Empathy and compassion. I strongly believe these are not inherent traits, but rather learned traits, and as such we can practice and better them on a daily basis. Infants are the most selfish of humans, and with good reason — they are wholly dependent on others to survive. They demand their needs to come first, at any cost. This is how we are all born and how we must live for the first weeks of our lives. Empathy and compassion is a learned process, and early on it can be difficult to understand the WHY behind it. It’s clear, both from our human history and the state of the world today, that the vast majority of us have a lot more empathy and compassion to learn and work on myself included, of course. These two traits are, I believe, the keys to changing the world for the better.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Mehta.
Jessica Tyner Mehta is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, interdisciplinary artist, multi-award-winning poet, and author of over one dozen books. Place, space, and personal ancestry inform much of her work. She’s also a post-graduate researcher at the University of Exeter, England, with a research focus on the intersection of poetry and eating disorders.
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. Jessica has also received numerous fellowships in recent years, including 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. Jessica is a popular speaker and panelist, featured recently at events such as the US State Department’s National Poetry Month event, “Poets as Cultural Emissaries: A Conversation with Women Writers,” as well as the “Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism Since 1960” symposium at Oxford University.
She has undertaken poetry residencies around the globe including at Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and at the Crazy Horse Memorial and museum in South Dakota. Her work has been featured at galleries and exhibitions around the world, including IA&A Hillyer in Washington DC, The Emergency Gallery in Sweden, and Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My creative, research, and professional work and interests have always overlapped. I am currently working on a number of concurrent projects including my research on how eating disorders inform and reveal themselves in poetry, a performance-poetry-art series in which an experimental form of poetry is painted on nude forms as an act of body reclamation, and I have two forthcoming books in 2021.
What brought me to this place in my career, being a full-time writer/artist and a full-time researcher, was a series of events that at least partially sprung forth from my ancestry and lineage. As you likely guessed, my interest in eating disorders stems from my own experience with anorexia and bulimia. There is a genetic component to eating disorders, and my mother likely had anorexia undiagnosed) Although eating disorders are getting a little less taboo these days, there is still a host of mis-information and shame around them — particularly in communities outside of the damaging “anorexia trope.” As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and someone who was in my 30s when my own eating disorder peaked, like a lot of people I struggled for years to get a diagnosis (which is a requirement for treatment) because I wasn’t a white, young woman from middle- or upper-class America. This is foundational in WHY eating disorders are the deadliest, most under-diagnosed, and most under-insured of mental disorders. Poetry, for me and many others, is a way of exploring and dismantling the disorder on a personal level — and hopefully helping move the discourse forward in the process.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
There is relatively little research on the intersection of eating disorders and poetry. Research on the relationship between them alone can be seen as groundbreaking — there is no book solely on where and how eating disorders and poetry meet. The ability to disrupt the narrative that eating disorders are NOT a lens with which to examine poetry alone is shaking things up. In my creative work, I am designing experimental forms of poetry that sustain the writer’s voice and allow poets to delve deeper into their own crevices by making writing poetry feel more like piecing together a puzzle. My own full book of this experimental form is being released by New Rivers Press next year. Taking poetry off the page and into new formats — whether it’s living on a “model” who inhabits a body traditionally under-represented in the arts world or into the realm of virtual reality — disrupts what we wrongly perceive poetry to be. It is not elitist, boring, dry, or reserved only for “certain people.” Poetry is a living, breathing means of expression that says succinctly what the human experience knows to be true. However, disrupting how we see, experience, and interact with poetry increases its perceived accessibility.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My current mentor is my supervisor at the University of Exeter, Professor Tim Kendall. We “met” initially virtually over a shared love and obsession of Sylvia Plath. I also consider Plath one of my mentors, and a host of other writers and poets. The Bell Jar was the first book I ever read where I felt someone else had experienced similar things and thoughts as myself. Many authors that I’ve never met serve as mentors in some format to me. I do believe, as writers and artists, we tend to organically mimic who and what we read — which makes it very important to consume quality literature.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Some form of ignore the haters! Or, as Rupaul eloquently put it, “If they ain’t paying your bills, pay those bishes no mind.”Every industry is brutal, and every community at least that I’ve encountered has at least some elements of savagery in it. Some more than others. The more you publish and the more accolades you collect, the harsher and more prevalent the criticism.Pick up what’s useful, leave what’s not, and take ample moments to keep moving forward and don’t get distracted by the white noise.
