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NewsOct 24, 2017

Jess Rizkallah uncovers what's 'buried beneath'

Alumna and author shares new book of poetry with students.

Jess Rizkallah sits on steps at Lesley University.

Many of the poems in Jess Rizkallah’s acclaimed first book, “the magic my body becomes,” took shape during her undergraduate years at Lesley.

She returned to campus to share her work with current students and tips on becoming a better writer. She encouraged students to embrace and write about the ideas that keep popping up in their minds, even if they are unusual.

“Don’t feel weird about your obsessions when writing,” Rizkallah ’15 told students in Assistant Professor Aaron Smith’s Art of Craft and Poetry class.

Rizkallah, now an MFA student at New York University, traveled to town for a series of readings from her debut collection, which was published in October by University of Arkansas Press.

Rizkallah’s poems include elephants, which are her self-proclaimed obsession, but the collection is primarily her interpretation of the Arab-American experience, for which she garnered the inaugural Etel Adnan Poetry Prize.

As the child of Lebanese refugees, Rizkallah said she views the world through her parents’ experience.

“The lessons I got were very shaped by their trauma,” she said.

Their influence is a frequent theme in “the magic my body becomes,” with words of advice from her mother peppered through the collection and a poem detailing real and imaginary dialog with her father.

Journal, write, reflect

Jess Rizkallah stands at the head of the room speaking to students who are seated to the left of the image.
Jess Rizkallah '15 speaks to a poetry class at Lesley.

At Lesley, Rizkallah majored in English and minored in illustration and creative writing. As an undergraduate, she founded Pizza Pi Press, which is thriving today with a large team of editors and poets, and publishes a biannual literary magazine.

Back on campus, she advised students to “make a list in your journal of memories you always think about. Collect quotes. Treat your journals as archives.” 

Her collection covers issues of gender, identity and sexuality, and includes a poem composed of unsent tweets and text messages.

The personal nature of her poems made it a challenge to edit them when she got her first book deal. She spent a grueling five-hour session with her editors, red pens in hand, which resulted in shorter poems and a new appreciation for her readers.

“When you’re editing, you have to make sacrifices,” she said. 

But she found that the distillation helped her see themes she had inadvertently hidden from the reader, and she was able to bring them to the surface.

“You don’t want the thing that’s closest to your heart to be buried beneath.”

Above all, feedback from editors, professors and fellow writers has been invaluable, Rizkallah said. Collaboration is key, and poems take on new meaning when they’re shared.

“Once you write a poem, it’s alive,” she said. “Once you write it, it’s almost not yours anymore.”

Read more on her website.