Chasing poetry with Jess Rizkallah

On the Why We Write podcast: Boston-based poet Jess Rizkallah first realized she wanted to 'chase poetry' as a Lesley undergrad. She often writes about her experiences as a Lebanese-American woman, about family, love, religion and gender.

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Episode notes

Boston-based poet Jess Rizkallah is the award-winning author of The Magic My Body Becomes. She first decided to "chase poetry" as an undergrad at Lesley University and went on to study creative writing at NYU. A native of Boston, Jess often writes about her experiences as a Lebanese-American woman, family, love, religion, and gender expectations. On today's episode, she is interviewed by her former professor, Mary Dockray-Miller.

Read more:

Jess Rizkallah profile

Jess Rizkallah uncovers what's 'buried beneath'

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  • Transcript


    Speaker: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors in the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. You've already heard a lot from our MFA in Creative Writing community on this podcast, but today we speak with Jess Rizkallah, an alumna of our undergraduate program who really learned to embrace poetry while studying at Lesley. She also founded her own literary journal and press as an undergraduate here before going on to study creative writing at NYU. Here's her interview with Professor Mary Dockray-Miller.

    Professor Mary Dockray-Miller: I'm Professor Mary Dockray-Miller, a medievalist in the Humanities Department here. Today I'm going to be interviewing Jess Rizkallah, who graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2015. Here at Lesley, she was an English major with minors in both creative writing and illustration. We have Jess here today for a lot of reasons, but one is that she won the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize for her very first book of poetry collection called The Magic My Body Becomes which explores gender, family, sexuality, religion, and love through the prism of the Arab-American experience. It was published in 2017 by the University of Arkansas Press. Jess, thanks for coming today and being willing to talk to us about yourself and your work and your career.

    Jess: Thank you for having me.

    Dockray-Miller: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about, your work in general and the process you go through to produce it on and just sort of the very bird's eye view. Why poetry? Why do you write poetry instead of fiction or music or screenplays?

    Jess: Actually, I think because the way poetry is taught in schools, sort of secondary to fiction, and prose and longer form things. The way I remember poetry being taught was like, “Okay, now we're going to spend a couple of weeks on like Edgar Allen Poe or Walt Whitman or Shakespeare and then we're just going to go back to novels. I think that's why I started writing fiction before I started writing poetry and I still wrote poetry like in my journals, but I never did anything with it. It was just for me, but then at Lesley, I took a short fiction class and all of my stories, they’re just zoomed in so much and the feedback I got in workshops was like-- I don't really know, what the overarching thing you're trying to say with this story is, like it's beautifully written. These moments are so rich, but there's no-- I don't understand what the plot is trying to do and then I realize like, “Okay, maybe I should just chase poetry.”

    Dockray-Miller: You were really writing poetry even though for your assignment you had to be writing fiction?

    Jess: Sort of, yes. I don't know, I think what also helps that was like the Boston poetry slam community. I started listening to spoken word. I listened to a lot of Angie [unintelligible] and Andrew Gibson and then I went to the open mic at Cantab in Central Square and I just heard voices that sounded like mine, from people who were, well, like paramedics, bartenders, students. Just like from every profession you can imagine and it really just like was a different picture of poetry than what we always read in class. It was a reminder that poetry is like down here, like on this realm around us. Also, that poetry is unfinished a lot because it's always like happening and I think that has to do with like how I write, too. I call it archive theory, kind of like paying attention to impulses and even just like being okay with like the uncertainty and like writing, even if I get like a fragment down in my journal, like feeling accomplished with that--

    Dockray-Miller: Jess you were saying that you intend to do a lot of your writing in that hyphen in the phrase Arab-American and how you live there and that opens up a lot of space for you to be a writer and also a teacher.