Start earlier. Some people are big supporters of this advice, while others doggedly push the idea that many greats get started later in life which is true — but there’s no telling if they could have been ever greater had they started earlier. Obviously, getting an early start isn’t always possible. Sometimes it’s all we can do just to survive, but survival mode like any mode gets comfortable. I personally had the ability and space to start earlier — start writing in earnest earlier, querying earlier, prioritizing myself as a writer earlier. The best time to start is today.
Publishing is, to some extent, a numbers game. I’ve served as an editor for a few journals and contests in my time. I’ve seen submissions where the author has an impressive bibliography and glowing reviews from prominent writers but the writing itself was subpar — sometimes shockingly so. There’s someone out there that will publish you. Publishing is also, again to some extent, a popularity contest. If a renowned writer falls in love with your work, you’re golden. Contrary to popular belief, the solitary, brooding writer doesn’t have the upper hand just because they fit an outdated archetype. Unfortunately for writers like me (and the many others) who don’t have just the right personality to win over fellow literary types, it’s going to be tough. I’ve found that most writers have the attributes to shine in one capacity or the other: either you’re dogged and have the tenacity and persistence to keep trying until you find “your” publishing niches, or you’re born with a personality that resonates with literary crowds that will lubricate the whole process for you. Having both is extremely rare, but you can certainly work to improve these dualities.
How are you going to shake things up next?
I have been trying to get a project off the ground for a couple of years and am currently in the midst of seeking out funding. My goal is to create an interactive homage to the Trail of Tears, utilizing a stationary “relay” in which indigenous volunteers walk, jog, or run for their preferred amount of time. Ultimately, this project working name “Tearing the Trail” will take about 30–45 days around the clock (depending on the average speed of each participant) in order to recreate the 2,200 miles walked by my ancestors during the Forced Indian Removal. The space will also be a pop-up gallery and site for poetry readings, all featuring indigenous artists. To the best of my knowledge, an event like this has never been undertaken before and is designed to pay homage to our ancestors while also educating and informing non-indigenous audiences.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
In addition to The Bell Jar, I can read and re-read Toni Morrison’s work especially her older work) over and over again. It is a stunning example of mastery of craft, and even if you don’t personally relate to the details of the characters and story you can relate to the broader human experience. Right now, sitting on the precipice of adopting so-called “unadoptable” kids, I have a Morrison quote on my desktop: “Nobody gave you to me. Nobody said that’s the one for you. I picked you out. Wrong time, yep … but the picking out, the choosing. Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it. I saw you and made up my mind.” It’s from Jazz, either my favorite or second favorite Morrison novel I simply can’t decide between it and The Bluest Eye and so perfectly captures all kinds of love.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Empathy and compassion. I strongly believe these are not inherent traits, but rather learned traits, and as such we can practice and better them on a daily basis. Infants are the most selfish of humans, and with good reason — they are wholly dependent on others to survive. They demand their needs to come first, at any cost. This is how we are all born and how we must live for the first weeks of our lives. Empathy and compassion is a learned process, and early on it can be difficult to understand the WHY behind it. It’s clear, both from our human history and the state of the world today, that the vast majority of us have a lot more empathy and compassion to learn and work on (myself included, of course). These two traits are, I believe, the keys to changing the world for the better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“How I wish we didn’t have those years while we lived them.” It’s from Li-Young Lee’s poem “Braiding” when the speaker is reminiscing over the college years with his girlfriend (now wife). It is SO difficult to embrace the Buddhist teaching of living in the moment. We are persistently distracted by the past or future. However, trying to sit in any time and emotion is to actually live and be human. I tried to remember this when grieving the death of my cat in April, who was (to us) so much more than a cat. I do think it helped with authentic healing rather than covering up the loss.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Twitter and Instagram @bookscatsyoga
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!