10 Questions for Jessica Mehta
- By Edward Clifford
You don't just get to decide to start eatin again, it happens slow,
a groggy crawl and stumble out of a dream.
I didn't choose to starve mysel,
I didn't choose to stop. It was a cycle, my own metamorphosis
—from "'Eating like a Bird, It's Really a Falsity,'" Volume 61, Issue 4 (Winter 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I have found “poems” that I wrote at six years old, specifically one titled “The Rose.” It was—of course—a far cry from what I write now, but is still indicative of how I’ve always used poetry as my best, most natural form of communication. I also recall writing poems during my undergraduate poetry course days about typical 20-something angsty things such as one night stands and abortions. However, it was the poem about the death of my father when I was in my early twenties that was probably my first decent poem. It is included in one of my collections, but I can’t for the life of me recall which one.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I believe anyone you read regularly will influence your work, for better or worse. That’s one of many reasons to try to read works by great writers. My favorites are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Li-Young Lee. This is not to say I think my work is even a sliver of their caliber, but I do see how their style has helped to drive my own.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I didn’t know. I grew up with a very domineering mother who dictated my entire life, so I was told I was going to be a veterinarian (because she liked animals). I love animals, too, but I think that’s very different than being a veterinarian. My father told me I should work “in an office” (as a blue collar family, that was considered “making it”). Had I known you could make money writing without having to teach, that’s likely what I would have always wanted to do.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Two things—my history with eating disorders and my love of horror. My experience with eating disorders is what led to my doctoral research on them (in fact, I’m taking a break from my dissertation right now to talk with you!). “Eating like a bird, it’s really a falsity” is also my favorite line from “Psycho.” The quote continues, “birds actually eat a tremendous lot.” I have quite a few of what I call “anorexia poems” that were written in the deepest depths of my own disorder. But, as always, poetry is one of my best forms of therapy.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I write quite a bit about Oregon, as I’m a native Oregonian. My travels and living abroad surely make appearances, but ultimately it’s the green and the woods and the wild of the Pacific Northwest that best and most influences my work. It’s often where I find myself and my inspiration, and running along the trails is what I miss most when I’m gone for too long.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Nope—I’m very boring in that way! I write because I have to, so it comes when and as it does. Typically this is in the middle of the night or in the midst of a run. I’ve never experienced “writer’s block.” My creative work is borne because it must be, so I think of myself more as a conduit.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
These days, normally editors. I’ve never belonged to writing groups or circles or anything like that. I do think I missed out on such experiences, and am semi-actively considering it in the future if it’s a right fit. I didn’t pursue my MFA at Iowa for multiple reasons that I now regret—perhaps that will be a retirement plan.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I have been experimenting with other forms more and more over the years. I create visual representations of my poems as well as performance art based on my work. I do wish I was an inherently-gifted realistic oil painter. While I do realize I could get “okay” at it with practice, it’s just not a top priority.
What are you working on currently?
I have two books forthcoming in 2021, one a book of experimental poetry and the other a curation of 20 years of my work (from different publishers). I’m also entering the final year of my PhD program. I’m finishing up my fellowship with First Peoples Fund in 2020 and (maybe) undertaking the Keep St. Pete residency in Florida (COVID pending). Some of my visual art will also be on display at various galleries in festivals in the coming year, too.
What are you reading right now?
Honestly, it’s all dissertation reading right now. I do have to read the children’s book Midnight Garden for one of my chapters, so it’s an odd break to be reading a 150-page book for 12-year-olds—but I’m certainly not complaining. It’s a nice change from dense medical literature from the nineteenth century.
JESSICA (TYNER) MEHTA is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, interdisciplinary artist, multi-award-winning poet, and author of several books. She’s also the owner of an award-winning small business. MehtaFor is a writing services company that offers pro bono services to Native Americans and indigenous-serving nonprofits. Her novel The Wrong Kind of Indian won gold at the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) and at the American Book Fest Best Book. Mehta’s Savagery won the Reader Literary Reviews 2020 award for “most innovative collection of poetry.” Selected Poems: 2000 – 2020 received the 2020 Birdy Prize from Meadowlark Books. Jessica has also received the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington and the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship at The British Library in London among others.