Inside the Industry with Jessica (Tyner) Mehta
Updated: Jan 6
Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is an award-winning author born and raised in the gorgeous state of Oregon. Her novel, The Wrong Kind of Indian, was awarded gold at the Independent Publisher Book Awards in 2019.
Jessica founded MehtaFor, a writing services company, in 2012 which serves a variety of clients including Fortune 500 enterprises and major media outlets. MehtaFor received two national bronze awards for Startup of the Year in 2015.
As a citizen of the Cherokee nation, much of her work is influenced by her indigenous background. It’s clear that just as Mehta’s ancestry is deeply rooted in this country’s soil, so is her poetic voice elegantly woven into her living fabric.
With several noteworthy projects already under her belt, Jessica (Tyner) Mehta doesn’t seem to be running out of creative ways to articulate and marry the humanly profound with the unapologetically Cherokee. In her 2019 hybrid short-story collection, Gimme the Familiars, Mehta explores traditional indigenous storytelling, folding the gravity of adulthood into Native American myths she first heard as a child.
The retellings that begin each chapter of Gimme the Familiars provide a refreshing dislocation from the reader’s reality. Despite the grounded moral revelations punctuating each short story, the cast of talking animal characters are inherently whimsical, crafting a lighthearted read that starts every chapter with a brief respite from seriousness. Mehta transitions from fable to vivid memoir, seamlessly, revisiting childhood memories of uncomfortability and realization.
My personal introduction to Jessica’s work was her 2017 poetry collection, Secret Telling Bones. I was immediately impressed by the natural cadence of her voice, unforced, and the ease at which she exercised concision in her vocabulary while simultaneously establishing tone. Mehta utilizes abstraction at the opportune moments, softening any divisive elements and leaving ample space for readers’ contemplation. Jessica’s poetry is honest.
If you’re super picky with poetry like I am, reading Secret-Telling Bones is like taking in a deep breath of fresh air.
Jessica, I so appreciate you taking the time to do an interview. Can you give us any interesting tidbits about your up-and-coming projects?
My latest book, Savagery, was just released by Airlie Press in September. I also have four books forthcoming through 2021 including Bad Indian (Brick Mantel Press, 2020), You Look Something (Wyatt-MacKenzie Press, 2020), American Baby (Musehick Publications, 2020, and a yet-unnamed poetry collection from New Rivers Press in 2021. The un-named manuscript is an experimental form of poetry which is also featured in my poetic virtual reality (VR) pop-up series “Red/Act.” I’m currently a fellow at Open Signal New Media in Portland, Ore. which is where I’m transitioning the VR pop-up into the latest hardware for a completely mobile, wireless experience. Research shows that embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s compassion, empathy, and understanding and I’m hoping similar results will be yielded when users experience indigenous narratives and poetry in VR. The latest iteration of Red/Act is being featured at a June event at the American Indian Arts Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Simultaneously, I’m also continuing to operate my writing services company and trudging along with my PhD.
Do you ever worry that one day you might run out of things to say, or reasons to say them?
I can go for months without writing anything (creatively) new—which, on a personal level, is a good thing. I write because I have to as a form of trauma management. So, in short, when I’m not writing creatively it means I don’t have anything that needs processing, digesting, or healing. Plus, as (largely) a poet, my creative works will never be part of my income, so fortunately I don’t depend on that form of writing to support myself.
I recently read your poetry collection Secret-Telling Bones and I was hooked by your style and sincerity. Who are some of your all-time favorite poets? What writers have been an inspiration to you?
Without a doubt, my favorite poet is Li-Young Lee. His is the only work that I adore—and have for years—as complete collections. Otherwise, I tend to fall in love with specific poems and not necessarily the bulk of a poets’ work. There are many poems by Kim Addonizio that I love, as well as William Carlos Williams and certain translations by Pablo Neruda. The only “poem tattoo” I have is of Neruda’s, so I suppose I could say he has a special place in my heart (or, ribcage might be more accurate).
Indigenous people in America are severely underrepresented, especially in literature. Are there any Native American authors, poets, or artists that I should get acquainted with?
There are a lot of Native poets/authors writing, but as is the case with any marginalized group, only a small number are highly revered and published. Most people would point to Joy Harjo and Layli Longsoldier as the go-to Native poets of the moment. However, picking up a copy of Yellow Medicine Review is a great way to get exposed to a wider realm of indigenous poets.
You seem like you’re always on the move, always working on interesting new projects. Are you ever affected by writer’s block?
