Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3 — Jess Rizkallah

Has 2018 been different for you than other years?

It has, but if it weren’t I think that would be concerning. For so long I was looking ahead and thinking, “when I’m older, I’m going to be, to do, to go—” but this year while finishing up grad school and graying much faster and moving to yet another city it hit me that I’m in the middle of the being, doing, going, and if I don’t BE, DO, GO, I will look back and realize I wasted my time. This is both motivational and extremely annoying because if I stop to take a nap I wake up to a quarter life crisis shaking me by the shoulders. To recalibrate I remind myself I’ve moved and braved and learned a lot this year and in another year I’ll look back again and marvel. This is all compounded by how bizarre and vivid it feels to move through the world and find that the fear I felt for years internally or within my groups of friends is now a fixture in every room and inside new mouths and on the news and oh look an asteroid heading straight for—

We’re living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence? How do we negotiate and assert our multiplicitous selves in a surveillance state that requires us to be fixed, legible, and containable?

You know how people say things are American like apple pie? Well, I think living with the constant awareness of the police/surveillance state is the apple pie of Arab-America. Ever since early childhood, I can’t remember a time I’ve ever said anything without the awareness of who is in the room and the thought in the back of my mind that I might get into trouble for it. My parents have always been like “don’t scare me with what they’ll do to you, just keep your head down” but people keeping their heads down is a factor in why we have a trashcan for a president, among other things boiling over in our country. I think being assertive in our poetry is good practice for being assertive in the moments we need to be brave, the moments that pass us by in order to remind us to put our money where our mouths are.

Writers whose work teaches me how to write while staring the camera right in the eye are Solmaz Sharif, Zaina Alsous, Rami Karim, Franny Choi. I am in awe of what they do. I think poems are where we sharpen our spears. I think listening is just as much a part of asserting our multiplicitous selves, because who are we without each other? Sometimes I catch myself writing poems that don’t tackle head on what I really want to tackle, but as long as I’m reading and listening to activists and artists whose work is doing that, then I’m still being responsible. Obviously, I want to apply what I learn to my own work and my own personal presence, but doing that prematurely would just be noisy, flimsy. I’d be yelling into the wind while over there everyone is building a house to withstand the wind. My short answer to all this is inspired by a line from a poem by Manvir Singh in which he says “wisdom is not learning, it is just remembering in every moment.” Even if we are not taking action every moment, I think we need to remember in every moment why we must. I think we need to choose in every moment to be brave or better. I’m scared of a lot of the time and I’ve accepted that never goes away, so breaking it down this way for myself is helpful.  

What poets do you identify with, or feel you are grouped with by editors, readers, conference organizers, or educators? What misconceptions do you see about these groupings of poets? Do you feel these groupings can be useful, can be potentially marginalizing or disenfranchising, or can be both?

I identify with any poet writing from another culture or the in-between of cultures, of language, of tradition, of generation, of spiritualities, of histories. The first time I read Sandra Cisneros, I cried. A few years ago I finally found the work of other MENA and Arab-American and Arabophone poets and now many of them aren’t just my favorite writers, but my friends as well. Writers like George Abraham, Marwa Helal, Noor Ibn Najam, Randa Jarrar, Hayan Charara, and lots of others. Editors, readers, organizers, educators, etc. all group us together, which is an honor because wow that company. But often they are clumsy in how they do it. No group organized by identity or region is ever a monolith. This is the most obvious statement but often needs repeating. I get asked to be part of Muslim magazine issues or poetry readings, but I’m not Muslim. I can’t take up that space, only my own, which sometimes is erased or questioned when I’m sharing things that belong to me, too, but don’t line up with the archetype. There are Persian poets who repeatedly have to remind people they are not Arab. There are indigenous people who do not identify as Arab, there are colonized African people who do not identify as Arab.

