“How quickly this life does go by.” Tonight I wrote the last letters to my poetry students. It’s always been hard, dishing out compliments (unless I really, really mean it). My mother died halfway through the class, a term dedicated to confession and yoking sadness from fingertips. Tell me your best sad secret. Write the love letter you never sent, the one that hissed a papercut into your flagina so you took it as an omen. How do I rank choice of line breaks and liberties with pantoums while my mother burns at 1,800 degrees? Tell the octogenarian that his piece on alpaca butter is shit or the Iowa dropout I should be the one at his feet? You don’t, but the dead are furtive messengers. The banker sent it privately, a poem he’d been too shy or wise to workshop into neat numbness. He likened his tumor to a peach beyond burst, skin sloughing off like summer tans — and us, our ridiculous grasping of it all when in the end, “How quickly, how quickly this life does go by.” — Mark’s Tumor (When I Needed It Most), by Jessica Mehta, published by The Seventh Wave, 2018
A writer, multi-disciplinary artist, small business owner, Aniyunwiya and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a Hillsboro-based multi-hyphenate powerhouse who considers “space, place, and ancestry” the focus of her work. She is the author of more than 10 books, consisting of poetry collections and two novels, and works in photography, visual art, installation, and performance — in addition to practicing yoga and being a birth doula and Reiki practitioner.
“I have poems that I wrote when I was 6 years old. Writing, and particularly poetry, has long been my best and most natural form of communication and healing — at least, as long as I was able to write,” said Mehta in an email conversation.
She is committed to her craft, keeping to a rigorous schedule and dedicating spans of her life to establishing a successful writing career. When it comes to completing writing assignments that pay the bills, Mehta said, she is strict with herself. Her days start at 3 a.m. so she has time to practice Ayurveda, meditation, cardio, and asana before her two children — adopted during the pandemic while she was in the midst of a PhD program at the University of Exeter — get up. On client-writing days, this routine also includes at least two blogs written before sunrise, followed by nonstop work after child drop-off until pick-up time. Mehta said she is typically in bed between 7 and 8 p.m. and has just now “allowed” herself to read for pleasure before heading to sleep instead of the “strict dissertation diet I’ve been on for the past four years.”
Mehta is no stranger to being recognized for her uncompromising efforts. Her curriculum vitae, as published on her website, details more than 13 residencies and commissions within the past five years, dozens of literary awards, and multiple pages of journal and magazine publications spanning 2009 to 2022. She is currently serving as an artist in residence at Seattle’s Hugo House, where she will present her poem Her Name Was Rita in song format with a local Seattle musician on April 1. In addition, her installation Beguiled is on exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, while One of Kokum’s Kids, Mehta’s first picture book, is a Lee & Low Books publication winner slated for release in 2023. She is also a finalist for this year’s Oregon Book Award Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry for her collection When We Talk of Stolen Sisters: New and Revised Poems (Not a Pipe Publishing, 2021), which, as the title suggests, Mehta said, is the culmination of several years of writing and revisiting writing.
“It addresses a myriad of issues relevant to NDN [Native Indian] country both historically and today,” she said. “Colonization is not in the past. It is happening right now. For me, poetry has not only been a means of healing, both personally and intergenerationally, but also a form of Ceremony — Good Medicine — communing with my ancestors who I speak to at the beginning of every meditation practice.”
This collection will likely be her last for quite some time, Mehta said, save for [sp]RED, a project whose goal is to Indigenize the tarot deck.
“I am finding myself pulling inward more and more recently. Book tours are exhausting … book readings are exhausting. I am, increasingly, more drawn toward feeding what calls to me — however that may present.”
Mehta said she had limitless access to books as a child. She was born and raised in Medford, where her favorite place, HQ Books, closed in 2016 after years of service to the area. In her youth, Mehta was a big fan of creepy and monster-themed picture books, and by fifth grade she found herself immersed in the Sweet Valley High series, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King.
“That persisted until my 20s, when I met and fell in love with Sylvia Plath — she is, perhaps, my longest relationship to date,” Mehta said. “In July, at my commencement in England, I am finally making the trek to her grave so that I may pour her some sherry and share some moments of parallel silence.”
How did you decide to go to school for writing and at what point did you choose to get a PhD in English literature?
Mehta: It was 11 years after finishing my MSc in writing before I pursued my doctoral work, and a number of factors went into that decision. I had long ago accepted that a PhD wasn’t in the cards for me. I was rejected from every program I applied for in the so-called United States, even with a 4.0 GPA and what I imagined was a strong writing portfolio and a decent publication history. However, when I was serving as the poet-in-residence at Stratford-Upon-Avon in England with an appointment at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I happened by chance upon a mention of Prof. Tim Kendall’s work in the local news. He seemed to have the same love, adoration, and obsession with Sylvia Plath as I did. I reached out to him with no intentions or hopes, and he offered to serve as my primary supervisor (a prerequisite before applying to a research-based PhD in England) and encouraged me to apply.
I had plenty of hesitations when it came to pursuing a PhD in England, the heart of colonizer country. However, I have always felt partially at home in England. My mother’s family were English immigrants. There was also the appeal of no graduate test like the GRE (as I absolutely freeze with such tests) and the fact that there are no course requirements for research PhD candidates — just research and writing. Urged on by the fact that I felt, ultimately, “not wanted” by doctoral programs in what we often call the United States, and welcomed by a fellow Plath-lover, the universe aligned as I believe it was meant to.
How did you make your first step toward a career in writing? When did you know this is what you wanted to dedicate yourself to?
