An Interview with Jess Rizkallah

Your essay seems to hover between prose and poetry...can you share your process on this piece? How do you move between spaces of prose and poetry? 
I wrote this lyric essay by accident in a class taught by Yusef Komunyakaa. The theme of the class was The Sacred and The Profane. I’m embarrassed I don’t remember the reading from that week, but we all seemed to respond to the concept of “Profanity." The essay began in the memo app on my phone. Initially, it was a mental list of memories I always recall but never write about or in some cases, say out loud. I was thinking about these profanities and how the navigation between languages and geographical contexts emphasizes different parts. Some profanities are more base and others are more insidious, disguised as love, or even wrapped up in love. It’s laughable that my language makes more room for apology than most men do, yet I’m expected to forgive everyone but myself and the women around me. It’s tiring. Halfway through writing this I realized that I was allowed to write without an apology shadowing every claim I made. I wanted to prove I could write with love but also with anger. I don’t know if I would have kept writing this if I hadn’t been reading the work of my classmate Devereux Fortuna. Her writing makes me feel brave.
As for form stuff: I think my poetry turns into prose when I silence the editor in my brain that usually insists on jogging alongside the poem as it is being written. That silence pulled me into a meditative mode where time doesn’t exist and then I’m that weirdo in the coffee shop for five hours. Sometimes I don’t write for a while because the music of the longer piece is still in my head, but I already got all the lyrics down. After this essay, I didn’t write anything substantial for like 4 months, but I felt okay.

Congratulations on your award-winning collection, The Magic My Body Becomes (which I've purchased and enjoyed!). What have you discovered or learned from the experience of publishing a first collection of poetry? 
Thank you so much for reading it! I have learned that publishing a book doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly figured everything out. I’m still scared and unsure and curious and obsessive and having fun trying to figure writing out. I’ve learned that this is allowed, and necessary.

Read Jess's essay "On Profanity/Arab Girlhood."