In the latest of our continuing Poets in Conversation series, award-winning poets Eileen Chong and Zeina Hashem Beck open unexpected doors.
To begin with, Zeina, I love how you open your collection with ‘Broken Ghazal: Speak Arabic’—I find it so moving the way you foreground the Arabic language, and how you show that for you, history, culture, identity, family, are all entwined with the Arabic language. I especially identify with the poem in the middle of the book, ‘The Woman in Our House’, where your title is drawn from; it plays with the idea of the mother tongue so well.
I particularly love how, as a non-Arabic reader/ speaker, to read through the poems initially without understanding of the Arabic words, and to revisit the poems with the aid of the glossary, carries out this push-pull experience of not understanding, wanting to understand, being conscious of the difference/ barrier, then being welcomed into the poems with language as the doorway. Can you tell me more about your deep love affair with the Arabic language? How it embodies meaning for you? How it carries you in poetry and in life?
‘Broken Ghazal: Speak Arabic’ was one of the last poems I wrote for Louder than Hearts, and it ended up opening the collection. I feel it encapsulates the spirit of the book, how it deals with cultural and linguistic translation, but perhaps more importantly for me, the poem explores my relationship with my mother language. Someone recently asked me, after reading my work, if I considered myself a third-culture kid, and I replied that I didn’t. My formative years were in Lebanon, and the language I spoke with my family and friends was Arabic. Though I’m French-educated and learnt English at the age of twelve, though I was exposed to all these different languages and cultures, Arabic was the mother tongue and Lebanon was the mother land (one can argue I don’t fully belong to either anymore). Despite that, my relationship with Arabic was always complex: Why don’t you write in it? I’m often asked. I never felt fully comfortable writing in standard Arabic, which is different from the Lebanese dialect we spoke at home. I wavered between extremes when I thought of Arabic; it was either, “I don’t like this complicated language and the boring way it’s taught and I can’t relate to it” or “This language is perfect, so perfect I will NEVER be able to write in it and do a good job.” There was love, fear, guilt, awe. I think I’ve learnt to take it easier on myself these days, and just do my best. Arabic is definitely very present in Louder than Hearts, in the Arabic words and the Arab cultural references, but also in the general spirit of the book.
I’m very happy you enjoyed the experience of not fully understanding, then discovering, when reading some of my poems. Though I’m very grateful about the book’s reception, there were a few instances when white readers said they were confused, or that reading the glossary at the end of the book was too much work. And this is why I think we need more POC reviewers!
I had an experience similar to the one you describe when I read your poem, ‘Elementary Chinese'. I enjoyed the language and imagery (lines like “A thing that is not bark is a glass”) and wondered whether they were inspired by Chinese songs or sayings. Then I read the footnote, which explained that the poem “describes how the separate components, or radicals, of the [Chinese] characters come together to create new meaning.” It was beautiful to go back and re-read the poem with that knowledge in mind.
I know you grew up in Singapore then moved to Australia as an adult, and that you write in English and speak Mandarin, Hokkien, and English. Can you tell me how relationships with your different languages inform your writing?
‘Elementary Chinese’ was a poem I wrote very early on in my writing career; I think I wrote it in 2010 or 2011. The poem itself was borne out of a frustration about my inability to read or write Chinese; my command of the written Chinese language is elementary, at best. That got me thinking about the Chinese classes I had to endure in school, and how the only Chinese teacher that ever held my interest and made sense to me was Mrs Chow, who explored the radicals in each Chinese character as she taught Chinese. She was quite revolutionary for her time, because Chinese language classes (taught in mainstream schools for students who had Chinese as their mother tongue) were based on repetition and rote learning. She went through each student’s Chinese name and explored the various components of their name, and the possible range of meanings, and how they connected with elements of Chinese culture, tradition, and history. It was in her class, at age twelve, that I learnt how to pronounce my Chinese name correctly; prior to that I had been mispronouncing it. I also learnt what my name meant, for the first time.I read an essay today by Rebecca Kuang, called ‘How to Talk to Ghosts’ (Uncanny Magazine, Issue 21). It was so very powerful, and connected so many dots for me about the notion of cultural belonging and ownership, as well as how we fabulate our histories in order to make sense of our present. Sometimes I feel very divorced from my culture, because I am Chinese diaspora twice over—three of my grandparents were born in China, one of them in Singapore; they didn’t speak Mandarin, but various Chinese dialects (Hakka and Hokkien). So, going back to my poem, it was really an exploration of the various elements within words, but also a window into how differently the Chinese mind works because of the language. The Chinese language is highly figurative, but also concrete and literal, with each word built up by elements that describe the whole.
