Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet with a BA and an MA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut. Her first poetry collection, titled To Live in Autumn (The Backwaters Press, 2014) won the 2013 Backwaters Prize, judged by esteemed poet Lola Haskins, was a runner up for the Julie Suk Award, and has been included on Split This Rock’s list of recommended poetry books for 2014. She’s been nominated for two Pushcart prizes, and her poems have been published in various literary magazines, among which are Ploughshares, Nimrod, Poetry Northwest, The Common, Mizna, The Midwest Quarterly, Mslexia, Sukoon, and Magma. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Dubai, where she regularly performs her poetry and hosts the open mic show PUNCH. Her website is http://www.zeinahashembeck.com, and you can follow her on twitter (@zeinabeck) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/zeinahashembeck).
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from your first poetry collection, “To Live in Autumn”. Where and how did you get the idea from?
Zeina Hashem Beck: “To Live in Autumn” is a collection of poems inspired by Beirut and Lebanon. I left Beirut in 2006 and felt nostalgic for it, so I started writing poems about the city, as a way of summoning it back to me in writing. I didn’t realize, at the beginning, that this would turn into a whole book about Beirut, but it eventually did. The poems went beyond mere nostalgia of course, and into a portrayal of my Beirut—its streets, clubs, buildings, taxis, people, and the love/hate relationship one could have with it.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you struggle coming up with the title?
Zeina Hashem Beck: I didn’t worry much about the title at first. My working title was, for years, “Re-Membering Beirut,” because the book deals with memories of a city that I had moved away from, a city that was probably changing in my absence. Years after working on the manuscript, some of my Lebanese friends said they were tired of seeing the word “Beirut” in book titles, that it was becoming a bit clichéd, and I felt they were right. So I came up with another title, “We Who Have Decided to Live in Autumn,” which is also the title of one of the poems in the book. This particular poem portrays the city as some sort of a limbo space between war and peace, tolerance and intolerance, secularism and sectarianism, etc. The manuscript I had submitted to the Backwaters Prize was in fact titled “We Who Have Decided to Live in Autumn,” and poet Lola Haskins, who judged the contest, advised me to shorten it to “To Live in Autumn.”
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write “To Live in Autumn”?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Around seven years.
Geosi Gyasi: What was the most difficult part of writing, “To Live in Autumn”?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Writing “To Live in Autumn” was an enjoyable process. I loved working on the book so much that after I launched it, I felt as if I had the baby blues. One challenging aspect of the writing was probably figuring out the manuscript’s organization. The order of the poems and the different sections in a book matter a great deal to me; I had to have some kind of structure early on, and I kept changing it as I went. Other challenges were finding variation in content, perspective, and tone (since the book is heavily focused on one city), and making sure that I was writing about a city that I loved and missed without being too sentimental.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you ever anticipate that “To Live in Autumn” would win the 2013 Backwaters Prize?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Not at all. I think the best thing a writer could do is actually do the work and keep submitting, and try NOT to anticipate anything (although I’m preaching a little here, because I often get restless, and I keep checking my submissions). I found out that, as long as you are doing the work, good things tend to happen when you least expect them. I received an email from Greg Kosmicki, my publisher, around midnight, telling me I had won. I remember I was sitting on the balcony, and I had to make my husband re-read the email for me to make sure it was real. Then I started screaming and literally jumping up and down. I’m never “cool” about these things. J
Geosi Gyasi: Are you comfortable with the label, “Lebanese Poet”?
Zeina Hashem Beck: I don’t see it as a label. It is part of who I am.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us anything we ought to know about Lebanon?
Zeina Hashem Beck: I don’t like telling; I like showing. That’s why I wrote a whole book about Beirut. Read the book! J
Geosi Gyasi: Sure! But at least, tell us something to make a reader want to pick your book?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Alright, some shameless self-advertising then: the book has won the Backwaters Prize and was runner-up for the Julie Suk Award. It was included on Split This Rock’s list of recommended poetry books for 2014. The poems are carefully crafted, yet also authentic, accessible, and unpretentious; you don’t have to be a poetry expert in order to understand and enjoy them. You also don’t have to have visited Lebanon in order to identify.
