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Singing out loud

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 20, 2017

Two worlds: Arabic works itself organically into Zeina Hashem Beck’s poems   -  Hind Shoufani

Louder than HeartsZeina Hashem BeckPoetryBauhan Rs 795

Zeina Hashem Beck’s Louder than Hearts is set deep in the Arab world, and sings of inherited beauty and hurt

Zeina Hashem Beck’s award-winning Louder than Hearts is a visceral tour of lives in the Arab world. The sharply sculpted images keep the stories in our minds long after the book is shut. The ashen pencil box of a schoolchild; the cigarette boxes served like appetisers on trays; melted ghee and roasted pine nuts, which distract a couple from the armed fighters in a street — together they invite the reader into a world whose nuances are lost on us. These are poems born of extreme loss, and of pure delight — they boldly suggest, “Let’s music/ instead, let’s cigarette, let’s wine and laughter.” Edited excerpts from an email interview.

I know your children are proud of your books. How do you share your poetry with them?

I don’t read my poetry to my children, partly because I find that too self-referential, and partly because of the content.

Seeing them proud of my books makes me so happy. Aya (seven) loves to take photographs with my books, and reminds me to save copies for when she grows up. Leina (nine), who can more easily read on her own, grabbed Louder than Hearts when it first arrived and randomly opened it and shouted, “Mom! You have the f-word in that poem!”

She asked if she could read my poems. I’ve shown her a few. I’d like them to reach my poetry on their own, without me imposing it on them. When they start asking questions, I’ll discuss it with them.

Poets such as Safia Elhillo and Eduardo Corral are also writing their first or native language into their poems. Why do you think more writers are able, and choosing, to make that choice now?

I don’t know about the words “are able”. I don’t think we ever needed permission. But I do feel we live in a time when more people are paying attention to poets writing from the margins, and that’s very exciting.

I personally choose Arabic because I exist in a space between English and Arabic. I remember Eduardo Corral tweeting about how he doesn’t italicise the Spanish words in his poems. I love that — it reflects how different languages we speak exist contrapuntally in our heads.

What is it like to be a Lebanese poet in Dubai? How is your poetry received in Lebanon?

On a personal level, my pace of life in Dubai has given me the space to read and write more, and to be disciplined about it. On a public level, I’ve been running Punch, a poetry and open mic night since 2012, and I’ve received nothing but love and support from the community. The city has a lovely literature festival — the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. There’s an increasing effort to include poetry in cultural events around the city. One thing that can be tiring about Dubai is transience — people are always leaving, but I guess people are always arriving too.

As for Beirut, I don’t think I’ll ever be cured of my nostalgia for it. I make sure I do readings in Lebanon when I’m there, and that experience usually has a special flavour, a sort of familiarity. At the launch of Louder than Hearts at Dar Bistro & Books, I explained how a poem mentions Sheikh Imam, and there was a portrait of him on the wall. How beautiful is that?

Living between Beirut and Dubai, I sometimes feel physically remote from many poets writing in English today, many of whom I’d love to sit down and have coffee and face-to-face conversations with. I wish some of the conferences, readings, or poets weren’t seven to 20 hours away by plane. I want to see more funding, fellowships, and support for poets in this region.

Arabic music and rhythm is very important to your poetry. Where does that deep connection come from?

Part of my writing process involves discovering the lines by reading and re-reading them out loud and exploring how they sound. I’ve always been interested in how to convey the sound things make, like how a stapler goes tshk tshk.

I guess my connection to Arabic music comes from the sounds of childhood. I love it so much, it inescapably seeps into my poems. I’m interested in how the songs we repeat and love affect us, shape us.

But I’m not an expert on Arabic music, just your average listener who listens to anything from tarab to pop. You cannot possibly have grown up in Lebanon in the ’80s and missed Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim or Fairuz. Or all the French and English hits of that period, for that matter — from Dalida to Piaf to Aznavour to Queen.

The collection gets its name from a poem in which you’re confronting a loud, screaming part of your self. Can you tell us about that phrase — “louder than hearts”?

Titling the collection came last — always a daunting task for me. My working title was mother/land, mother/tongue. I knew the poems explored my relationship to “home” and to language, and that’s why the collection is dedicated “to our broken languages & our broken cities.”

The titular poem begins with “The woman in me is thousands / of years old.” The woman here is ancient. She is many women. She’s me, my mother, her mother, and her mother. She’s an Arab mother, country, and language I love and quarrel with — whose words I find repeating to my own children.

There are endless connotations for the word “hearts.” What does it mean for them to be loud? What does it mean for something to be even louder than them? More love? Anger? Strength? Healing? Violence? Perhaps I wanted something intense and necessary like a heart, and even louder, and I wanted it to beat both inside and outside of me. The book is singing and shouting out stories of inherited hurt and beauty.

Urvashi Bahuguna is a poet living in Delhi

Published on October 20, 2017
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