Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 2 — Zeina Hashem Beck

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

I haven’t been reading as much as I should be because I’m now in Lebanon with my two daughters, and my routine and personal space always go out the window during that time of the year. In fact, I can hear them scream with their cousins as I type this. But I’ve been dipping in and out Bloodaxe’s anthology Staying Alive, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats, and Jan Beatty’s Jackknife. I also usually read poetry on Twitter (a lot of it via Kaveh Akbar’s feed) and on Poetry Magazine’s phone app.

I’ve been listening to Mashrou’ Leila a lot—perhaps because I’ve watched them in concert last weekend; perhaps because I need some badass Lebanese music that tells me it’s OK to feel exhilarated and exhausted and all kinds of intense when you’re in Lebanon.

I love Leila Chatti’s work, and I’m looking forward to her forthcoming chapbook, Tunsiya/Amrikiya.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter? What brings you joy?

Arabic music always brings me joy and heartache, and it’s one of the ways I practice self-care. This can waver from listening to traditional tarab music to pop-cultury ta2 ta2 ta2 music (yes, I said ta2 ta2 ta2—imagine snapping your fingers and shaking your shoulders). It’s definitely helped me when I was writing some intense poems in Louder than Hearts, and because of that, I ended up writing love poems for Arabic music and singers that went into that collection too.

I dance. I allow myself to cry. I remember to laugh (humor is essential) and be grateful. I talk to close friends. I hug my husband and kids. I talk to my selves in imaginary scenarios. I read poetry. And I do all of the above in my car sometimes (except reading poetry—I listen instead). Some people have seen some strange stuff when parked next to me at red lights.

How does performance fit into your writing?

I don’t know whether one would call that performance, but reading/repeating lines out loud is an important part of my writing process. It helps me discover the pace and direction of a poem. And when I read to an audience, there’s always a degree of urgency and excitement: I want to be present, and I want you to be present with me.

We’re living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?

It is very troubling to watch this American presidency unfold, though it hasn’t opened my eyes to oppressions I wasn’t aware of before it. I have been trying and will continue to try to pay attention, to listen, to resist, and to create something beautiful.

Has 2017 been different for you than other years?

Yes—I assume you mean writing-wise. I’ve been doing what I’d been doing for years, but this year I feel more seen, and I’m grateful for that.

Do you have any cool selfies or pictures of your pets? Can I see them?

Oooh here’s both:

Selfie of me and my best friend Rana before Mashrou’ Leila concert


And a photo of Oreo. She loves me a lot but doesn’t show it. Her favorite person is my nine-year-old daughter Leina. She’s now in Dubai and we miss her.


Photo credit: Natheer Halawani

ZEINA HASHEM BECK is a Lebanese poet. Her second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts, won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire 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 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. Her poem, “Maqam,” won Poetry
Magazine’s 2017 Frederick Bock Prize.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 2. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.