Jess Rizkallah

This month we’re talking to Jess Rizkallah, Lebanese-American illustrator and writer. She is author of The Magic Which My Body Becomes, a collection of poetry that has been described as dazzling, tender, and – of course – magical. She is also a founder of Pizza Pi Press, a publishing press that is home to award-winning chapbooks and acclaimed zine Maps for Teeth.


You are both an illustrator and a poet. How do you find those two mediums intersect or collide?

It’s helpful that I don’t have to carry in my body for too long whatever it is I need to let go of. Having the ability to create in more than one medium helps with that. I like the collaged chaos of text and image that comes from journaling. It helps me keep up with all the rotaries in my head. Sometimes I have the words, so I write. Other times, I only have the impulse or the shape or the color or the sigil, and so I move my pen, and when I step back from the page I realize that’s the closest snapshot I’ll get of the inside of my head. I also really appreciate being able to translate interiority or atmosphere or dreamscapes into comics. There’s a visual poetry I admire in comics and graphic novels, one I hope to get the hang of in my own work someday. Scott McCloud talks about it in his book Understanding Comics. there’s something about the marriage and collision and dance of words and images in this way that really takes care of my heart as I read, but still gives it room to follow the dark hallway down to the cracked doorway letting the light through. There’s something about poetry that makes me want to paint, there’s something about drawing that pulls from between the lines of a poem more from the landscape than I realized was a possible. They mine from each other and they mine from me. It’s a constant editing that doesn’t feel agonizing the way we talk about editing in that academic and submission-oriented world. It’s an editing of the poem while the poem is still that nebulous thing currently animating the day you are living. It’s editing, but not in a way that changes the rawness, but makes room for all of it. It makes you notice the intuitive or unconscious underbelly of a thought that you may not have caught before but definitely was trying to get through. I cite this book all the time, but it really talks about all of this better than I ever could and I hope everyone reads it: What It Is, by Lynda Barry.


The Magic My Body Becomes is ethereal – it’s one of my favorite books of poetry. From which “place” do you feel your poetry comes from?

Thank you so much, that means the world to me. I guess it depends on which place you mean. Figuratively? The hyphen between countries, languages, traditions, generations, memories, etc. That feeling of being not enough for one side but very whole where you are standing, so embracing that patch of dirt as your country and keep stretching. Physically? I think a lot about the chakras as I write. I know where a specific poem came from depending on where in my body I’ve undergone some sort of buzzing lightness that left something soft or rearranged behind. Geographically? Anywhere from suburban Massachusetts to Beirut to Brooklyn to Boston to the moon to backstreets I never name because I want them to stay mine in at least this one way. Temporally? Past, present, and future, and hypothetical. Truly? From my dreams, even if I don’t realize it. When I write my poems, like really write, I feel the same way I feel in the middle of my most vivid dreams. I love the Tomasso Ceva quote “Poetry is a dream dreamt in the presence of reason.”


Now that you’ve written this collection of poems, do you feel you are “done saying” all that you have shared, or is there more to come?

I don’t know that anyone is ever done saying stuff, but I think I’m done asserting my identity by way of exploring it explicitly. I did that in my first book, which was mostly written in my early 20s. I needed to write through my identity stuff in order to feel empowered in taking back the space and self I was forced to minimize as a result of growing up in America. I needed to figure out how my family’s stories fit into my self as a daily entity and as someone with my own grief. The role of history in my first book felt looming and suspended but not explored in any in-depth way that I’m more interested in now, and feel readier for. I was walking long hallways pointing at doors but not going through them. In my next book, I’m trying to be more explicit, more responsible, less seamless, and holding on to the excitement of how a poem can be and look and stay as unexpected as it feels when it surges through you. Still lots to say, but even more to read and listen to.


What does your creative process look like? How and when do you decide to create?

My process is more ongoing than it used to be, which means I’m finally living the artist life I always wanted, even if I thought it was going to look different and more comfortable (down with capitalism!). I’m not creating all the time, but the way I see the world around me fills me up, and feels just as open and excited to movement and magic as I feel when I’m actually sitting down to create something. I feel like I’m juggling a million impulses and chores and creative projects. My process is me stealing any chunk of time I can by always having my journal on me. I call it my archive because it takes the pressure out of the act of journaling. Any note I add to an ongoing list, or passing thought I bulletpoint, or observation I record, or doodle / sketch I add, is its own artifact. Something I add that feels compatible with incompleteness because I know I’m going to come back and solve all of the pieces later, whether they fit together or don’t. It makes me feel like Harriet The Spy. When I schedule my time to work on a project, it’s a whole day / weekend / all nighter situation and I make a huge mess. I’m okay with this for now, but it would be a dream to one day have a studio and a better schedule (down with capitalism!).


You are founder of a printing press, Pizza Pi Press. How has your experience been with that so far?

It’s my favorite part of everything I do because it’s a team effort, and community is our most sacred pillar. Sometimes we have hiccups because we are very DIY and we all have school and other jobs, but we work hard and work it out. My heart is so full because of it. I can’t believe it’s something I used to do alone in my room when I couldn’t sleep, and now Cass, Tiff, Josh, Emmanuel, and Melissa and I are still building and making. Along with expanding what Maps for Teeth curates, we’ve also turned our focus onto our event series and poetry comics. I’m so excited.


Our theme for this month’s issue is “Resolutions”. How do you feel about resolutions, either New Year’s Resolutions or general ones?

People get kind of cranky about resolutions, but I love them. Time isn’t real but the energy we collectively infuse into it is real, so I can’t help but feel hopeful along with everyone else. And  because time isn’t real, when I fall behind or “fail” at a resolution, I can start over again whenever I want and I often do.


Do you have any resolutions for your creative expression that you’d like to share?

My resolution is to catch up on projects I started like, years ago and wrap them up so I can focus on my new ones. I think part of “wrapping up” means I need to admit to myself what to let go of. I also cleared all the books in my bookcase that I’ve already read and filled an entire three shelves with books I bought that I never read or finished. My biggest creative resolution is to read more, listen deeper, keep quieter.

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