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StoriesJess Rizkallah ’15

Crafting Poetry from the Heart

A Lebanese-American, Jess draws inspiration from her Arab heritage and identity, which infuses her poetry and illustrations with unique color.

English alum Jess Rizkallah

“I grew up so immersed in my heritage, but it’s still something I’m learning new things about every day,” says Jess, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English with minors in illustration and creative writing at Lesley. “In that way, it feels like a magic box that lives in my body. It connects me to my family and my people.”

In her poetry, she explores her experience of being an Arab-American: Sometimes feeling too Arab for America, yet too American for her ancestral country.

“At the same time, I’m always mourning the parts of myself already lost to assimilation,” she continues, “because I never want to be less connected to my family, or my people. A lot of the time, my poems are maps of these celebrations, anxieties and losses.”

Now, Jess has been recognized with the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize for her collection, “the magic my body becomes,” which explores family history, love, religion, language, and gender expectations within the Arab-American experience.

Becoming a Poet

Jess began her poetry journey in high school and cemented her passion during her freshman year at Lesley. She became ensconced in Boston’s poetry slam community and, by sophomore year, she had created her first zine under Pizza Pi Press.

She was able to curate a program of study specifically tailored to her two passions, writing and illustration, with a major and minor that straddled the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Art and Design.

“Lesley’s dedication to creativity, community, and healing made for an environment conducive to the way my brain works,” Jess reflects. “It felt like home the minute I stepped on campus.”

Today, Pizza Pi Press has six editors and an entire roster of poets, and publishes a bi-annual literary magazine.

“At first, it was just me in my dorm cutting and pasting my own zines together,” Jess recalls. “All of our projects explore identity in relation to heritage, culture, community, and geography. The communities that welcome us and the work we do are the reason our press has grown and makes us want to keep growing.”

Jess is pursuing her poetry dreams as an MFA student in New York University’s Creative Writing program. She is deeply engaged in her studies and savors walking in the footsteps of some of her favorite poets, such as Ocean Vuong, Solmaz Sharif, and Ada Limón.

“I keep learning that my favorite contemporary poets are alums of this program I'm in, so that's been really cool,” says Jess, who grew up in Methuen, Massachusetts. “My peers are my favorite part. We're all big nerds for poetry and I really feel like we're all rooting for each other. Everyone I meet inspires me.

“I've also been eating the best bagels of my life,” she quips.