Poetry Month Spotlight: Jessica Mehta
I am a multi-award-winning poet, artist, and performance artist working at the intersection of mixed- and digital-media. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, much of my work focuses on space, place, and identity in post-Colonial America and often addresses the vast disparities faced by indigenous people today. Many of my projects also directly address issues that have impacted me personally, such as mass incarceration, alcoholism and drug addiction, homelessness, eating disorders, and the opioid epidemic. One example of this hyper-personal implementation is my curation of an anthology of poetry by incarcerated indigenous women. I am the only person in my family to never be incarcerated, and offering workshops in correctional facilities while providing these women with a platform for their voices was a project stemming from my own experiences of having family members trapped in the nation’s “justice” system.
In the business facet of my life, I own a small writing services company (MehtaFor) which specializes in creating search engine optimization (SEO) rich content. The emphasis of technology in my business life organically spread to my creative and research life in the past decade. Increasingly, I have been utilizing technology in my creative work, such as the creation of a virtual reality (VR) poetry experience with proprietary software that allows users to immerse themselves in indigenous poetry in new, intimate ways.
My interest in VR partially stems from research from the University of Barcelona that suggests embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s understanding, empathy, and compassion—my hope is that non-Native users who experience poetry in VR may undergo similar results. I also offer poetry in other non-traditional formats, such as in performance art with elements of shibari rope tying using customized measuring tapes to draw attention to eating disorders. Eating disorders are the deadliest, most under-insured, and most under-diagnosed of any mental disorder, and are especially under-treated in non-white communities.
Indigenous audiences are a natural fit for my work, but I know that those who might benefit the most are non-Native. I consider myself an artist and writer first, but hope to also serve as a source to help encourage knowledge-sharing, the opening of discourse, and information exchange beyond indigenous communities. I am constantly working towards making poetry, art, and technology as accessible and engaging as possible. Unfortunately, poetry is often seen as the literature genre which is the most elite, dry, and boring—even though this, of course, is not true. By introducing poetry to audiences in different formats, I aim to create a welcoming opportunity to experience the genre.
For more information on my art, background, and projects, please visit my site at www.jessicamehta.com.
This is waking up. Remember
when you pressed your thumbs,
thick and unforgiving,
into my eye sockets? Slow as death
until I caved
to the dizzy and you whispered,
accent sticky, dripping in rose syrup,
Do you see the stars?
And I did. They burst in the darkness like kisses.
This city has a heart, fluttering
crazed and drunken as a beast, hands
itchy and always wanting, wanting
and a mouth with hunger so palpable
I gave myself in an instant. I was new,
damp when I came here, ridiculous
as one of those puppy mill survivors
too petrified to take a single step from the cage
into green grass and sunshine. I stumbled,
but for the stars.
I risked it all for you
because it was home, because it was you,
the cage I left behind, dank and cloying
and so sadly, pathetically familiar. It was a husk,
forgotten like nightmares and used to be’s,
but it was all I’d ever known.
Pulitzer Prize Pig spoke of what it means
to be ***** as a ***** man with a look
the look that look
women were born knowing
how to read. I knew
that look the look
at fifteen when the AP teacher crouched
beside my desk in the dark
while flashes of syphilis
and gonorrhea shuddered
across the projector screen. (Still, even now,
I hear the tired clicking of the tapes).
I knew the look, saw a look,
at eleven when grown men whistled
at my unfolding hips and high
school boys rolled Corollas
along middle school parking lots
with eyes that spider-scurried
pressed breasts. And I knew, I saw
that look, his look
at four. In the bathtub, I learned shame—
I shot my father
in the eye with a plastic alligator squirt
gun and never bathed with open doors again.
Pulitzer Prize Pig sidled up close, nosed for nipple
drinkers and sniffed out my slop. Trough walls
are low, but sticky, slick beside stys,
and boars are happy with scraps.
Through the deserts outside Al Ain, the baby
sucking like a beast at your breast,
mosques gave way to dunes
and the oiled street workers to palms.
Beyond the camels,
past the tribesmen,
we didn’t stop until we were away from it all—
the malls with their ungodly air conditioning,
the fat children making loud love to their sweets,
the fat wives engorged in their abayas, rolling
like sun-swollen beetles through the shops.
In ballet flats and the jeans that hugged my ass
like a fetish, I climbed the dunes as if I belonged,
while beautiful golden menh in glorious keffiyehs
honked safely from the highway. And I,
staggering like a drunk
as the sand clung begging and desperate,
my cuckolded lover to my perfect white feet,
mounted the crest, dropped to my knees,
ready and eager as a whore,
to fil a mason jar with contraband. And you,
nipples burnished as the sand, laughed,
I thought you were praying.
Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, multi-award-winning poet, and author of over one dozen books. Place, space, and personal ancestry inform much of her work. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of Crab Creek Review and owner of an award-winning small business. MehtaFor is a writing services company that offers pro bono services to Native Americans and indigenous-serving non-profits.
Jessica integrates technology, archival photos, and performance art into many of her creative projects. “Red/Act” is a pop-up virtual reality poetry experience made with proprietary software. It aims to introduce more people to poetry, and specifically indigenous poetry, through a uniquely immersive encounter. Her “emBODY poetry” performance series features experimental poetry on nude form while incorporating shibari rope work to address topics on body image 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.
Jessica is also an experienced registered yoga instructor (ERYT-500®), registered children’s yoga teacher (RCYT®), certified Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP®), and NASM-certified personal trainer (CPT). She’s the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga and strength movement, which offers free classes to groups that don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments.
Learn more at www.jessicamehta.com or find Jessica on Twitter and Instagram @bookscatsyoga.
For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected -- highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.