The recipient of the Keep St. Pete Lit Writer’s Residency for 2021 is Jessica Mehta, an Oregon-based poet and novelist who has published 10 books. Mehta has just arrived in St. Petersburg to work with KSPL writers, and she’ll also give a reading Thursday (Aug. 12) at Tombolo Books.
Although her work includes novels and short stories, and she’s also a writer-for-hire (gotta keep those bills paid somehow), Mehta is at her core a poet. Her work is both personal and universal, visceral and ethereal, and for her, the most effective way to communicate.
“I generally start writing poetry with an opening line,” Mehta tells the Catalyst in this video interview (click on the arrow, above). “And it usually sticks as the opening line, or some iteration of it that wakes me up at four in the morning, or is halfway through a long run – something that needs to get on paper and ultimately, a lot of the time, ends up needing to be published.”
Poetry has also been cathartic for her, helping her to work through issues created by a rocky family history.
Her father was Cherokee, her mother wasn’t, and it wasn’t until Jessica – who grew up in a small, mostly-white town – reached adulthood that she went in search of her dad’s family and heritage.
“Writing it out is kind of a natural progression of oral storytelling, which is obviously a tradition of the Cherokee and other sovereign nations,” she explains. “But I think writing has always been a means of me working out my own life, the life of my parents … I know a lot of writers are against saying this, but it is a form of therapy … I did start to get drawn more towards kind of an overarching indigenous lens and community the older I got.”
Near the end of the conversation, Mehta reads “When We Talk of Stolen Sisters,” from her poetry book of the same name.
She also discusses the current spike in interest in poetry, via young people like Amanda Gorman, the country’s first Youth Poet Laureate who recited so famously at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
It’s about time, Mehta says.
“A lot of people think of poetry as elite, or dry, or boring. Or only for a certain demographic of people. I believe poetry should be and is meant to be accessible. If you look at newspapers from the ‘50s and ‘60s, poetry was a natural part of it. You would see it alongside the news.
“Poetry is the first thing we’re drawn to as children. Dr. Seuss was a phenomenal poet. We are engaged with that rhythm of writing.
“And I don’t know, I blame the K through 12 school system of stopping poetry, and then all of a sudden when you’re 15, ‘Here’s Shakespeare. Read this old white man’s idea of what poetry is.’”