By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
From an early age, Zeina Azzam has been deeply fascinated by poetry.
Azzam grew up reading the likes of E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda, which initially piqued her sense of wonder. Then it was Naomi Shihab Nye, who validated her desire to explore Palestinian culture, and sprinkled throughout were poets such as Lucille Clifton and Joy Harjo. During this time, Azzam also took a crack at writing and honing her own poetry.
It wasn’t until about 10 to 12 years ago that Azzam began submitting her work for publication. Since then, she’s appeared in various journals and earned both local and national recognition. Earlier this month she was named Alexandria’s first Arab American poet laureate, a title she will hold for the next three years.
“It’s really exciting,” Azzam said. “I can’t tell you how honored I am. It’s just such a wonderful post, and it really tells me how much the city prioritizes poetry and the arts. One of the wonderful things about Alexandria is that it puts a premium on the arts, and I just find that really wonderful.”
According to Azzam, who grew up in a Palestinian household, poetry is greatly valued in Arab culture. This inculcated her with an interest and respect for the craft early on, something that later carried her through her post-secondary studies.
Azzam holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Vassar College, a master’s degree in sociology from George Mason University and a master’s degree in literature from Georgetown University.
While writing poetry in her free time, Azzam worked full-time at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University for 27 years, during which she served as the director of educational outreach to K-12 teachers in the D.C. metropolitan area. This role included teaching about the Arab world and Middle East in general through workshops, speaking events and one on one conversations with educators. Previously, she worked at the center in administration, event organizing and fundraising to grow the institution and spread its mission.
Though she enjoyed her full-time work, Azzam felt a growing internal desire to share her thoughts and experiences. This yearning manifested in Azzam’s decision to finally put her poetry out into the world.
“I have a lot to say about the world and about my experience in the world, and I wanted to share it with the world. And I wanted to share it with my family and friends. [Poetry] is a form of expression, it’s a form of communication and it’s a form of creativity. So, all of those things coalesced for me,” Azzam said.
A blend of laser-focused personal experiences and broader-scale musings about the world have found their way into Azzam’s poetry, which she describes as mostly free verse.
On one hand, her work is informed by her own immigrant experience. Azzam’s parents were Palestinian refugees who spoke Arabic as their first language. Her family moved to the United States when Azzam was 10 years old, and much of her poetry explores issues related to refugees, immigrants and biculturalism.
“Those were formative experiences in my life, so I do talk a lot about them,” Azzam said. “I think I do bring to the table some experiences that some others may not have … and I think having had those experiences in my life makes me more sensitive to the experiences of others, of people who are marginalized in society, about other immigrants, about the kinds of challenges people have. It has opened my eyes so much to have had that background.”
Yet on the other hand, Azzam also infuses her work with universal themes about love, loss and nature. Her poetry chapbook, “Bayna Bayna, In-Between,” published in 2021 by The Poetry Box, combines both anecdotal experiences and larger, more general messages relatable to everyone. One of the poems in the chapbook was subsequently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
The word “bayna” is Arabic for “between” and repeating it is synonymous with “betwixt and between.” Azzam used this as a running theme in the book “as a way to talk about being in between cultures, in between languages, in between homes.”
Azzam said that as she has grown older, she’s realized that being in between cultures is not a liability, but a remarkably enriching experience.
“But also, I think the in-betweenness is something that all of us feel – in between living and dying, in between being a child and being a parent. These in-between spaces are ways to describe all of our experiences in a way – it’s just that we all have kinds of in-between spaces in our lives,” Azzam said.
Outside of her poetry career, Azzam works with NAACP Alexandria and Grassroots Alexandria, focusing on issues like affordable housing and aiding the city’s undocumented community.
“I feel that Alexandria is very much my home. I love living here. And I think through my work with Grassroots I’ve gotten to know so many different people and so many different communities within Alexandria,” Azzam said. “ … Although there are issues here, I feel very much heard. When you work on the local level, you feel like you can get things accomplished.”
During her tenure as poet laureate, Azzam aims to better Alexandria through various poetry-related events and programs. One of her official duties includes writing about five poems each year that commemorate various historic events in Alexandria. For example, Azzam is currently working on a piece to honor lynching victim Joseph McCoy, who was murdered in Old Town on April 23, 1897.
As part of National Poetry Month, Azzam will also host the Poem in Your Pocket celebration on April 28 at the Athenaeum, located at 210 Prince St. Former poet laureate KaNikki Jakarta and winning poets of the 2022 DASHing Words in Motion, whose work will appear inside the DASH buses for the next few months, will be in attendance as well.
Additionally, Azzam is in the process of organizing several poetry workshops, one of which might be in partnership with Tenants and Workers United during its youth summer camp. The hope, Azzam emphasized, is doing what she can to instill in the community a wider appreciation for poetry over the course of her term as poet laureate.
“Poetry is a beautiful tool for one to express oneself and then to work together,” Azzam said. “We have a really diverse community, and [poetry is] something that we can all appreciate together. Whether we’re reading it or writing it, it’s a great thing.”