It was fascinating for me to have this poem translated into Chinese, because there is no mystery in the Chinese version—the poem is essentially a list of descriptions about certain words. I liked how the translations extended the sense of the mystery: the translators essentially created a whole new riddle-poem based on the concept of ‘Elementary Chinese’, an extension of the child-like play within the poem. I find it interesting how the both of us have such deep connections to our mother tongues, yet feel like we are unable to write in them, except in fragments, except in integration within the work. I have other poems where I have phrases within from other languages (Hokkien, Chinese, Malay, Singlish). We are the living embodiments of liminality, of negotiated identities.
Zeina, I wanted to talk about your deep connection to your mother country, Lebanon. You write several moving poems about the violence and upheaval that refugees have had to go through, and are still going through. It is extremely brave and urgent work; and the act of bearing witness through your poetry is, I think, something that really stands out for me. Yet I think about how POC writers are often expected to write about or of trauma, at worst, embody trauma over and over for a predominantly white audience. Can you tell us more about this?
The story about learning how to pronounce your Chinese name at age twelve is a poem! And Mrs Chow sounds like a wonderful teacher.
With Lebanon, it’s a love-hate relationship, as is the usual case with one’s mother country, I feel. I started writing more about Lebanon when I moved away in 2006, and also because I love writing about place. When I enter a space, I always wonder, What stories lived/live/will live here?
The refugee crisis is something you witness daily when you live in Lebanon, a country that has Palestinian and Syrian refugees, and where war is always either at home or next door. So how could one not react to/write about that? I also want to add that the poems in Louder than Hearts celebrate the beautiful too.
I’m grateful for your comment about POC writers often expected to write about trauma. My take on this is that I’m aware of it, but I won’t let it dictate what I write about. Some of my new poems are about love, the body, disease, God, mortality, motherhood, and themes I probably can’t pin down yet because it’s too early. Some of my new poems are also about home and language. Of course, one can’t neatly separate “themes” in a poem, so that one poem will be about love and home and death and God and and and. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the new poems are not all overtly political. What I tell myself is, I will write whatever feels urgent and necessary to me at the time of writing; I believe the good poems can only emerge out of that urgency and listening. Carl Philips has an essay that touches on this subject, titled ‘A Politics of Mere Being’. And your beautiful poem, ‘Seven in the Bamboo’, does that too. The persona in it recounts daily activities (coffee, sitting with cats, listening to the radio, eating, stretching, etc) and then says, “I don’t think / about pain, or loss, or the past, although they are there.” It seems to me this wants to challenge some readers’ expectations of what a POC poet “should” write about.
I love how you write about food in your poems, and how this is connected to memory, identity, and family. Can you tell us about the importance of food in your writing? What’s one of your favorite dishes? Your book The Uncommon Feast has poetry, essays, and recipes! Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing a hybrid book?
I think there is definitely a place for political poems, as well as poems that aren’t overtly political. Poetry is complex, and this is what I love about it—it is irreducible, it is its own entire universe, and/or sometimes a doorway or window into multiple other universes. There are so many poems of joy and beauty in Louder Than Hearts, and personal poems of love and quietness, like the beautiful ‘نوم’.
It’s so interesting you should pinpoint ‘Seven in the Bamboo’, which is from my third book, Painting Red Orchids. I wrote that poem after I saw an artwork in the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Raquel Ormella (who later became my friend, because of the poem). It was a political banner, with the words “I’m afraid I’m not political enough” painted in white, on black cloth. Growing up in a place like Singapore, we were always instructed by family to not be political, to never say anything political to anyone. There is a deep awareness in Singapore of the need for self-censorship. I spent much of my life in Singapore fighting any political sentiments, and when I became a poet, I felt like I had to be very careful about what I was writing about. It has taken me a while to feel like I can be safely political as a human being, much less as a poet or creator.
Like you, I have deeply ambivalent feelings about my mother country. I left Singapore in 2007, and started writing poetry in 2009. I don’t think I could have become a poet, certainly not the kind of poet I have become, if I had stayed in Singapore. Distance seems to be necessary for reflection, processing, reinventing. I didn’t miss too much about Singapore initially, because there was so much to learn about my new country. But how much I missed the food—the easy availability of all the food I grew up eating, its multicultural flavours, its connection with friends and family.
I’m really pleased for the existence of The Uncommon Feast; not everyone reads poetry, because poetry has a bad reputation for being highbrow, inaccessible, and irrelevant. So many people have picked up the book for its essays and/or its recipes, only to fall in love with the poems. This is what I’m about—to redefine what poetry means for people who might not ordinarily read poetry. In a sense, I feel like many poetry events are about preaching to the converted. I want to show that poetry can be relevant to everyone, not just academics or poets. So to have a book where there is a poem about, say, Scotch broth (my husband is Scottish), and then to have a recipe for the dish right next to it, is sending the message that poetry is not something esoteric or removed from daily life. It is nourishment for the soul, as much as food nourishes the physical being. And I think the daily joys, pain, and individual histories are present in the writing about food. Food is something we, as humans, all need on a very basic level, and it is something that everyone can connect with and contribute to.
