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Jessica Mehta, 2020

For the final entry to our Interview Series, we finish with Jessica Mehta. We interviewed her as part of our proposal to offer insight into how practicing artists were continuing their practice and how they are adapting during the pandemic and with the restrictions this brings.

Hi my name’s Jessica Mehta, I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and I’m currently self-isolating in Portland, Oregon.

So I started out my career many, many years ago, considering myself strictly a poet and that has gone on to expand to being an interdisciplinary practice. I integrate visual art, photography and various forms of technology into my work because, even though I do consider myself a poet as a foundation, my goal has always been to make poetry, and particularly indigenous poetry, as accessible and engaging as possible.

A lot of people think of poetry as dry or boring, elitist, inaccessible, and I really credit that to a lot of Western schools first being introduced to, what we call poetry, in high school with things like Shakespeare sonnets. Obviously our first real introduction to poetry was probably children’s books, for example Dr Suess is a phenomenal poet. But we are taught to think of poetry as having very stringent guidelines that aren’t necessarily fun, and at heart I think art and poetry should be ‘play’ and that includes fun; obviously that doesn’t mean that it’s not hard work. Only certain people will ever pick up a poetry book or attend a poetry reading, even fewer will seek out indigenous poetry, so I had actually had several books published by the time I really started digging into how to make poetry more exciting and engaging to a wider audience. My first foray into that was taking an experimental form of poetry that I call the ‘Antipode’, which can be read forward or backward, word by word, and putting that over family archival photos of my ancestors, including my parents and sisters who are incarcerated. These poems specifically spoke to mass incarceration is one of the many disparities faced in post colonial America today by indiginous people.That series is called “Redact” or “Red Act” and it has been featured in exhibitions around the globe; it’s actually going to be included at a show in Kentucky in October. That still is kind of a more traditional format, it’s 2D work, it still encourages people to participate in poetry in a different way, rather than picking up a book; obviously there is some intersection but different crowds will go along to a gallery opening compared to a poetry reading. So I followed that up by working with the co-founders of the virtual reality company “Equal Reality” to create proprietary software that allowed users to embody the narratives and poetry of indiginous women. This includes myself as well as various women I worked with when I put together an anthology of work by incarcerated native women. The thought behind that was really two goals; one, research shows that embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s compassion, empathy and understanding. Now that research is out of Barcelona and was focused on domestic violence, so, it was all men, men convicted of domestic violence, half of them experienced abuse in virtual reality and half of them did not. Those who did reported higher rates of compassion, empathy and understanding even years after that singular experience. So my hope with doing poetry in Vr is that, best case scenarios, non-native users will experience similar results, the worst case scenario, not that this is a worst case, but more people will be exposed to indiginous poetry. Pretty much everyone wants to check out VR if it’s offered, I did that as a mobile pop-up series for about eighteen months prior to COVID. At the same time, poetry and VR was really just a means of getting tha engagement and getting different audiences, so there’s the research aspect of it and then just the general outreach aspect of it. I also started incorporating performance poetry art into my creative practice, this is a series called “Embody Poetry” and there were two shows that happened before lockdown, one in DC and one here in Portland. That involved a non-professional but paid model, who inhabits a body, traditionally hypersexualised and/or under represented in contemporary western arts. I work with them, they select one of my poems that is then hand painted by me on their form in front of audience and they have the autonomy and choice to invite audience members to paint a word or not, and having that kind of authentic and genuine human experience and involvement demands attention and silence to a degree I haven’t seen in non-live shows, and it’s just a way of literally and figuratively bringing poetry to life.

So now, what am I working on right now in quarantine? So I’m actually, I’m recording this in August and I’m the virtual poet in residence at Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. I obviously could not be there, they’re not having any artists there this year but I did have the chance to visit there a couple years ago and give a lecture at the talking circles series. So right now, they’re supporting me by offering a platform for weekly artist talks, and also financial support to undertake a variety of projects, including prepping for the release of two books in 2021, both through different presses, as well as putting together a single issue journal/anthology called “Interpunct” that features indiginous poetry using traditional printmaking, like a risograph, letterpress and screen printing, that also includes the poets actual handwriting. At the same time, I am also a resident at a local studio that I can do in person called The Independent Publishing Resource Centre and that’s where I’m learning and getting better at these printmaking techniques, so spending a lot of studio time right now. I also have upcoming exhibitions that things are getting shipped out to, all kinds of stuff happening along those lines. 

So that leads to what’s next. I did mention the exhibit in Kentucky coming up in October. I also was supposed to be the resident artist at Keep Saint Pete Lit in St Petersburg in Florida in September but that has been bumped to May (fingers crossed) and that’s the big thing I’m looking forward to right now. I also received the public impact award from the British Association for American Studies or BAAS and that is bringing me to England in order to disseminate information on a research project that I undertook which shows how the Wise Indian Trope, which is kind of similar to the Magical Negro Trope, is still very prevalent in real time using search engine optimisation analysis and what I do to make money is I run a content creation company that specialises in SEO services. Not sure right now if that is actually going to happen because it was awarded at the beginning of 2020, I’m supposed to be in England by the end of the year and that’s not going to happen so we’ll see how an extension works on that.

You can keep up with what I’m doing, follow me, interact, send me comments, questions, on social media. I’m easy to find on Twitter @cherokeeroseup or Instagram @thischerokeerose or you can email me from my website at jessicamehta.com. Reach out and I look forward to hearing from you! Bye.

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