    Jess: I guess that relates to the archiving because of the uneasiness of being in the world and the commotion and all the different sounds that you hear when you're even just walking down the street. That reflects all the different emotions that you feel too inside of you and how do you bring that together and I think the page is the in-between space of that even if you get like a fragment a day, that's still its own artifact. If you get a word a day by the end of the week, that's seven words and then some sentences are seven words long or like a line a day at the end of the week. That's seven lines and some columns are seven lines long. I think that breaks down the feeling that we have where we have to produce something that is so conventionally like finished looking.

    Poetry is so much about the impulse in the questions and not always the answers and sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers, so I think that like that relates to the Arab American identity and like the hyphen in between Arab and American because you have so many questions and so many conflicting things that you feel that there isn't like a clear cut answer or resolution to like you always want to please your elders and hold onto the language and the culture and you're like, “Why are you so Americanized like this?” Then you go to school. Then there were students who told me like, “I don't care that you speak Arabic. I don't care about your family like you're here now.” Kind of having to switch in between different modes.

    Then that feeling like we have to escape the in between and be, one or the other is something that I think-- I may have mentioned my friend Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah, a local Boston poet, and I like to cite him every time I talk about this because that's when it occurred to me and I was talking to him and we were actually discussing the poetry of Safia Elhillo, who is amazing and writes a lot about this to be like the in between, and about language and we were talking about how like it's its own country, there's no way you're ever going to escape completely into Arabness and completely into Americanness, that it's its own thing. It's not like a middle ground. It's its own country. It has its own language and not just like a crashing of English and Arabic or English and your mother tongue, but a smooth sort of like fusion, I think of mosaics, I think of collage, I think of archives.

    I think of how material and texturey, all of that is and how material and texturey we are as people. I think about the internal world and the external and how that comes together and how that comes together on the page. I think that identity, when you’re writing, is a similar thing if you’re trying to write between two different things. It’s all like a line parallel to another line parallel to another line.

    Dockray-Miller: Can you tell us a little bit about your publication history all the way back into your undergraduate days, you’re using your performances as a spoken word artist or development of your press. Can you give us a narrative about how that unfolded?

    Jess: I came to Lesley and I was writing fiction, short fiction and then, I was still, I think like my first year at Lesley when I started listening to spoken word poetry and I used to like read poetry-- It's kind of embarrassing now, but I really love Charles Bukowski, he's a monster I get that now. He kind of like showed me that poetry like isn't, it doesn't have to be just like the stuff that-- Like the token stuff we learn for a couple of weeks in school before we like go back to novels. You can talk about bowel movements or swear.

    He was kind of the foot in the door. Then I started-- I found like more poetry, that was spoken and registered, that felt closer to how I felt about just the way that I experienced the world and realizing that like all the things that I notice, that maybe aren't even like poetic are still poetic. Poetry is my own thing, it wasn’t anything that I was planning to do anything with. I also, the publication side of it was like a huge thing of mine. The huge thing for me, like outside of just like expression for myself. I did literary magazines in high school, in my hometown, and then I came to Lesley and I didn't want to wait to take the common thought class. I wanted to like keep my education about publication going. I started my own literary magazine.

    Dockray-Miller: What was that called?

    Jess: It's called Maps for Teeth. It’s still called Maps for Teeth. It's still going on.

    Dockray-Miller: It’s still active?

    Jess: Yes, that was something that-- I use Lesley's Community of Scholars Day to give myself a kick in the pants to finish quickly. Instead of putting it off I think it would have definitely put it off a lot longer. That was something to that just tying back to the hyphenated identity space. It was also like a selfish little way for me to all of the poems about identity and environment and these outside things that become so internal for us. Whenever I’ve come across that stuff it really spoke to me in a way that nothing else ever really did, but it felt like me and all these poets were just islands calling out to each other. I kind of wanted everything in the place for me to read.

    That was why that happened but it's become something a lot bigger because when Pizza Pi Press happened and it became the umbrella over which Maps for Teeth is just one of the things that we do. Pizza Pi spoke to a lot of the friends I was making in the poetry community who wanted to be a part of it with me. They ask like, "Do you need help?" I don't know if they knew just how far I drove them into it, but now it feels like it belongs to all of us.