Zeina, I’d love to talk about your use of form in your work: I love the ghazal, but it especially takes on so much power in your poems. Can you tell us about your choice of form, either in the ghazals, or otherwise? Does it feel like a form that leads you back into your lived experiences and memories? I know that when I write certain poems, it’s almost like I hear an overlay of my mother tongues, be it Singlish, Hokkien, or Mandarin, and it affects the content, the choice of words, even though I am writing in English. Do you have a similar experience?
That’s so beautiful, combining poetry with recipes, Eileen. And speaking of form, I love your villanelle about your grandmother, ‘Revisit’.
I discovered the ghazal form in English poetry not too long ago (perhaps around 2012) through the poetry of Marilyn Hacker and Mimi Khalvati. Before that, the word ghazal simply meant a love poem to me. I was immediately drawn to the form and began reading more about it, and I gradually found myself at home in it. I love how the ghazal doesn’t have to have narrative or thematic unity, how the unity between couplets is created through music, repetition, and association. I love the leaps between couplets: one can switch persona, register, theme. One can blend the personal and the political, the divine and the profane, etc. I feel that the form’s “restrictions” are liberating, that they give the poet so much room to play around in. When reading a ghazal, I enjoy discovering how the refrain comes back differently at the end of each couplet. And the ghazal is still a love poem of course, with endless possibilities as to who the beloved can be. Agha Shahid Ali writes that “what defines the ghazal is a constant longing.”
In the Urdu tradition, the ghazal is read in the mushaira (poetry reading) and involves audience anticipation and participation. I imagine this to be similar to the experience of ‘zajal’ in Lebanese tradition. I remember watching zajal sessions on TV, where poets were seated at a long table with food and drinks, and they competed against each other. Their poems were improvised and sort of sung, and the audience participated. Perhaps that’s why I was attracted to the ghazal! In her book Ghazal Cosmopolitan, Shadab Zeest Hashmi writes that the form was able to transcend the culture of its origins “and made itself at home in vastly different cultures and times.” That’s probably another reason I’m drawn to it; perhaps the ghazal resembles me, in my living between different cultures.
I’d like to talk to you a little about how you connect to the poetry world. Both of us come from outside the academia. I personally feel a bit distant from the “scene” sometimes, because I live in Dubai (though there is a small poetry community in Dubai that I’m grateful for); many conferences or festivals where poets meet and connect are often half a day of air travel away. I feel I need my non-poetry family (my friends who have nothing to do with poetry), but I need a poetry family too. I’m constantly creating one, I think, especially through reading the work of POC writers and being in touch with them on social media or when I do get to travel (I try to travel a few times a year for readings). And I try to stay tuned by listening to podcasts and reading interviews like this one. How do you connect to the poetry world?
I really love the story of how you came to the ghazal. For me, the point of connection with what might be seen as my poetic heritage, in classical Chinese poetry, also came to me through English; through translated work.
I’m glad you’ve asked about connecting to the poetry world. Connection and community is very important to me. When I first started writing poetry, I felt very much afloat in a world I didn’t feel I belonged to. The Australian poetry scene can be very white, and at one of my first poetry readings, I was asked by an older (white) lady how I learnt to speak English so well. This is, sadly, a common story of racial microaggression that most POCs are used to, along with the dreaded ‘Where do you really come from?’ question.
I had trained as a teacher in Singapore, and my world is now quite perfect because I get to teach poetry workshops in schools, which allows me to combine my great passions for both poetry and teaching. This is also a great point of connection for me: to nurture young writers, to inspire future readers and writers, to change their minds about what poetry could be, and what a poet might look like. I was really moved today when after class, an Asian-Australian student came up to me afterwards, wanting to talk to me, but not knowing what to say. I was shy, too, and we didn’t really say much. But I wish I had said to her: I see you. If I can do it, you can, too. I believe this wholeheartedly. Which brings me to my point about where I see myself: I do feel the weight of representation, but the positive side of that is knowing I am part of something much bigger.
The poetry community now, for me, is made up of many parts—I do feel like I have the privilege of belonging in several worlds. I am lucky to live in Sydney, and to have roots in Singapore, and to be able to connect with poetic communities both on and offline. I like to reach out to fellow poets, whether in person or over social media, to trade books and discuss their work. I think it comes from a spirit of generosity, of sharing, of seeing and respecting someone’s toil at their craft, and also of being seen. I think it is important to remember that a community is only as strong as its individual members. We are all poets who love poetry. I truly believe that there is room for everyone, and that we can continue to make space for all voices to be heard.
This conversation was first published in The Lifted Brow #38. Get your copy here.
Eileen Chong is an award-winning Sydney poet who was born in Singapore. She is the author of six books, the latest being Rainforest from Pitt Street Poetry. www.eileenchong.com.au.
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her latest collection is Louder Than Hearts, winner of the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize.