Interview with WISC Fellow-in-Residence Jessica Tyner Mehta
Jessica will present her work at Acequia Madre House September 5, 2017 at 5:30pm
How did you hear about WISC?
I was searching for residencies in the US that offered the time, space and support necessary to complete a manuscript. I was especially looking for locations rich with inspiration, and ideally with a strong connection to tribal communities. Santa Fe had it all, and had long been on my list of places I wanted to visit.
Your talents and interests are diverse and eclectic. How do they inform each other?
They tie together really well, actually. I’m 90% poet, though I have published one novel and one business book.
I ghost write best-selling erotica. I love yoga. I have found during training for marathons or yoga sessions, I can get in a really focused state. During these times, a line will just come to me!
You write both fiction and poetry. How do you decide which medium to use when? I naturally go to poetry. My only novel was a memoir veiled as fiction, and it needed to come out. I wrote it in four weeks. I write because I have to. It is really difficult to take a creative assignment. It is relatively easy for poets to wander into fiction and less often the reverse, or so I’ve read.
Who were some of your favorite teachers?
Books have been the best teachers for me.
What is or could be the function of poetry?
I really think poetry has been given a platform to reach people that it never has before in my lifetime. It is powerful. People really want to connect in these kinds of ways, and poetry can be a surprisingly accessible way to do so. It’s much less daunting than a long essay or book, and can be consumed in quick bites. It is also natural that when your way of life or your voice is threatened, (pulling NEA funding, etc.) then you appreciate it and fight for it.
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur was a New York Times Bestseller. I don’t know when an unknown poet has had a best-selling book before hers. For me, that offers a lot of promise and a clue as to where society stands in regards to poetry.
What is your process like?
It is so uninteresting. It comes when it comes. There are weeks where I write four pieces a day…months that I don’t write at all. I know immediately if its good or not and that’s the first draft usually.
Top three (or five) female poets.
Exploring the complications of identity and love, with a gritty perspective on desire and the body, confession and narrative seem at the heart of your work. What does confession do for the confessor? The audience? Trauma needs to be pulled apart over and over, with the ugly insides spread out for inspection. There is an aspect of getting it out—it helps the person writing it, a natural form of catharsis. It can also be a form of connection and engagement, stimulate community healing. I didn’t fit the mold of white teenage, middle-class girl with an eating disorder, though my ED has been a major part of my writing. Writing about neglectful, abusive relationships has also been strong fodder for my work. Of course, there have been consequences to my writing, particularly in my relationships and family.
A lot of writers and maybe especially poets can’t make a living. You’ve written a book on making a living as a writer! What quality has contributed the most to your success?
Being super Type A ambitious and driven! Perhaps it stems from childhood trauma and the need to prove myself via perfection-ism. I’ve also worked with a lot of writers, both as a collaborator and managing them. I know what’s required for success. Creatives can be not very deadline driven, or have solid business acumen. I’m naturally good at balancing both, creativity and professionalism. It feels like luck, though I’m sure my background has helped shape this balance.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished Hunger Roxanne Gay. The Incest Diaries, an anonymous memoir, is sitting on my desk in Portland waiting to be read.
You’ve written about eating disorders. What can you say about how they have been portrayed in media and literature? The stereotype of eating disorder seems to be female, white, teenaged, middle or upper class. There are other forms of disorders, like orthorexia which is an obsession with clean eating, that isn’t technically part of the ED family yet but likely will be soon. I think the biggest misconception is that it’s not a mental disorder—it is. It’s the deadliest, most under-diagnosed, and most under-insured.
What role do you think a mother plays in an eating disorder?
There is increasing research showing a genetic link. There are two big ways though that a mom plays a role: first in modeling female behavior which often includes self-hatred. Then, of course, there’s how they speak to you about your body—even mothers who try their best often fail in both regards. One of the most poignant things my therapist told me (how cliched is that?) is that my mother saw me as an object and not a person.
Jessica, you have so many interests and talents! This may be a silly question….what talent or skill would you like to have that you don’t have already?
I am bad at math and science, though I would do whatever it possibly took to be an astronaut and go to space if I could have a complete do-over. I begged for a D- in pre-algebra as an undergrad. Math and science skills would be great! I would love to be able to pick up a language quickly. I’m married to a man from India, and his family always asks me if I have learned Gujarati yet, while telling me how easy it is. I’ve added related worries to Zozobra, so we’ll see if, when he burns, that helps with these hurdles!