Five Questions with Jess Rizkallah

Image credit Lip McDonald

Image credit Lip McDonald

Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer, illustrator, and MFA candidate in poetry at New York University. She is the founder and editor at Pizza Pi Press and Maps for Teeth. Winner of the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize from the University of Arkansas Press together with the Radius of Arab American Writers, her book, the magic my body becomes, explores generational differences, gender expectations, family, religion, and language.

"the mediterranean does not forget,
only lets me think myself a vessel
on higher ground"

Assistant Web Editor, Katie Rejsek, interviewed Jess Rizkallah about the magic my body becomes, as well as her interests and career as an emerging writer.

1. Aside from a poet, you are also an illustrator! Do you find that influences your writing?

Yeah, definitely. Sometimes images in my poems come from my drawings, or patterns I’ve doodled, or like my zealous excitement over the shade called “alizarin crimson.” I find myself thinking a lot about movement in visual art and the act of making it, and these thoughts come through when I write about movement. I think a lot about Lynda Barry, who combines image and text so beautifully and is an example of what I appreciate about the combination of the two: the seams of an experience are visible and there for me to follow and pick at until something new opens in my interaction with the work. It’s so cool how each medium has its own rendering of impulse that the other can’t quite reach - so to mash that together is exciting. In the context of my own creative process, I sometimes think about a painting as a poem’s past life or its dreamworld or its moon sign, or or or. I think of a graphic narrative/illustration as the rising sign pulling the moon into the world and forcing it to say what it truths, and poetry is the pulse back and forth and what, for me, makes it to the page most often.

2. I understand that a zine you created has evolved into a "multi-human" press. What is Pizza Pi Press up to these days?

Pizza Pi Press is very community driven and DIY and dedicated to that relationship between visual art and poetry. Our editorial team is based in Boston, New York, and Illinois. There are amazing creative communities in each of these places so right now we’re in the networking and planning stages of a few new projects we hope to debut at Whale Prom, an off-site event at AWP. Our next chapbooks are by Zenaida Peterson and JR Mahung, two stellar poets and community leaders who make me feel hopeful about the world.

3. What are your views on capitalization?

I almost never capitalize in my poems because it’s faster to get to the poem. Then later in editing I’m like “nah I still don’t feel like capitalizing.” I like to use capitalization sparingly to ascend specific words / concepts in a poem because the world of a poem builds its own laws up from nothing and I love that. I enjoy reading poems that don’t capitalize because of the feeling that I’m tucked under the arm of the poet. It feels earnest and nice.

4. Your book, the magic my body becomes, recently came out in October, and won the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. Could you speak about your experience so far?

It has been unreal. Etel Adnan is one of my favorite poets and University of Arkansas Press was so respectful of what I wanted for the book. My editors were Hayan Charara and Fady Joudah (more of my favorite poets) and it instantly felt like a family project because that’s how Arabs are when they find each other. The cousinly love is established, and with that comes brutal honesty. The editing process changed the way I approach editing and I’m so grateful for it. It was almost all analog: hours of coffee, of red pen to paper, of cutting, of rearranging, of questions that busted whole poems open and then the whole manuscript open. It gave me an empowered closure to the years of writing (and living) I did before coming to NYU. I got to enter the CWP with no old poems, and therefore with the space my poem hoarding self needs to be scared shitless and excited as hell in the face of that scared shitlessness. I think I would have gone back to nebulous hoarding if I didn’t get to be next to my brilliant classmates and professors.

5. What's next for you and your poetry?

I’ve been in Deborah Landau’s class “Art of The Book” and it has affected the way I think about projects and how books aren’t always containers. They can be uncertain if there’s a hope burning throughout. They can settle on a point in the timeline but have arms reaching in both directions. It has made me comfortable with not knowing because then comes the research. So I’m excited to research for a while and write poems alongside that until I know what my thesis is again.

Bonus question! Have you ever seen something you couldn't explain?

With my naked eye I once saw the outline of the sun and somehow still have my sight.

Washington Square