“I think the act of writing poems is, in its essence, an act of translation.”
There Was and How Much There Was (smith|doorstop, 2016)
Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017)
Questions about There Was and How Much There Was:
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
There was and how much there was.
Women gather in this living room.
They empty and fill the coffee cups.
These are the first three lines of the long title poem, also the last poem of the chapbook.
Why did you choose this excerpt?
The expression “there was and how much there was” is a literal translation of the Arabic “kan ya ma kan,” usually translated as “once upon a time.” I love the abundance the literal translation suggests. And then you have the image of the women gathering, emptying and filling coffee cups, so you almost know you are about to step into an abundance of stories about these women, which is quite representative of the chapbook.
Could you tell us about the upcoming performance of your chapbook?
The chapbook is being adapted to the stage by Lebanese director Sahar Assaf. The performance, which will take place on April 1st, 2017, is the closing event for the KIP multidisciplinary conference on discrimination and sexual harassment at the American University of Beirut. Sahar read the chapbook and felt it lends itself well to performance, and that it was in the spirit of the conference. We started working with the title poem, a long piece in the voices of women and a narrator—Sahar asked me to envision five women (other than the narrator) speaking throughout the poem, and to assign them their lines. Once I did that, she began rehearsing with five actresses, after which we incorporated other poems from the chapbook as monologues for each of the characters. The actresses are Marielise Youssef Aad, Nadia Ahmad, Lara Saab, Elyssa Skaff, and Soulafa Soubra. The performance will also include some video art. I’m about to travel and join the rehearsals as the narrator—it’s all very exciting for me! Even more joy: I’ll be launching my second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts, at the event.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
Part of the beauty of a chapbook for me is how the poems are more interrelated than those in a full-length collection (though this doesn’t mean a full collection needn’t have unity). The chapbook feels like a more condensed universe in your hands.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
This particular chapbook wasn’t planned. I had been writing poems about motherhood/ womanhood/ the patriarchy for some time, but I put them on the side and focused on those that would eventually make up my other chapbook, 3arabi Song, and my forthcoming collection, Louder than Hearts. I was probably hiding these poems and hiding from them, wasn’t ready to face them as a body of work, an entity. Some are quite intense and personal—perhaps I was running from that. Many revolve around women and their relationship with their bodies and religion—perhaps I was running from that too. But then Peter Sansom (from The Poetry Business) contacted me, said Carol Ann Duffy had recommended me as a Laureate’s Choice, and asked if I could send him a pamphlet within the next week or so. So, I got to work. And I took that as a sign: it was time for those poems to be out in the world.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
From the beginning, all poems I chose for this chapbook were quite interconnected. Then I tried to place together poems that echoed each other. So, for example, I followed “Mother, Ka’aba” with “Milk,” because both are about giving birth. I also tried to arrange the poems in such a way that made the chapbook open up as it progressed. And I knew I had to write the final poem: I had been thinking about this long poem in the voices of women in conversation, and I had been scribbling notes here and there, but I didn’t have the poem yet. So I put a lot of energy into writing it (I disappeared into my own space for days), and ended up naming the entire chapbook after it. The expression “there was and how much there was” was gifted to me by a friend, when I asked her, “How would you translate kan ya ma kan literally, word per word?”
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
That’s a tough question because there are many, but I’ll mention one with a back story I feel comfortable sharing. The poem “Milk” recalls the pre-term birth of my second daughter. She was sick at birth, couldn’t breathe on her own, and was kept in an incubator until she got better. Meanwhile, at home, I pumped and froze breast milk. The poem goes back to that heartbreaking period, but includes some humor as well.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Before sending the manuscript for typesetting, Peter Sansom and I skyped and went through the poems, and I’m grateful for his keen editorial eye. As for the cover choice, unlike my other books, I wasn’t involved in that at all. But I was pleasantly surprised when the press sent me the design.