    Dockray-Miller: I agree.

    Jess: We joke that I'm like the head chef that somebody's stomping the tomatoes with their feet and somebody else is sprinkling the cheese we go really deep into the pizza industry.

    Dockray-Miller: As well you should.

    Jess: That was something Pizza Pi Press happened also because I was like when I was just me, I made something from MICE because I went to MICE.

    Dockray-Miller: MICE is the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, which is hosted by Lesley every year. Just FYI.

    Jess: Yes.

    Dockray-Miller: [laughs]

    Jess: Yes, I went to the MICE. It is really accessible and things that people are doing in their journals that I was doing in my journals. I was like, I can do that. I am doing that. I just need to saddle stitch it and make copies of it. The next year I did MICE and as a joke I think I put Pizza Pie Press on the back because I was like, "This is so messy. Who would think it's a press?" Now it's a real thing with a team of editors. Some of them actually went to Lesley. One of them is Josh Cornell and he still teaches at Lesley, I think. Then another one is Tiffany Mallory, they're both like illustration majors.

    Dockray-Miller: Did your creative writing minor, I guess that came early but was your illustration minor was that before your first encounter with MICE or after?

    Jess: I knew coming that I wanted to do that. That was one of the reasons I chose Lesley because I could do both of those things. I actually almost went to art school. It was very dramatic. It was like I was in a choir episode where I was like, "What do I do?" Then I had this moment like the piano swelled. I was like "Where am I?" When I'm upset, what do I turn to? Do I write or do I draw? Then I was like "I write." Okay, but I still I don't want to give up drawing and so that's why I came to Lesley. I think there was one advisor who's like, "You can't do that." I was like, "No, I can't." That's been super. I treated it like it was all like my other major even though it was just a minor. It was cool because it wasn't like "Oh, you're a Lesley student and you're here, so I'm not going to take you seriously." It was like, "No, you're illustration majors here." I got the same treatment that all the other students got. My professors even forgot that I was a Lesley student.

    Dockray-Miller: Your pathways are there. If you want to walk on that path you can which is great.

    Jess: Yes, exactly. I think that it definitely helps how I write poetry to think about the illustration process and the things I learned about that in class and even applying it to how I draft a longer form piece or when I'm drawing how can I take this in these images that I've made, actually consciously put them into a poem instead of letting the images come to me and then nebulous internal way?

    Dockray-Miller: When you use the word images in those sentences, are you referring to verbal images that you've written or textual poetic images or visual images that you’ve drawn or both?

    Jess: Yes. Usually the images come from when I notice the world around me and it'll come back to me later when I'm thinking about an internal thing and then external things becomes the better for to cycle through it, but sometimes when I'm drawing…I took a class with Dave Bandar he was a LUCAD teacher. He was really, really encouraging about me incorporating my text in my poems into my work. I did an independent study with him too, which was really cool. It was something we talked about was letting the same thing I was talking about before about knocking the pressure down when you're recording your journal, fragments, or observations or lists or whatever. He had the same attitude with keeping a sketchbook. He would be just like, "Let your hand go, don't think too hard all the time." Then later you'll find the poetry inside of even the lines you are making.

    I remember one time I drew this giant pear and I brought it into him. He was just like, "Wow, this is a really anxious pear." I was like, "What do you mean?" He was like "You okay?" I'm like "Yes. Why?" Then he's just like, "Look at these lines that you're making. They’re like tight and coiled and over here they're looser and look at this bold out very it's like containing everything." Then it informed a poem I wrote about what I was going through and I was like, "Oh wow, that is true.” I was going through something when I made that silly pear thing.