Creatively, I write when I “have to” so writer’s block has never been an issue. I’ve never been the kind of writer who feels like I need to get down a certain number of words per day, or force myself to write something no matter what. For me, that has tended to work out. I publish multiple books per year at this point, even though I would personally prefer to publish just one book per genre per year. In regards to the writing that actually pays, I’ve never been a procrastinator and have always made deadlines early. I blame the dogged Type-A, perfectionist personality for this trait.
If so, do you have any tips on how to get your head back in the game?
Lol, sorry, no! Trauma seems to feed writing, so I guess someone could seek that out—although that’s not particularly helpful or healthy.
What was your first real experience with writing? Have you always considered yourself a writer?
Writing has always been my best form of communicating. I’ve found poems I wrote when I was six years old. It’s easier for me to write rather than to speak openly and honestly because being “on the page” seems to put a kind of protective buffer around my words. In hindsight, I was always a writer, but even to this day most of us are taught (culturally and formal education) that you can’t make a living as a writer. That isn’t true, and it positions us from a young age to think of writing as a hobby.
Do you think great poetry can be taught?
Not from scratch. I think most poets are “born” and it’s an innate way of communicating and seeing the world. However, I do think that poets can and should better, hone, and explore their art and craft in various ways. This can be through reading more poetry, formal courses, writing more, or any other avenue they’re naturally drawn towards. However, I do think that not every poet is necessarily introduced to poetry, and not every poet will naturally start writing poetry without encouragement—this is one reason why we likely miss out on so many poets and poetry. While I don’t think great poetry can be taught to anyone, I do believe “teaching” (in various formats) is a necessity for a poet to become as great as they can be.
You’ve accomplished a great deal academically and have had so many opportunities to focus on your creative projects. Do you feel like you could have become the writer you are today without higher learning?
Honestly, yes. I don’t think my formal, academic education did much beyond introduce me to poetry. However, formal academia also has/had a tendency (at least when I was in my undergraduate and master’s programs) to strongly lead “writers” towards a career in teaching. Teaching is an incredibly difficult, honorable profession, but it is not necessarily the career for a writer. I began publishing years after my master’s program and don’t think I depended much (if at all) on what I learned in formal education within my creative career. However, I do think formal education can be a fantastic networking tool for writers who have the prowess to wrangle it. So much of “publishing success” is dictated ultimately by what amounts to a popularity contest, particularly in today’s digital era. Being “good with people” and “good at tech” are, sadly, often more prevalent indicators of perceived success than a person’s actually talent and writing capabilities.
I’ve become obsessed with your Antipode poetry form. How did you come up with this innovative form?
In around 2015, I randomly realized a sentence could be read forwards or backward—thus began an exercise in creating a complete poem in that style. This has led to what will be a full book of these poems in 2021 (the as-yet-untitled manuscript that found a home with New Rivers Press). However, writing in this style feels more like puzzle-piecing than “writing poetry” to me. It forces the brain to think differently, and there were certainly days I dreaded writing this style of poetry. In fact, this was the only time I had to force myself to write poetry. However, there is also a different kind of feeling of satisfaction when completing them. Currently, these poems are what is featured in my VR pop-up and there are also visual representations of them that have been in an exhibit at various galleries around the world.
I know some talented poets who are absolutely terrified of reading their work in front of a crowd. In your experience, is this a fear that has to be overcome in order to become a successful author?
I’ve never had a fear of public speaking because my mom forced me to be “on stage” ever since I can remember. However, I am very anti “performance” poetry. I’ve been asked if I do slam poetry (a hard no) and been told I should take acting lessons so I can “read my poetry more like Shakespeare.” Performing my poetry feels inauthentic, and I have no desire to develop the “poet voice” that some poets have. I adore slam poetry, but it’s not for me or my work. Ultimately, my poetry is meant to be read (not performed), but I have no problem reading my work aloud. For those who don’t like to read their work aloud, unfortunately probably the best approach is to do it as often as you can. The audience is there because they want to be and are almost always happy with whatever you deliver.
In honor of spooky October and all things Halloween, would you tell me what you’re most afraid of?
Spiders (a cliché, I know). Otherwise, I adore the Halloween season. I grew up on horror movies—the very first movie I saw in theaters was An American Werewolf in London at two weeks old. I recently found a photo of myself in the theater with my parents. I love campy horror films pre-CGI era, but there are two I refuse to see: The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film. Reading the Wikipedia of the latter was more than enough for me, and for some reason people love to include film stills from the former in random articles. That’s also more than enough for me!
Again, I’m so pleased I got the chance to learn a little more about you. I’m excited to see what you create next!