s almost a dialogue. “Ode to Leaving غربة” came after I had some of the English text (that emulates Whatsapp messages), but the poem felt incomplete until I realized it wants to be a Duet. For others, I remember starting them as Duets right away. They’re difficult for me to write, the Duets, because you want them not to feel affected and you want them to flow. Sometimes, for example, the English and Arabic flowed well together but the Arabic didn’t work when read on its own. Or vice versa, etc. Sometimes the Arabic addresses a different person than the English, or exists in a different time. It wasn’t an easy process, but it was a fun difficulty.
SE: Working on the Duets, did you unearth a relationship between translation and contradiction?
ZHB: I’m not sure this answers your question, but in Arabic, I feel freer. I grew up in Arabic. Although one could also argue that I’m constrained by the fact that Arabic is more difficult for me to write. Each language carries with it its freedoms and constraints, its readers and references too. One of the things the Duets consider is that writing about the same thing in a different language becomes writing about a different thing. Perhaps in English I’m kinder to Lebanon. As you mentioned in your previous question, the persona in one of the Duets stops looking for the city/friend/lover, whereas in English, the voice of the poem is still looking, as if more hopeful, more deceived maybe. In “blue أزرق” for example, the city is still worshiped in English, but not so in Arabic; it’s as if you see it more clearly, without the distance of English. At times, there are also certain images and lines that I felt belonged more to Arabic. In “Dear White Critic رفيقي في الرحيل” the Arabic is not even addressed to the critic, but to a friend, because the white critic doesn’t even exist there. In “Ode to Leaving غربة” the English is in the present after the friends have parted and left Beirut, whereas the Arabic is in the past when they were still in the same city. Perhaps in English there’s always a departure and in Arabic there’s a returning. But I don’t have rigid theories about this—it’s all about experimenting and seeing what opens up.
SE: I am trying to put my finger on what drives your piercing lyric voice. I am beginning to think it might be the way you heavily rely on memory as a propellant for your lyrics. For instance, in “Souk,” you write:
I used to think my shadow didn’t belong to me—
my mother found me, two years old, terrified,
trying to run from it in the corridor.
Can you tell me about the way childhood memories make their way onto the page for you?
ZHB: I’m not sure how they do that! I sometimes feel it’s an Umm Kulthum “بفكّر فيك وانا ناسي ” / “I think of you as I forget you” kind of relationship. Perhaps the specificity, the zooming-in toward the memory, no matter how distorted, grounds the emotion for me before and/or after expanding it. There are specific memories I’ve always known would be present/transformed in poems, but I wait a lot. Like the story of me being scared of my old shadow that you mention here, or the story of Mom seeing everything before it happened on the day I was born—I always knew in my heart that they would somehow make their way into a poem, but I needed to be ready. And the point isn’t really just the story, is it? It’s a labyrinth within the self and the world.
SE: Beirut is also incredibly present in this collection. I am particularly haunted by the following lines, from “Pilgrim”:
& my city is a leash
that suffocates me the farther I stray
from the Mediterranean between the buildings.
I am interested in all the ways you invoke the body when you talk about places. (Elsewhere, in “Ghazal: Dear Beirut,” a country-shaped bruise appears on a mother’s skin.) Can you tell me a little about the body’s place in your poetry?
ZHB: It’s funny you should say that, because I wanted to keep Beirut as out of this book as possible, haha. But of course that could never happen, because Beirut is in my body. Our cities always are. However, I think that in previous collections, my focus was more on the place-place in its beauty and chaos, and songs. In O, the female body itself is the place, the body as a city within a city within a city. What do hands, teeth, shoulders, fat, breasts, uterus tell us? What does it mean to live in this home that ages, gets sick, desires?
SE: Are there specific writers you returned to as you shifted towards working with the female body as place?
ZHB: To be honest, I don’t remember much about the chronology of my reading, since the collection took years, and since that shift wasn’t a very conscious one at first. But Iman Mersal’s How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts comes to mind (I read it some years ago in Arabic). Incidentally, I’ve also been reading (for months!) Mersal’s In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat, which is a search for an unknown Arab woman writer. I’m digressing, but not really.
SE: Ah, yes. In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat beautifully captures the city of Cairo in the first half of the 20th century, as well as contemporary Cairo. The city almost becomes a character in her biography of Enayat Al-Zayyat. I really admire the way you, too, work with the city as a complex character in O. In “Ode to Lipstick,” a kinship appears between motherhood and the city. I am thinking of the lines:
When asked to put “from” in a sentence,
your daughter wrote, “I am from my mother.”
You’ve decided you are country enough.
Motherhood seems to be a growing subject in your poetry—has motherhood, or writing about motherhood, changed the way you think and write about cities?
ZHB: Perhaps, looking at my kids, and especially after we’ve moved out of the Arab world and to California, I have this growing realization that their ideas of home, of mother/land and mother/tongue, are very different from mine. I’m not sure whether motherhood accentuates or attenuates loss, fear, distance, time. There’s certainly my loss of Beirut and Tripoli after I left, and then somehow losing them again because my children don’t know them as closely as I do/did. In so many ways, children make you more aware of your small deaths. But the themes in the book constantly intersect, as you point out, and not just motherhood and the city. Motherhood, friendship, god, love, home, languages, cities, memory, illness, aging—there’s really no separating one from the other.
SE: I remember attending a reading for Beirut that you were part of, shortly after the August 2020 explosion, and a lot of what you said and read has stayed with me the past two years. If I am remembering correctly, I think you said: “If you move the door, do you move the house?” Has poetry been a way to ensure “the house” (of memory, of language, of your cities) stays put? Or has it opened portals towards elsewhere?
ZHB: Poetry is the way to make sure nothing stays put, nothing is too comfortable, nothing is certain, nothing is iconized. I bet I was an emotional mess in that reading. Did I say that? I don’t remember much, but I was in deep grief and I was probably thinking about where we will end up and whether we’d be able to go back to Lebanon. I read something about what we house inside us, I think, which brings us back to the cities, languages, and memories inside our bodies. But being a poet means dismantling all your houses. You ask whether poetry has opened portals; poetry is a portal, and I was thinking about this when I titled the book O.