I have been a “writer” since my undergraduate days working in nonprofits. I worked at nonprofits and NGOs for a decade as a grant writer, event coordinator, and other titles that were largely writing-based. Once someone figures out you can write, that’s what you do. However, after being laid off twice in a row circa 2010/2011 due to the Great Recession and my working at very small organizations, it was time for a change. Armed with unemployment, I moved to Costa Rica, where there was a much lower cost of living. I gave myself a year to make six-figures strictly writing. I had the safety net of an income and cheap rent, which few people have. However, that was the catalyst for writing full-time, starting a writing company, and trusting the vulnerability of sending my work out for publication.
What is your writing process like? Do you have any specific daily routines that influence your creativity?
In terms of writing creatively, I have no process. I adopted two children during the pandemic, still run a business that brings in a full-time income, and just completed my PhD while simultaneously undertaking a postdoctoral fellowship. I write when I can and, as horrible as this sounds, when inspiration strikes.
How do you balance your poetry, novels, and nonfiction work along with the photography, performance art, and yoga that you do? Do all of these mediums influence each other?
I am not a novelist, though I have written two, and do not plan to write any in the future. I am a poet first and foremost, as that is what is most organic for me. I am also not a photographer, though I have had others archive my visual and performance work. Performance and visual art is a natural extension of my poetics, as I believe it is my responsibility as a storyteller (because that is really what I am) to meet audiences where they are. Performance and visual work have poetry built into them. As for yoga, which I consider holistically — asana, meditation, and pranayama — I do not teach for myriad reasons (starting with the fact that I do not believe money should be exchanged for it). However, the totality of yoga is a must to start each morning, otherwise, I am “off” all day. In terms of “art,” I think of writing, visual, and performance as different sides of the same entity — they are all tied to one another. Yoga, as well as running at 4 a.m., is for my sanity as well, but in a different way.
Your website says that you are “preparing to install The Red C[h]airn Project at the reopening of the Ucross Art Gallery in early 2023 following its debut during [your] post as the Native American visual artist-in-residence in 2021.” Can you tell me more about this upcoming project?
The “Red C[h]airn Project” is a medium-scale installation composed of old-fashioned student/desk combinations and mounted in a cairn-like structure. It is painted red with acrylic and spray paint, “fingerpainted” with snippets of curriculum from “Indian” residential boarding “schools” circa 1900, and, during the small debut at Ucross, it was in a dark room under a singular spotlight as Jayli Wolf’s Child of the Government streamed from its core.
The curator of the nearby Ucross Art Gallery saw it and selected it as the last of four pieces to reopen the gallery after renovations in 2023. Currently, the pieces of this project are housed in the executive director of the foundation’s barn. This reinstall will give me time to “paint” the c[h]airn in sindhoor so that it will “bleed” onto a white cloth on closing night. I also look forward to the opportunity to return to Wyoming and work with the fellow artists who will have work featured in this opening.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your upcoming book [sp]RED (Red Planet Books)?
[sp]RED began as a “simple” manuscript to Indigenize the tarot deck and was the project selected by Hugo House when I was chosen as the [remote] poet-in-residence. I work with the Smith-Rider-Waite deck, the most familiar deck today to a lot of people. It was taught to me by my mother at the kitchen table, and now every morning at 3:30, you can find me in my own kitchen smudging and pulling my cards. I consider it a part of my meditation practice, and it immediately follows what one might think of as a more “traditional” meditation (which I do in my closet via candle-gazing). This deck has 78 cards, so it was a goal of writing 78 poems, though it quickly expanded.
I began working with fellow Portland artist Kendrick Payton, who is illustrating the deck — making it now a decolonization process rather than strictly Indigenization. Like any Native, I have long been aware of Dr. Lee Francis’ work (the publisher at Red Planet Books) and on a whim reached out to him to see if he would be interested. Both Kendrick and Lee’s wives are also tarot readers, so it was a bit of a magical partnership. We are now Red Planet’s first incubator project. I just completed the “little red book” for the major arcana, which gives suggestions on how to interpret these cards, and Lee is planning a staggered release of suits complemented with other materials — including an actual tarot deck featuring Kendrick’s work.
Who are your favorite authors/what are your favorite books to read as an adult?
It is incredibly difficult for me to find books that I like, and I do not believe there is a single author whose total oeuvre I like. The closest is probably Toni Morrison, though I much prefer her earlier work. I could not choose a favorite of those, but The Bluest Eye and Jazz come to mind. I also like a fair amount of Augusten Burroughs, probably because it provides some reassurance that my upbringing was not as solitarily unique as I feared. And Junot Díaz. I enjoy much of Maya Angelou, Li-Young Lee, and Kim Addonizio’s work. I have just started to delve into the work of Billy-Ray Belcourt and am pleased thus far. I would love to fall deeply in love with a book again, but it rarely happens anymore. This, I think, is the result of spending too much intimate time with words.
What advice can you offer young writers and those seeking to establish a career in this field?
There are other ways to be a writer besides being a teacher. Teaching is an incredibly difficult and noble position, one that I am not qualified or interested in undertaking. You probably aren’t going to make a living “just” writing poetry. Be creative. Apply for whatever fellowship or residency strikes your fancy. If such a life appeals to you, being whisked around the world and paid many times strictly just to “be inspired” — I can assure you — is a lovely one. However, it’s all going to come down to timing, luck, the strength of your portfolio, the biases of the judging panel, and your recommendations. Create partnerships with others to write recommendations for each other, because you’re going to quickly burn through favors. You can make a LOT of money doing things like content creation, and while this isn’t going to be your great love, it will help keep your writing skills strong. These days, I can write a blog in 15 minutes that pays $100 and have years-long clients. I don’t “love” doing that, but it pays the bills quickly, easily, and does not keep me geographically tied anywhere.