This September, Jessica Mehta officially stepped into the role of poet-in-residence at Hugo House. Jessica is the author of fifteen books, including the collection When We Talk of Stolen Sisters (Not a Pipe Publishing), which was published earlier this year.
We recently caught up with Jessica via email to ask her a few questions about her work as a writer and as an interdisciplinary artist, her manuscript-in-progress, where she writes, and what she’s most looking forward to about her writer-in-residence term.
You’re the author of 15 books, 11 of which are collections of poetry. What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned (so far) about writing poetry?
You don’t need to change your voice, write a certain way/style, or fulfill some perceived end of “being poetic” to write poetry. The best poetry is inherently natural. We are influenced by what we read, of course—which is why I am a huge proponent of reading not only what we enjoy, but what we enjoy and that which is of good quality. We are what we eat, after all, whether in reference to food or words. I suppose this all boils down to deceptively simple life advice we tell our children: be yourself. Consume good things.
You’ve also written two novels and two works of nonfiction. How, if at all, has your work in other genres informed or changed the way you approach poetry?
It really hasn’t—I’m a poet at heart. I once read that it is somewhat “easier” for poets to write prose rather than the other way around, but I don’t like the long, arching, puzzle-piecing of writing a novel. My prose is, unsurprisingly, rich in what might be dubbed poetic language. I guess it has informed my poetry in the fact that writing in other genres cemented what I have always known: my role is that of a poet, and I will weave poetry into other projects whenever and however I can (this goes for my visual work, too).
In addition to creating a number of interdisciplinary art installations combining poetry, photography, performance art, and more, you’ve also been recognized for your innovation on the page. What draws you to creating works that push the boundaries of what a poem can be or do?
It saddens me that, today, people often think of poetry as the genre that is dry, boring, elitist, and several other derogatory terms. It wasn’t always this way. Even in mid-century, poetry was often found in weekly papers. There are many reasons as to why we have come to see poetry as inaccessible, but a big factor is the K–12 system in what is today called the United States. As humans, we are naturally drawn to poetry. Poetry is often what we first read (Dr. Seuss was a great poet!). Then somewhere in elementary school we stop getting exposed to poetry. Suddenly, circa ninth grade, we have Shakespeare plopped in front of us. Few teenagers (hell, few adults) can resonate with an old, dead white man, regardless of his brilliance with a pen. Poetry has long been meant to be enjoyed and experienced by all—otherwise, who are we publishing for? Who are we writing for? However, we have a barricade to tear down now: how poetry is presented to us today. By offering different avenues for experiencing poetry, I hope to play a small part in making poetry enjoyable, accessible, and exciting to audiences that don’t already pick up poetry books or attend readings. There’s no singular or best way to approach a poem, and as a poet it’s our job to offer our own ways of sparking discourse with our audiences and our inner selves.
During your residency, you’ll be working on a new manuscript inspired by the cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. Can you tell us a little more about the project and what inspired it?
My mother was a tarot reader, and (personal) tarot reading is part of my own daily ritual. At around 3:30am daily, you can find me smudging and pulling cards at the kitchen table. I use the Smith-Rider deck because that’s the deck I was taught with, though of course it has countless problems (hetero-normativity, a complete lack of non-white representation, etc.). However, as a tarot reader, I have long learned how to look beyond these issues and into the heart of the intentions of each card. My goal with Spread is to use each of the 78 cards as a source of inspiration, and I’m already surprised by the “readings” I get as I begin this manuscript. I often end up with a draft that is worlds apart from any meaning I’ve gleaned from the card in a traditional tarot reading. Tarot is an important part of my own self-care and practice, and it’s the first time such a personal ritual is so clearly informing my work. It is, of course, still obviously my own poetic voice but it’s tapping into different themes and subjects than what I’ve focused on before.
What are you most looking forward to about being Hugo House’s poet in residence?
Growing “my” poetry and literary community in Seattle! I am an Oregon native and only recently headed up north. I don’t have many connections in the area (yet) and am thrilled to join such a loving community with new Indigenous leadership and a commitment to expanding who Hugo House serves—and who it houses.
When we can gather together at Hugo House again, you’ll have the writer-in-residence office to use as a workspace. In the meantime, what does your current writing space look like?
I’ve worked from home for over 10 years, so I do have a dedicated office space. That doesn’t mean I use it (really, it’s better used for housing dissertation books and as a daily yoga space). I typically work at the kitchen table, on the couch, and sometimes at coffee shops. When I was bi-coastal for a year, flying at least once per week, some of my best work got done on planes. Now, with two young children in the house, I can often be found typing in a rocking chair in the garage before sunrise. Really, I can work anywhere, and I know what a gift that is.