Set aside an afternoon for yourself where you browse the web for prose poems by Shivani Mehta. Her paragraph fairy tales weave in all directions, a cocktail of unpredictability stirred with the sharpened sword of a fountain pen. Her debut collection of prose poems, Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded, was released through Press 53 in 2015. The dazzling book comes co-signed by fellow surrealist/fabulist/narrative poets Rick Bursky (who we interviewed back in May) and Richard Garcia (who we interviewed back in March). With a second collection in the works, I spoke with Mehta about the prose poem, her ideal work space, residing a bit off the grid, and international travel.
You don't seem to have any social media and I had a bit of trouble finding your email address. Do you prefer staying off the grid?
Yes, I do prefer staying off the grid. Not great for promoting new work, I know. I occasionally come across a writer's website that is really beautiful and inspiring and I'm envious and I think, ok, I'm going to do it, I should do it. But then I don't.
Your prose poems really pack a punch. They're playful and whacky yet moving and emotional at the same time. What's your history with this poetic form?
I love prose poems. When I first started writing and reading poetry I just found myself drawn to the form -- a hybrid, and ripe for experimentation. I love that it looks like prose on the page, but has all the elements of poetry.
As you prepared to release your debut collection, were you trimming and discarding drafts, or were you slowly building up a batch?
The book was written a poem at a time, I was only focused on the poem in front of me on the page. I didn't start revising until I had drafts of all the poems that appear in the book. I found I worked better separating the generating of new material and the revisions. I still work better this way. Once I had a good collection of poems, I began going back over them and revising.
Are you still writing in the prose poetry style? What are you currently working on?
Yes! I'm still writing prose poems. A second collection is in the works. Stay tuned...
According to Press53's website, you were born in Mumbai, raised in Singapore, educated in New York, and now reside in Los Angeles. Where is your favorite place on Earth?
So hard to pick just one place! I love to travel. Singapore will always be the home of my childhood, a place I return to every year (with kids in tow) and it's always very hard to leave. Bali is lovely, I've been several times. So is Phuket, in Thailand. But then, Florence, Italy, is pretty amazing too. I love coming home, though. Sorry to be boring and somewhat predictable but I have to say home is my favorite place.
How would you describe the voice within your current work? Has it transformed over the years?
I’ve been asked that question before, it always puts me on the spot, don’t like the question at all...but I’ll try to answer. I write language driven, surreal narratives of a childhood I’ve never had. Let me try again. I write images, one after another, that involve a little girl growing up in a swirl of language. You could say I write fairy tales for adults, after all, wouldn’t you say that describes a lot of poetry. I hope it describes my stuff. The sound of the poem is a character in the poem as much as the speaker of the poem. That’s why I love being a poet. You get to play with language in a way that is often off limits to prose writers. One day I’m going to write my autobiography and it’s going to be one long prose poem. I swear it’ll all be true. Okay, I swear some of it might be true. Hand over heart, something might be true. Does it really matter?
I hope no one asks me this question for a long time.
What are some workplace essentials while you write?
Essentials - I've got to have my desk near a window, this is non-negotiable. I have to be able to look out at the world. Doesn't matter very much what I'm looking at. I write in the morning, before others in the house are awake. There's almost always a cat in the room. A dear poet friend of mine (Rick Bursky, his work is beautiful, inspiring) turned me onto fountain pens and now I have several of my own as well as many different ink colors. On my recent summer travels recently I packed my Conklin durograph with a stub nib. If I can't get my hands on a fountain pen, I'll use one of those gel ink pens. Pens are important. I can't write with a ballpoint pen. Ever. Poetry seems to flow better out of a fountain pen, I find. Especially prose poetry.
For this ongoing author interview series, I'm asking for everyone to present a writing prompt. It can be one that you craft out of thin air, it can be one you created a while ago, or it can be one you adore from an outside source that was passed down to you.
Pick a book off your shelf, it could be any book, on any subject. Open it to any page and put your finger somewhere on the page. Write down the word your finger's on. Do this three more times, then use the first word in the first line of a poem, second word in the second line, and so on. This also works really well if I'm stuck mid-line or sentence and need a next word.
Do you have any advice for poets working on their craft?
I recently came across this gem - "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit." It truly is a craft. Learn the tools of the craft, methodically, ruthlessly, even. That said, write because you love it and can't bear not to write.