    Or even just when I'm doodling and I drew these ladybugs on top of an elephant or something, that became an image that I would look through my sketchbook and find that these things that I doodled or rendered around me became metaphors in my poems and even just thinking about the boldness of a line like a mark that you make on a page and a drawing and how you can translate that into the boldness of a line in a poem. I think about a lot of poems that fly away a little bit, but why I keep returning to them and why I trust them, why I'm not annoyed when they do that. It's always because they have a bold line that recurs. There's always something that contains or that bumpers when you’re bowling it that bumps the ball back in the middle. I think that's it's really beautiful to see the parallels between the visual art and the text.

    Dockray-Miller: Absolutely. When you came to read at the library last fall in celebration of your book, you confess to some of the current students that you would skip class, especially my class if you were in the zone writing a poem. I guess, now also may be working on some sketches and putting some visual and verbal images together. Can you tell us some other ways that Lesley influenced you as a poet when you were a student here? Besides cutting my class.

    Jess: [laughs] It wasn't especially your class, it just included it in there.


    Jess: Yes. I justified the cutting classes because I was like, "I need to write this poem." It seems like looking back on maybe I romanticize that but actually, I think we do need to follow those impulses, you know you can’t let capitalism... [chuckles] Lesley was really helpful because it's not a gated college community, so there's a lot from the outside community that leaks in. That just to be exposed to so many things on a Lesley campus that Lesley didn't originate here, but they let it in. Then also just a lot of the freedom that Lesley itself gave us to start around projects and start our own clubs and use all the spaces that we wanted to use and giving us budgets to do things and signing off on independent studies that maybe make more sense in the students’ heads then they do on the paper, but I trust people to do it.

    Dockray-Miller: Again, that seems like part of the mosaic you were talking about earlier that there are all these little things that happens to you or that you made happen while you were here and then you step back and you realize that there's this education that you, in many ways, created for yourself by maximizing your opportunities here.

    Jess: Yes, definitely not putting off the things that I was pursuing while I was being a student at Lesley to after I graduated and even just looking at everything as an internship and not just the actual internships.

    Dockray-Miller: Pizza Pi Press existed before you graduated?

    Jess: It did. By the time I graduated it was doing very well which is really exciting and that was because it began on the Lesley campus but landed in the community of artists in Boston itself. I don't know, I think a lot about Lesley too, just the philosophy of Lesley, when I started here the phrase was like, "Let's wake up the world." Then somebody was like, "That's a little colonial." So they changed it.

    I think it turns to like, "Let's wake up ourselves." There was a lot of things that I learned at Lesley that I'm really thankful that I learned before I went out into the world and said something hurtful. Also, just that openness to save the things and also say how you feel about a lot of things. That’s the joke a lot of students make to like, "Feelings. How do you feel? That's such a Lesley question.” I think that's beautiful. I think that that's something that has informed my philosophy as a person in the world.

    I always felt at home here because there was always the emphasis on being a human. Even in my interview when I applied to Lesley I didn't have a great GPA. It was like, "I need to do everything I can to get in here." Then I did an interview and because of my interview, by the end of it, the person I was talking to was like, "I really want you to come here and I'm going to write a strong recommendation for you. I don't want you to worry about your GPA because I know what you want to do, you would do well at Lesley." Then I even got a bigger scholarship than I would’ve gotten before. There is this reach past the numbers and everything and you're a person.

    Even in class we would be like in your class or Christine Evans’ class and those classes were really challenging for me because-- In a good way. I like think about them all the time. It was applying these logos to before had been only pathos for me. Even though you guys were both really strict on me about that, at the end of this semester there was still room for everyone to like, “What are you going to take with you and how are you, as a writer, affected by this?” Which was cool because I think there were a lot of education majors in my classes where they were thinking about, "What am I going to take into the classroom as a teacher?

    For me I was like, "What am I going to take into the world as a writer?” Also, I'm still going to be around people and how can I use these texts that were previously inaccessible to me to synthesize into something that I bring into the world and try to be a responsible citizen of the world?

    Dockray-Miller: That sounds like a goal that I would have for all of my students in every class. I'm glad to hear that it's transferring out at least a little bit.

