The Same Water at Different Points: A Conversation with Hala Alyan and Zeina Hashem Beck
By Summer FarahOctober 25, 2023
We Call to the Eye & the Night: Love Poems by Writers of Arab Heritage by Zeina Hashem Beck and Hala Alyan
The bountiful redefinitions of love that each poet offers are collected in loosely themed sections, giving the collection a conversational feel—coherent but not stagnant, related but not repetitive. The volume is unhierarchical, in terms of both the writers included and the way the editors present expressions of their theme. Titans of the field sit alongside emerging artists; self-care rises to the same level of worthiness as romantic love. To read Sarah Uheida’s affirming prose poem that ends “& it feels good, god, it feels good,” then flip through to Zaina Alsous’s “Owed to Protest,” which ends “Create a swimming pool / from tactic song, bellowing our dead. / As if to say: no one leaves here / without us,” is to admire these multiple, capacious forms of love.
We Call to the Eye & the Night is an exciting new resource, granting access to a myriad of Arab writers writing in English today.
SUMMER FARAH: What was it like putting the anthology together? The order of the pieces is so wonderful, cohesive but unexpected, so I’d love to hear how you came to that.
ZEINA HASHEM BECK: This anthology was born out of chaos. The way I remember it, Hala texted me saying, “Hey, do you wanna do an anthology of Arab poets?” and I was like “Yeah, sure,” and she was like “What do you think the theme should be?” and I said, “Love?” and she said, “Yeah, love!”
HALA ALYAN: It’s worth noting that there were two big journeys happening in our respective lives. I was going through a bunch of infertility stuff and Zeina was completely upending her life and moving from Dubai all the way across the world to California. I’m trying to remember when we first started reaching out to people …
I remember the call going up in 2019, so it’s been a few years. When you spend a long time with one project, whether it be your own book or working with other texts, I feel like there are a lot of points of discovery. What were examples of those for you?
ZEINA: I think we kept comforting each other, that it’s okay that it’s taking longer than expected, it’s okay that it’s chaotic. And I do feel like, because we lived with it so long, and we lived with, you know, Hala becoming a mom, my move across continents, it was such a relief that the anthology was actually about love.
At that moment, “that moment” meaning four years [laughter], I don’t think we could have dealt with poems other than, like, abundant, humorous, erotic love poems. So, I guess one of the things we realized is we also kept being surprised that it was taking us so long, and then we kept being surprised, like, “Wow, these are good poems! We did well!”
ALYAN: It’s the first time I’ve done anything in the written form that’s been deeply collaborative. It was a really lovely lesson in stepping up and stepping back. Working with Zeina, we matched so well, so naturally, in a lot of ways. We were very good at a lot of things intuitively. I’m much more decisive, but Zeina is conscientious. I think we did a good job at kind of being, like, “Okay, this is your domain, this is your domain,” and then there were the parts neither of us wanted to do. It’s a true collaboration. Then, when the press comes in, there’s a third entity that also has ideas and opinions. An anthology is the definition of a bunch of cooks in the kitchen.
ZEINA: We were very lucky that we found a press that was also laid-back. Hala said we completed each other in such a beautiful way in that, when I was kind of breaking down and unable to do shit, she was like, “No, I can do it.”
HALA: I remember we would joke, “What happens if we both break down at the same time?”
ZEINA: [Laughter.] If we both lose it!
HALA: But it didn’t happen! It worked out. While putting it together, those were a couple of very tumultuous years—the explosion in Beirut. I think there was something that was really soothing about constantly being saturated with poems that were meditations on love. If this anthology had been about war …
ZEINA: Oh, my God, no.
HALA: Psychically, it would have been a completely different experience. There was something about the topic that was like getting into a warm bath.
Do you feel that your relationship to the genre of love poems has shifted over the years?
HALA: The poets took the theme of love and just went in all of these gorgeous, unexpected directions. I think, probably, I began more narrow-mindedly, thinking, “Love, great, mmm, you know, maternal love, romantic love, you know, great,” and then there were these beautiful poems submitted on friends, and pets, and locations, and times of the year, and self—
HALA: You know, when you say a word, you assume you know the definition of something, and then someone uses it in a sentence in a way that you’ve never heard before, and you’re like, “Oh, there’s another way to think about this word.” There was a little bit of that in this theme in general: seeing the directions that people took it was in and of itself illuminating.