A generous explanation we should all be thankful for is Safia Elhillo’s when she shared her relationship to the word when her book won the Arab-American book award this year. The word Middle-East is a colonial construct, and yet North African and West Asian does not apply to all of us. “Arab world” is sometimes peppered in there, but again, not fitting. There is so much going on in our part of the world that we sometimes become token mouthpieces for what we ourselves don’t know enough about. How can other people group us when our own labels are so nebulous and loaded and changing? I don’t even know what to call us except for “us” or, more accurately, “cousins.” But that’s too soft a word to submit to the establishment. We are not seen as as familial unless we are dismissing the familial. Why are we only solicited to showcase our pain? Why don’t you want our poems that are joyful? That name names? Why do we always have to be grieving? Marwa Helal wrote a great essay about this. There are so many directions to go from everything I’ve said and I know parallel issues can be felt in other communities. I don’t know what a fix would look like exactly, but I do know it wouldn’t hurt for organizers and editors and co. to operate less out of fear of being called out, and more out of genuine willingness to learn and make space and enjoy our art with the same thoughtfulness used to enjoy whatever they consider their default art. Wear your heart not your quota on your sleeve.

VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?

Yes, because even if I didn’t self-id in my bio, my last name is Rizkallah. And I’m a woman who sometimes writes about my body. I can’t control the lens people bring with them but I can be myself and hope that this challenges anyone that already made up their mind about me. I can also hope that the people who look for reflections in poetry find themselves in mine, whether it’s in my identity or something else. What a gift that is when it happens. I feel that self-identification in poetry bios isn’t a calculation like people who cry “identity politics” want to claim. It’s just another way of saying “hey is anyone else out there? does anyone else feel me?” the same way it was on every first day of school I ever had when I shared with the class who I am and where I’m from. And now because of poetry, I’ve got so many friends.

How can a voice be used to amplify other voices?

I think recognizing we don’t have to speak every time we are given a microphone is one way to amplify other voices. The first voice pauses and makes room for another voice. Maybe another way is citing in conversation those who inspire points we bring up all the time. Just like we specify when a poem is “after” someone, I’d love to know when an idea or a thought you’re sharing is “after” someone. It’d be a way to bring the soft precise mindfulness of poem-making into the way we talk to each other and participate in communities together. To cite someone as your source is to include them in the conversation even if they aren’t there. Conversations aren’t made like poems, we can and should let the seams show. We should be less cagey, because again, who are we without each other? Very boring and stagnant as hell. Maybe a bunch of people already do this and I’m not saying anything new. I just know there are ways to amplify voices outside of the context of publishing. I think the way many poets use twitter does a lot of this.

Can you share work from other media that either inspired or is in conversation with your piece in Bettering American?

I love this question because my poem in Bettering American was written after Fairuz, Abdel halim Hafez, Asmahan, and Khalil Gibran. The italicized lines are translations of lines from these artists, and the unitalicized are leaps of my own that originated in moments when I misheard or misunderstood the Arabic, only to find doorways into meanings more interesting (to me) than the original ones. And to feel such urgency about the gradual loss of language, while also feeling such wonder at what grows between the cracks I make in my own attempts to hold on, felt very conflicting. The media:

Do you have any cool selfies or pictures of your pets? Can I see them?

Thank you for talking to me! This is my cousin’s dog, Cali—I never would have guessed that there would ever be pets in our family, much less that my family would ever be not-repulsed by dogs. But now we’re always like “what even was our family before Cali?” but also like “Cali please stop licking us” but then like “aww okay fine we love you too.”

A selfie of the author, wearing glasses, and their cousin's white dog with a pinkish nose on a sofa together snuggling.


A photo of the author, Jess Rizkallah, a Lebanese-American woman with long dark hanging loose, covering one of her eyes. Jess is wearing black clothing and brick red lipstick, and is smiling. Her cat-eye eyeliner is flawless.JESS RIZKALLAH is a Lebanese-American writer from Massachusetts. She has an MFA in Poetry from NYU & is founding editor at pizza pi press. Her collection THE MAGIC MY BODY BECOMES won the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize as awarded by the Radius of Arab-American Writers and University of Arkansas Press.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.