    Jess: Yes. I think to be honest, my GPA by the time I graduated was 3.0 and I think I bumped it up to 3.0 in my last year. I still feel like I did so well in college. I don't feel held back by that number because it never was about that for me. I still feel I was just as-- I don't know, my friends who were getting all A's, sometimes I was like, "I'm a failure" Nobody ever made me feel that way which is really cool because I know a lot of other schools, the pressure and the competition gets in the way of everybody being on the same page in the discussions and stuff like that.

    I took that philosophy and seeing people past all of the whatever into my classroom when I taught, because I taught in my last semester NYU and that's why I had my students keep journals and it was all about honoring the impulse and the immediate reactions that we have and not focusing on finished products but how we relate to the text and how the texts are sending these red strings out into the world and what do they connect to? Also, how do we use this to connect to each other?

    Dockray-Miller: Speaking of your MFA program, I was hoping maybe you could get down into the grad school weeds with some maybe current undergraduates who may be thinking about getting an MFA. Tell us a little bit about your process of deciding to apply it again in MFA. Why NYU? What made that application successful? All that sort of thing.

    Jess: I did a year off between graduating from Lesley and going to NYU and I don't think that's the thing to do, just what I did. I worked as a barista, I was trying to save money, I was trying to stay within the Boston creative community because I was still learning, I wasn't done learning from them yet. I don't think I ever will be. I feel really lucky. We're really lucky to live in a city that is always going to teach us more.

    I kept in touch with Clara Ronderos. She was like my college mom. I remember one time I went into class and she was like, "We need to talk about your paper." I was like, "Yes, it was really bad.” She's like, "It really was.” It was really blunt but also I needed to hear that. She was someone that transferred over into when I talked to her about life things and she would always be like, "You're hard on yourself but you actually don't have time for that. You're wrong but also you're actually hurting yourself and your life by even spending any time thinking about that."

    When I was just like, "I'm applying for grad school.” And like, “I think I want to apply to NYU but they probably won't accept me." She's like, "Why would you even say that? Literally, get out of my office if that's what you're talking about." She said it a little nicer than that but it definitely was really helpful for me to have someone who had been had on me in the past but also believed in me and was just like, "No, actually, you're really brilliant. I want you to apply to this program."

    Dockray-Miller: Someone who made you own your own talent and take that risk of writing that application?

    Jess: Yes. I applied and I remember still feeling like there's this weird saying that people do where they think that slam poetry isn’t real poetry and when you write about identity that's not real poetry. It happens a lot in academia. I was told that, BU as a school, that people look down on this type of poetry and realms. The school looks down on this type of poetry and you have to tailor your application. I'm just like, I don't want to tailor my application for anyone. I don't know exactly what NYU wants from people, but here are the 10 poems that I believe in the most that I needed to write to be the person that I am. They were the most urgent poems to me.

    I think that was the energy I needed. I applied and I didn't think that they would accept me so I didn't actually think about how my life would change at all. Then I got this phone call that did change my life. It was very cinematic. I felt like everything around me stopping like, I have to move. I can't say no to this. The biggest thing I would say from that is just believe in yourself because you literally don't have time not to believe in yourself. I think the time you spend on self-doubt could be better spent even if it's not writing, just doing something that makes you feel like a person.

    Dockray-Miller: It sounds like something Clara Ronderos may have said to you a few years ago?

    Jess: Being at NYU is really amazing because everyone does tell you when you go to an MFA program, everyone is going to be really mean and competitive. I went in there and I was like, what's it going to be? Everyone's really loving and I didn't feel alone at all. I grew so much and everyone around me constantly gave me goosebumps all the time with their writing and also even just the things that we would learn and say in class. Is there more to the questions that I should--

    Dockray-Miller: No. That actually pretty much covers everything that I had asked. That's great. I only have a few more minutes just, so if you could just tell us really quickly and not to put you on the spot but what happens next? You've got your MFA from a prestigious writing program, you have a prize and a book and a press, what can we expect next from Jess Rizkallah?

