Author Q&A: Zeina Hashem Beck

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her first book, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters 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 2016 Laureate’s Choice, selected by Carol Ann Duffy. Her second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts, won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in April 2017.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Zeina Hashem Beck

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path? 

I’ve always loved poetry and performance. Even as a little girl, I loved memorizing poems and reciting them dramatically to the class. For me, writing is just inevitable. I can’t but do it. I’m miserable when I’m not writing, or thinking about writing.

As for publishing—at one point after I finished my MA in English Literature, I decided to start submitting to literary magazines, which I didn’t know much about at the time. It was a slow, stubborn process.

You describe yourself as an “Arab writer”—can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most?

In my mind, the words “you describe yourself as” makes it seem as if I’ve adopted some strange identity. I’m an Arab writer, yes—I’m Lebanese. I hasten to indicate it’s not an “I’m-an-Arab-writer-and-so-I-represent-all-Arabs” kind of thing.

I can see the connection here though, between where a writer comes from/lives and what s/he might write about. In my case, some obsessions have been Arab cities, home, exile, refugees, war, Arabic music, and language. I’m also drawn to writing about women, motherhood, the patriarchy (down with it!), and religion.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

Here are some writers from whom I’ve learnt: Charles Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, Wislawa Szymborska, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Carolyn Forché, Carol Ann Duffy, Martín Espada, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marilyn Hacker, Ellen Bass, Elizabeth Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christina Rossetti, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish, Langston Hughes, Adonis, Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab, Majnoon Layla, and Philip Levine.

I also want to mention some writers I’ve recently discovered and whose work I’ve been enjoying: Leila Chatti, Fatimah Asghar, Tiana Clark, Maggie Smith-Beehler, Ada Limón, Matthew Olzmann, and Kaveh Akbar.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, or for discovering a new mode of creativity? 

I’d say it’s probably about waiting. I’ve learnt to wait, not rush a poem, take my time to discover where it wants to go.

What is your creative process? How do you decide when a poem you’re working on is finished?

I read. I need quiet and solitude in order to focus on my writing, and I find that mornings work best for me. As I’ve mentioned in answer to the previous question, one thing I’ve learnt to do is wait. I take notes, I do minds maps. I read/repeat the lines out loud as the poem takes shape. I walk around my room, on the balcony. I leave the poem then come back to it after a while. Once a poem stops calling out that it needs me to discover something, I know I’m getting there. Perhaps what one needs to do is ask, “Have I listened enough?”

You’ve been published in a number of literary journals. What was the publication process like? How did you choose which ones to submit to?

I didn’t know much about literary magazines when I started submitting. I ordered a copy of the CLMP directory, went through it and began researching. I submitted to the ones that appealed to me, that published work I liked. I still learn about literary magazines from the internet, social media, and fellow poets.

I got a lot of rejections at first, and I still get these, of course, but there’s fewer of them now. I’ve also been lucky enough recently to have some work solicited from me. But like I said, it is a slow process, and that’s actually good when you’re just starting. It certainly gave me more time to think about my craft, to revise poems. I would hate it now if some early drafts I had submitted were out there in the world. On the other hand, sometimes your best poems get repeatedly rejected. You just have to trust those poems, and keep submitting them.

And you have to keep in mind that editors are people, that they have different tastes and a lot of submissions to look at, and that they are doing a lot of work so that literary magazines can continue to exist. Thank you, editors, for doing such necessary work.

You’ve published two chapbooks and one collection, and a new collection is about to be published—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

Three of my four books (To Live in Autumn, 3arabi Song, and Louder than Hearts) won poetry prizes, so that’s how they were/will be published. I’m very grateful for that and for the validation it gives. My UK chapbook, There Was and How Much There Was, was solicited by smith|doorstop because Carol Ann Duffy recommended me. The press releases four Laureate’s Choice pamphlets every year, all recommended by Carol Ann Duffy. It was quite a surprise to receive that email from smith|doorstop—I’m still overwhelmed!

Every time I release a book, I’m beyond excited. I don’t think I’ll ever be cool about that. All the presses I’ve published with are run by people who are enthusiastic about poetry and my work, and that’s important.

One thing I discovered after publishing my first book is that I had to do a lot of work myself in order to push for my book, to get reviews and readings, for example, and that can be quite exhausting, time-consuming, and can suck the creative energy out of you. I don’t know if this is different with bigger presses, if they might have contacts or resources that would make things a little easier. Both of my chapbooks have just been released, and my second full collection is forthcoming, so I can’t evaluate the post-publication experiences for these yet. But 2016 has definitely been the most intense and exciting year for me so far!

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing? 

Publishing poems in The Rialto is what brought my work to Carol Ann Duffy’s attention, so that was definitely important. I’m also grateful that 3arabi Song has reached so many readers because it was distributed to all subscribers. But writing and publishing are ongoing processes—you can’t really pin them down to this or that experience. I feel everything feeds into everything else. You just have to keep doing the work and hope/trust good things will come your way.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

Read, write, revise, submit, and repeat. Take your time. Find the platforms that publish work you love. Try to connect/have conversations with fellow writers around you. Read fellow writers and let the ones whose work you like know you’re a fan. Remember you love writing.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

It would be self-aggrandizing to say “I’ve accomplished so much.” I’ve certainly come a long way, and I’m grateful for the journey. I hope to keep writing, and that my new writing surprises me. It’s way too early for me to know what I’ll be doing next.