Questions about Louder than Hearts
What’s the oldest piece in your book Louder Than Hearts? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
I don’t keep dates on my poems, but one of the older pieces is “You Fixed It.” I distinctly remember I wrote it in one intense sitting—it came to me almost as it is now, in its final form. The poem taps into my Tripoli (Lebanon) childhood, which isn’t the center of the book, but is certainly a big part of the book’s first section.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
The final poem I wrote for Louder than Hearts is the opening poem, “Broken Ghazal: Speak Arabic.” I feel it somehow unifies the book and introduces it, with its reference to mother tongues and mother lands.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
Ha, that’s a fun question. The poem “Carioca,” inspired by Egyptian dancer Taheyya Carioca. I wouldn’t call it a “misfit,” since it does fit in with other poems about Arabic music. But I remember thinking, after I wrote it, “Oh, that could have been a poem in There Was and How Much There Was.”
Betsy Sholl describes Louder Than Hearts as “God-soaked and edgy.” Could you tell us more about how the book reflects on God, translation, and the Arabic language?
This is such a big question—I’ll try to address some of the points you mention, if only to ask more questions.
I don’t think I realized the voice in Louder than Hearts was “God-soaked” until I read Betsy Sholl’s blurb, and then it kind of dawned on me. What I did feel though, as I was writing the book, is I was writing in English, yes, but not really—I was somehow writing in Arabic too, because both languages intersect in my mind. And God is inseparable from language in an Arab context. Believer or non-believer, you can’t speak Arabic and not use the word “Allah” so many times in the span of a day. So yes, God is there, throughout the book, and is constantly reinterpreted.
I think the act of writing poems is, in its essence, an act of translation. For those poets who speak more than one language, poetry then becomes a double/ triple/ etc. act of translation. So, it’s not just a matter of “How do I translate what I’m feeling/ thinking into words?” but also “How do I write within that space between languages, between cultures?”
How do I, for example, write a poem in English about Arabic tarab music, this music that makes you feel both rapture and grief? How do I convey the feeling of listening to Umm Kulthum? How do I describe the call to prayer, I mean really get inside it and describe its effect, rather than just incorporating the words “adhan” or “call to prayer” within a poem? The list goes on, and the poems span from speaking to your aunt in Tripoli to conversing with a “non-Arabic” lover and telling him things like “I’m already tired and you already / mistranslate” or “The ceiling is leaking. Drop the goddamn / camera.”
Could you describe your other books and chapbooks in chronological order? In what ways are they continuations and in what ways are they departures?
My first book, To Live in Autumn (2014), obsesses with Beirut, so the idea of home/ place was already there, and some of the last poems I wrote for that book start to tap into areas that would become central for Louder than Hearts. But I feel my writing/ style/ voice has changed since then.
My chapbook, 3arabi Song (2016), mourns the loss of lives and homes in the Arab world and at the same time celebrates Arabic song and singers. Many poems from it are included in Louder than Hearts, so in some sense, the book is a continuation and an expansion of the chapbook.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Theater—because it also concerns itself with words and going beyond the self, because I love performance, because performance is also part of the writing and reading of poetry.
And I would be a singer too, oh if only I had the voice. But I console myself that poetry, too, is song.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
I’ve said variations of the following before, but it’s always worth it to say it again, in the hopes it does help someone out there:
If you don’t really really love it, don’t do it. If you do, then read every day, read like a writer—slowly, paying attention to the craft. Again: read, even if this means just one poem on busy days. Write, wait, revise, submit, and repeat. Don’t take rejections personally. I know you might feel alone in this, but you are not alone. Take your time, there’s no rush, remember you only want your best work out there. Put in the daily work: this doesn’t mean you have to write daily, but (did I say this?) read, make space in your head for those poems to come, listen, take notes, slow down, listen. Champion fellow poets whose work you like. Tell them you like their work. Share their work. And remember, you love writing.
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her most recent collection, Louder than Hearts, to be released in April 2017, won the May Sarton NH Poetry Prize. She’s also the author of two chapbooks: 3arabi Song, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and There Was and How Much There Was, a smith|doortop Laureate’s Choice, selected by Carol Ann Duffy. Her first book, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. Her work has won Best of the Net, has been nominated for the Pushcart and the Forward Prize, and has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Rialto, among others.
order There Was and How Much There Was here
order Louder than Hearts here
order 3arabi Song here