    Jess: Something I'm really excited about is that I learned. my first book was just poems I was writing. One day I sat down and was just like, “How do these relate? I'm going to arrange them and that's going to be a book.” We learned a lot about projects and that being encouraged through follow up sessions and the ocean wall explaining obsessions by using a spiral and how every time you write you pass by the same point but you're writing towards the middle of a circle. I think of projects as being one large spiral and so I'm writing a book now with more intention than I ever have. Like it feels I'm writing a book for the first time and not a collection and so there's a lot more research that I'm doing.

    I want to research the Lebanese Civil War but also history even before the civil war because I think that there's this thing that we all do where it's very Arab American. It's very necessary for us to talk about the really hard stuff and the wars and stuff. There's also people don't always expect us to do this and don't always want to hear us celebrate ourselves and I talk about things that before the war outside of the war whatever. I want to write about the word but because I didn't experience it and I got it second hand I want to do my research and also I just want to get to know my other country outside of its-- On its wounds.

    I wanted that feeling I get when I'm in Lebanon like I'm on a mountain and it feels there's a poem inside of me. Like I want to communicate that but at the same time, I do want to be responsible. I think that's the biggest thing I think about when I think about my next project being responsible with poetry. I think about the book Look by Solmaz Sharif where she uses the dictionary for the Department of Defense to write about what went on in Iran and reminding people that these countries we go into are occupied by humans.

    That's what I'm doing and I don't know what the book is going to look like but to always guide myself back to it I'm like, "Okay, did I read as much as I wrote? Did I read more than I wrote?" I always want to be reading more than I'm writing for this next book and so if the answer's no then I know that I’m not there yet. That's what I'm working on now.

    Dockray-Miller: That sounds like something we can all await with great anticipation. Jess, we were hoping that you would read us a poem or two of yours to close out our interview.

    Jess: Should I read one in the book and one not in the book?

    Dockray-Miller: Sounds great.

    Jess: My book is called The Magic My Body Becomes. This poem is called "Sin el Fil, Lebanon". Sin el Fil is a borough in Beirut in Lebanon and it translates to Tooth Of The Elephant.

    i asked her to tell me about the elephants.

    she used to live in one of their teeth

    burrowed into beirut with like a forgotten cavity

    where her mother had cancer and her dog ran into traffic

    the year before she married.


    i asked her about the curve of the tusk at the base

    of their home, and she said they huddled, three days,

    bricks for pillows, sirens replacing birds   fingers coming through

    the ground for the ankles not yet twisted by the rubble


    the next day, they made for america,

    the ivory is still in the basement

    cocooned by a silk curtain.


    I asked him about the beginning of the war

    he told me about the people walking over

    broken glass.          everyone in the city

    some sort of Jesus, with shards of what would

    one day floss the Mediterranean

    getting caught in their heels.


    his first and only pet was a german shepherd.

    rin tin tin, a name like three sharpened teeth in a row

    a bite          a mark made above the boot coming down

    a heel too soft to know his own flesh.


    he told me about mortality’s breath

    the mudded fur between his children's arms

    the organs like the disintegrating pottery

    when the militia fed his dog shrapnel.


    he whimpered at the door til he was found,

    abdomen giving way to scarlet fingers

    red sea parted by his tongue and the final heave

    before his body became a prophecy

    for every cedar and every person

    every cedar lives inside of.


    as boston thaws over the morning dog walkers, i count up all the ways

    i've come to understand the distance my family keeps.

    when enough homes collapse into mines,

    anything close enough to lick your

    wounds will sound like a canary.

    *    *      ***

    she asks me why i love the elephants

    even though i can never hold them.


    i tell her about the toenails and teeth, the tusks

    and their bones, like these stories


    they’re something to know from afar, to watch die from afar, leaving behind

    their bodies as shelter.

    i ask her how many years it would take to visit each

    grave the past feel to bring me here. she tells me

    that each day i am here is a flower left at a different stone.