In terms of subject matter, “To Live in Autumn” is inspired by the streets, bars, friendships, neighbors, strangers, taxi drivers, cafés, dances, explosions, languages, meetings, and separations that I’ve known. It’s inspired by a city (and a country) that has, and continues to attract/repel/soothe/scare me. If you know Beirut, I hope you will find part of your Beirut in there. If you don’t know Beirut, I hope this book will take you to mine, and that you will carry it with you for some time because
We carry cities, instead of angels,
on our shoulders, we trail them
behind us like old hurts.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever thought about why you write?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Yes, I’ve thought about it because I’ve been asked this question many times. And my answer is always that writing is stronger than me. I simply can’t not write. It’s an obsession, a calling, and I think it has to do with a strong urge to tell stories, a love for language, and a fascination with the power of words.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of published work?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Yes. It was the poem “To Hamra,” which is the second poem in the book. It was also the poem that made me begin to realize that I wanted to write a book about Beirut.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you perform your poems?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Yes, every time I get the chance. Poetry should be read out loud, and I’ve always enjoyed performance; I believe it breathes more life into the poem, both for the audience and the writer.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re the founder of PUNCH, a Dubai-based poetry and open mic collective. Could you spend sometime talking about what you do at PUNCH?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Because performing poetry is important for me, I started PUNCH almost two years ago in order to create a platform where people could simply sign up and read their work. I try to host it every six weeks to two months (depending on how busy and energetic I’m feeling), and it’s usually a mixture of regular poets and newcomers, of experienced and new performers. I believe it’s important for writers at all stages of their careers to share their work with others.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced as a writer?
Zeina Hashem Beck: To answer the question, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer.” To keep believing in your writing, to keep writing, to keep submitting and having faith that you will eventually get published.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you please break down your poem, “After the Explosions”?
Zeina Hashem Beck: “After the Explosions” is a tribute to my hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, and to my cousin. In August 2013, my cousin was shot dead on the street, in Tripoli. Two days later, there were two massive explosions that targeted two mosques in the same city. I was on vacation in Lebanon at the time, and the poem deals with both of these tragedies.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “Ya’aburnee”?
Zeina Hashem Beck: I wrote the poem in July 2014, after the shelling of Shujaiya in Gaza. The images from that bombing kept haunting me all day, even when I was playing with my little girls. The poem also refers to ISIS forcing Christian families out of Mosul. I remember holding all this terrible knowledge with me all day, and then my daughter telling me “ya’aburnee,” which is an endearing term that Arab parents use. It literally translates as “may you bury me,” and implies the parents’ wish of dying before their kids. When my daughter repeated that term that she often hears from me, I felt terrified. I wrote on Rattle, which is where this poem was published, that this was a poem written for the parents who had to bury their children, and for those fighting against the burial of identity.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new projects?
Zeina Hashem Beck: I’m in the process of working on my second collection.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most difficult poem you’ve ever written?
Zeina Hashem Beck: “We Who Have Decided To Live in Autumn” (from the book) took years of revision. “After the Explosions” was difficult to write, because it deals with both a communal and a personal loss. I’ve recently written poems about my youngest daughter’s pre-term birth and my oldest daughter’s severe pneumonia when she was two, and these were tough to write as well. But I think I have yet to write my most difficult poems, and they will probably go places that I have been avoiding so far.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?
Zeina Hashem Beck: For me, it’s usually in the morning, when my kids are at school and my energy levels are highest.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any secret ritual you do before you write?
Zeina Hashem Beck: It’s not a secret, really, and I think many writers do this. I read. I read to get as much beautiful writing as possible under my skin before I begin writing. Coffee is also essential for me (I’m trying, and so far failing, to quit smoking). And more recently, I’ve been listening to Arabic music. And sometimes, I dance.