ZEINA: We have a beautiful range in terms of different interpretations of love but also different ages, different generations, different countries, not just US-centric. Hala has spent a lot of time in the Arab world. I was still back in Dubai when this anthology was in process, and so we recognize, yes, you’re talking about writing in English, so there are a lot of people from the US, but we wanted as much as possible not to center America.
HALA: Either you do a curated anthology, where you pursue certain people, or you do an open call. The open call felt to me like kind of more … I was gonna say “democratic,” but I don’t even know what that word means anymore. A sort of fair, open way to do it. And I’m glad we did that, that it allowed us to get a fair amount of diversity. We were able to get such an amazing range of people from different places, different backgrounds, different identity markers, different ways that they intersected with Arabness.
ZEINA: Yeah, we got a lot of people we didn’t know about! And different styles.
What were your outreach methods to try to create such international and regional variety?
HALA: I think we just did social media, for the most part. We were very lucky that a lot of the people that followed us then shared the call. People told their people.
ZEINA: I remember Saleem Haddad pointed me to Nusaiba Imady, whom I didn’t know about. Then poets and writers across the world told their friends.
That’s so beautiful, such a wonderful, extra level of collaboration. Would you say that the curatorial or editorial process affected your own writing?
ZEINA: Well, I’m an order freak in a way, but in terms of how the poems might have affected our own writing, I don’t think I can pin it down. I’m sure they affected us, but I don’t know how, other than the fact that they offered delight, soothed …
HALA: Yeah, like a balm, or something.
ZEINA: I remember Hala didn’t even want to put our own poems in the anthology.
HALA: That’s right [laughs].
ZEINA: The press said, “Well, give us a poem.”
That’s funny. I think that the anthology would feel incomplete without work by the two of you! Sometimes editors don’t want to step into it, so it’s funny that the press, um, pressed—
HALA: That was also an invitation to think about my own work a little bit differently. I’m glad in the end that we did it.
Were there other anthologies you looked to as models?
ZEINA: I don’t think so. Okay, here’s the thing about anthologies. We both don’t read them cover to cover. We dive in and out and in and out, and I think that’s what people will do with our anthology as well. I like to open an anthology on a random page and just start reading. I do that with poetry books as well.
HALA: I’ve never read an anthology beginning to end … which, now that I know the work that goes into ordering it, it seems really disrespectful, actually [laughter]. There was a lot of intuitiveness in this. For better or worse. By the time the press came in, they also provided some of that buttressing that you need from a third party, so that was really helpful to have.
ZEINA: And they gave us sample intros from anthologies they’d published.
What was the press outreach like?
HALA: We made a list of presses. I have a wonderful personal assistant who helped figure out who the contact people were at maybe a total of eight places. I felt very certain that we would find a press, you know. And Persea Books was a really good fit temperamentally—they were just very flexible, this nice combination of hands-off and very available for feedback.
Earlier, you said that there were things that neither of you wanted to do. Would you tell me what those kinds of tasks were?
ZEINA: Well, ordering the anthology. I’m good at ordering my own poems, but when it comes to, like, 83 different poets, some of whom we knew, some we didn’t know. The press helped, in terms of saying, “Okay, this bunch of poems works together.” At the beginning, when we sent the manuscript to the press, we just had them in alphabetical order.
Zeina, what’s your philosophy when ordering your own work?
ZEINA: I put poems on the floor and I just keep moving them, and I think about transitions, like, “Oh, that poem has a door in it, which is a good, you know, segue into that other poem that has a door,” or “This one will end this section, this one will begin the other section.” I go endlessly through it. I also do maps: horizontally, I map out the collection—I mean, it’s not a mind map but branching out, doing a little bit of doodling and drawing; it just kind of comes together. It’s also intuitive. There’s no law.
I treat the order that a single-authored collection is in as very sacred—whether or not the poet feels that way! I take it very seriously when I read. I’d love to know about how the two of you read, in general. I mean, this is the first time I’ve ever sat down and read an anthology cover to cover, and that’s because I’m interviewing the two of you about it.
HALA: I agree with you. It’s funny because I don’t think about order that much. I sometimes read collections out of order too, which probably is annoying for the author, who probably spent a lot of time putting it in a specific sequence. It’s all in one place, that’s what matters.