    Dockray-Miller: That's spectacular Jess, thank you.

    Jess: The next poem is added to my thesis.

    “Maybe it's not always the evil eyes sometimes it's just systemic racism ethical loneliness, dirty water a terrible country”

    I read that Sufi’s mock God now day-to-day in life the same way morning comes and how eyes open then close after the rest of the body shuts down.

    The same way light bulbs flicker when you talked to the ceiling.

    There are hundreds of ways to kiss the ground each way a landline to the ancestors, a pipeline in a river, big slick snake pushing up sacred burials then leaking into the water already filled with polyester that fill the fish we eat and I've burned through 18 candles in the last month, a box of dragon's blood a stick of Palo Santo my smoke signals fishbowl the stratosphere.

    I want to access the Akashic records to find my cosmic car keys and what's the best pot pie recipe?

    I'm looking up to find pictures like that scene in Cinderella when she's scrubbing the floor and all the bubbles fill the room, a multiverse of mere images on things and popping each one a different color and she sings and she sings and the mice are there the whole time.

    Like where I live when I thought I was going to die, in that apartment my roommate's cat was transfixed by ghosts. She'll stare at walls meowing for minutes on end all the mice chewed on my clothes stole my chocolate, then the compendium of rappers the back of my closet a fucked up a treasure trove I found the day I moved out before that we burn sage but the cat kept at it. The ghosts left but the mice remained in the walls. Slum Lords are assholes. I suppose my filter is improving.

    On the steps of the river walk, I watched transfixed as pelican's ditch from the sky to graze the water and I didn't interrupt the conversation about equity. Astrology says the ocean is why I'm like this but how do I write about the ocean without mentioning the Atlantic slave trade and the refugee babies who wash up on Facebook feeds? Every poem about the ocean has bones at the bottom of it. Even if we can't see past our toes. We splash, we slash we lick the salt from our lips. I wonder whose tears were these before we use them to cleanse the tumbled stone at the center of our chest.

    At the end of every beach day, me and mama collect the ocean and plastic bottles and stack them in the trunk of the car. We do this because salt water is good for the psoriasis on teta’s legs. Carefully she empties the bottles over her skin anxious for this potion stirred by the moon which is pierced by an American flag in every horoscope she appears in. The elephant on the moon calling out all the ones in all the rooms late at night where candles burn and we want to know if the flickers mean something. If the dead are just dead if after all this time energy is just wind if the invisible hands or our chests belong to something bigger than inertia older than all of us.

    Dockray-Miller: Jess, I just want to thank you again for coming in today to your alma mater and talking to us about your work.

    Jess: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really glad that Lesley will always  [unintelligible]

    Speaker: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. This podcast is just a taste of the many amazing people who are part of the Lesley writing community. Head on over to to learn more about Jess Rizkallah, hear some of her slam poetry, and more. If you've enjoyed the podcast so far we would appreciate if you would rate and review us on the podcast platform of your choice and also tell a friend. Next week, we speak with children and young adult author David Elliott whose most recent novel Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc comes out next week. Here's a clip from next week's interview.

    David Elliott: I learned about the myths through a Scrooge McDuck comic. I'm from a very poor family. There were not a lot of books in my house. You would never have described my family as literary. I had this big box of comics. I still don't know where they came from. It wasn't exactly the happiest family. I often retreated to my room with these comics. One of them was Scrooge McDuck and The Golden Fleecing, which was a retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. I remember them and I loved it so much. Part of it was what the novelist Peter Dickinson calls the “illicit pleasure of reading comic books” and part of it was I think the pleasure I got and the safety I felt and the escape I got from my family life. All those things psychically I think went into the soul and made me love myths. When I first read the real Greek myths I remember thinking, “wait they stole this from Scrooge.”