Sukoon Interviews Jess Rizkallah – by Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: Congratulations on winning the 2016 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize! Tell us a little about your collection, and how you came up with the title.

Jess Rizkallah: Thank you so much. The collection is made up of poems I wrote during and after a lot of firsts in my life: first time living away from my family, first loves, first heartbreaks, first loss of someone close to me, and all of that interacting with the inherited stuff that manifested in very new ways for me when held under the stress of entering adulthood. The timing of the acceptance was perfect, too. Right at the end of a lot of things in my life, and right before I moved to a new city and started at a new school. I’m so happy it worked out that way. I’m not used to closure I don’t have to make up myself! I’m very thankful I get to look up to Fady and Hayan after working with them. They helped me come up with the title the magic my body becomes, after a line in one of the poems in the book. At first I was resistant to this title because that’s what it is to be a woman sometimes, feeling sheepish about owning the power of your experience in a world that doesn’t take you seriously when you’re speaking your body and complexities with your own mouth. I thought “is this too feminine of a title?” but then I thought “who cares if it is? if the title turns someone away, they weren’t going to listen to anything I’m saying anyway. it’s not for them anyway.”

RZ:  You posted once on Facebook not too long ago that you didn’t want anyone to ask you what you’ll be doing after you graduate. So… what will you be doing after you graduate?

JR: Betrayal! Just kidding. I don’t know. I’ve been doing publishing and editorial work for eight years now, so hopefully something there. I really hope I’ll make a good teacher. I visited my family recently. While the water simmered on the stove, my Teta went outside and under the full pisces moon, picked rosemary for our tea. I remember thinking “why the fuck do I live so far away from my family?” The scarier the world gets, the more frequent that thought is.

 RZ:  You mention that your poetry has appeared, among other places, on your mother’s fridge. Tell us a little about your family’s response to your creative path/growth. This question comes from my personal Lebanese experience of the cliché that most every Lebanese parent dreams of seeing their child grow into a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

JR: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the (upheld binary) difference between Lebanese sons and Lebanese daughters, and my being one of two daughters in a son-less nuclear family is impossible to divorce from my answer because I’ve found it tied to every expectation someone has had for me. Gender is always a shadow trailing behind my name: it’s a pretty traditional Lebanese thing to think that this is just a cute thing I’m doing to pass the time until a doctor or whatever wants to marry me. I’m lucky enough that I can recognize this and laugh in its face, instead of letting it hinder me. This is because my mother supports me and countered every sexist lesson the world tried to teach me. In turn the rest of my family has become supportive, too. (for which I’m grateful and full of love.) Busting your ass to prove yourself feels like an Arab kid rite of passage. To answer your question more directly: I do think my parents held a small hope that writing would just be a hobby, but I literally have no other skills, so writing was always going to be it whether anyone liked it or not. There were definitely a lot of “or not” periods growing up but overall and overwhelmingly, I always felt supported by the only people it really mattered to be supported by. I also feel really lucky that my family lets me share their stories inside my own. This was a hard answer to phrase, I don’t want to make anyone mad, but I feel it is important to be honest, and I know you must know what I mean.

RZ: Lebanon or USA?

JR: Both.

RZ: What are you reading right now and why?

JR: Right now I’m reading The Whale by Philip Hoare because whales are the most fascinating creatures on the planet, I’m convinced they’re aliens. They feel too cosmic to grace us with their presence on Earth, yet here they are and I want to get a closer look.

RZ:  Who are your biggest literary and artistic influences?

JR: Sandra Cisneros, Kevin Devine, Lady Lamb, Lynda Barry, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Safia Elhillo, Tiffany Mallery, Ada Limón, Mckendy Fils-Aimé, Franny Choi, so many friends, so many witchy creative femmes on the internet.

RZ:  Crayons or ink?

JR: Ink

RZ: How important are literary journals in your opinion and/or experience?

They’re so important. I want to know what everyone is saying and feeling at all times because otherwise I don’t know how I would get out of bed and face the world we’re all trying to fight for. I’ve made so many friends in the poetry community through the network of literary magazines we all read and contribute to.

RZ:  Why Pizza Pi Press?

JR: I can’t sit still, I always need to be making things and I always need to be collaborating with other people. I wrote Pizza Pi Press on the back of a messy zine I made in college, kind of as a joke. Like “ha! it looks like this silly thing came out on a press!” but then I kept getting more ambitious and my friends wanted to join in and now it’s my favorite thing to be part of and I hope we continue to grow and remain a platform that amplifies those who feel silenced elsewhere. Also, I really love pizza.

RZ:  What advice/insight would you be compelled to offer other young writers?

JR: Read as much as you write, maybe even more. Read people of color. Don’t be mean to yourself. Write even when people around you make you feel like you’re wasting your time. Keep a journal with you at all times and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not always writing pages and pages of work. Even just a thought a day is an entire world you’ve recorded and that’s so cool if you think about all the possibilities waiting to shoot off into a million synapses as you turn that thought over in your head before going back to the page. Think of your journal as an archive and every word an artifact of substantial magnitude. Don’t stress out about getting published – social media makes imposter syndrome feel more urgent than it used to be, but social media doesn’t show us all the nights where even our favorite writers feel stuck or defeated or sad or on their seventeenth straight episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Flaming Hot Cheeto Dust stuck to their face.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

JR: I just threw all of the contents of my closet and desk into the middle of the room and I’m not leaving my apartment until it is once again habitable and just as ready for this new season as I am. Thank you so much for making room for me at Sukoon.