ZEINA: A collection of poems is a collection, at the end of the day. I am big on order, but maybe the “Western” way of doing it is to have poetry collections that have a theme. And for me, I’m more, “Can’t the collection function like a ghazal?” Which is like, “Oh! a different theme, everything all at once.” So, the collection for me is actually a collection of totally different things. I prefer collections that give me a range of topics. I’m not saying that having a collection, say, about motherhood only is a bad idea, but I’m saying I prefer a collection that gives me a little bit of love, a little bit of motherhood, a little bit of politics. So a collection’s order does not mean that, thematically, it’s consistent. It could be inconsistent.
HALA: I like that, actually. It’s like, instead of swimming a river from the top to the bottom, you’re just dipping in and out of different things, but it’s all the same water, you’re just meeting it at different points.
Do you feel as if the themed or project book is a Western phenomenon?
ZEINA: I think that Arab culture is like, “Yeah, here’s a bunch of poems that I wrote in this period.” I think Asmaa Azaizeh released, not that long ago, a whole book about the death of her father and the aftermath. So, I’m not saying that “oh, Arabs are not capable of … ” No. But I do feel that there’s more—malleability? It doesn’t have to be a book about blah, blah. I can only speak about the Arab world. I don’t know how it is in other places, but the publishing industry in the Arab world is probably not that good, sadly.
Of course, that’s a negative thing in terms of marketing and distribution, but in terms of giving writers the freedom to write about whatever the fuck they want, it’s also positive, right? I don’t know if I’m making too much of a generalization here, but I do sense that, yes, it’s a Western thing, this project book that you’re talking about. And I think Hala and I do that. I mean, I did it with my first book, for sure. It was all about Beirut. But it wasn’t like, I’m gonna do a project now and research it.
HALA: You’re also making me think about the fact that most of the writing that I interact with is coming from Western presses. When Summer first asked the question, I was nodding, “Yeah, it’s very much a Western thing,” but then, as I’m saying that, I don’t actually know.
ZEINA: Yeah, you know, take everything I say with a grain of salt. I don’t want to stereotype— “Oh, Arabs are chaotic and Westerners are ordered.”
HALA: [Laughter.] That’s not at all how it’s coming across.
ZEINA: But what I mean is I don’t like the stiffness that you’re talking about.
HALA: Right. Which is why I think your idea of the theme was so brilliant, Zeina. There’s a way in which an anthology like this could have been gimmicky—you know what I mean, hokey? I think the theme also helped it become something that had room to breathe.
Especially with something like this, having an expansive theme is gentler. I’m thinking about other calls that have gone out over the years, things that are very focused on war and violence and, obviously, that writing is important, and love exists within violence and war, but as a resource, you know. Anthologies first and foremost become resources and an access to a version of a canon, right?
HALA: I think the risk of any anthology, where the call is centered around a particular identity marker, is that there’s going to be kind of, like, “Oh, what makes this Arab?” You know what I mean?
ZEINA: Yes! [Laughter.]
HALA: Zeina and I were very much on the same page that what makes this Arab is that the people who wrote these poems identify as Arab. That’s it.
Is there anything you hope for this work?
HALA: Hope for it is a lovely question. My hope is that it becomes something that’s integrated in various curricula in different spaces. Anthologies can play a pretty eye-opening role for students and for people being introduced either to a craft or to a particular identity or to a particular theme or whatever, so, you know, finding it in that lineage would be lovely. I’m sure Zeina and I are in agreement about this. The main hope is that the people that we’ve included in the anthology feel that we treated their work with respect.
ZEINA: I hope that this expands people’s ideas about the Arab community writing in English, and that they go buy folks’ books.
HALA: Exactly. And, if they don’t have books, I hope that readers will look up other poems, or follow the poets on Instagram, and just kind of keep an eye out for more of their work.
ZEINA: Yeah, and maybe a younger generation of Arab poets looks to this anthology and goes, “That’s so cool, there are so many!”
HALA: That was what I experienced with The Poetry of Arab Women (2001), Nathalie Handal’s anthology, because I remember when it came out being like, “Wow! This is wild!” I was young enough to think, “There are this many?” That’s a beautiful thing. For We Call to the Eye & the Night to have that effect on emerging or young writers would be so wonderful.
Hala Alyan is the author of two novels, including The Arsonists’ City (2020), and four collections of poetry. She lives in Brooklyn, where she works as a clinical psychologist.
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her third poetry collection, O (2022), was named a Best Book of 2022 by Literary Hub and the New York Public Library. She lives in the Bay Area.
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