Friday Feature: Interview with Nikki Mehle
Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Nikki Mehle, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.
Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?
I hardly remember my first publication! I think it was in high school, in tenth or eleventh grade. An English teacher forced every student in the class to write a response to any of a number of poems that were published in some kind of national high school literary journal. I remember not taking the assignment very seriously and also being in a hurry. I chose the shortest poem and critiqued it briefly but honestly. The next month, my short review was published right at the beginning of the journal! I remember thinking “that was easy” and wishing that it would be as easy to publish poetry as it was to publish a formal critique of poetry. I liked knowing that people were reading something I wrote, but I also felt unsatisfied because they were reading something that didn’t mean very much to me.
What inspired your piece in the Jenny?
Trying to understand love, awe, and death — something I aim to do with all of my writing and all of my painting (and all of my living).
What got you into writing?
Crippling social anxiety. The (questionable) belief that I might have some interesting or fractionally original thought or insight about life that I certainly couldn’t express in an extroverted or social way.
What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?
I like free-writing and then letting the writing be whatever it needs to be — prose, a poem, nonfiction. Much of my work is generated by remembering a certain moment or a snippet of a conversation or any little thing that felt significant. My first step is always free-writing, simply writing whatever comes to mind immediately (triggered by the initial moment). I ramble and ramble and then see where the rambling is going — what shape it is taking. However, I do see great advantages to poetry; readers are less invested when reading a short poem, so they are more easily surprised and satisfied. This also allows for the structure and organization of a poem to be more experimental, and the content to be as significant or insignificant as imaginable.
What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?
I am most influenced by unexpected conversations with strangers. One of my most recent fascinating encounters involved a man I met at a gallery opening who only wore things made of silk, carried a small spray bottle of whiskey in his pocket (and offered me a spritz) and preached about the benefits of iodine in one’s diet, as well as how detrimental fluoride is for one’s sanity.
My “favorite writers” are constantly changing. But the ones who have stuck so far include Galway Kinnell, Richard Brautigan, and Agnes Martin (her writings actually have influenced me more than her paintings have!).
What’s your proudest moment as an author?
I can’t come up with a single moment in which I was proudest about my writing, but I am generally satisfied whenever anyone recognizes it at all. Whether one line makes somebody I know well laugh after I have forced them to read my work, or if someone who is far more established than I am offers any feedback or a publishing opportunity, I am hopeful when it is noticed or enjoyed at all.
How has your writing developed over time?
My writing continually becomes looser and a bit more experimental. I am believing less in the lines between genres and the formal structures that I have studied. A few lines of poetry, a block quote from an internet article, and a bad doodle can all go together to become…something.
Are you currently working on anything?
A million little things that will become one big thing later — hopefully a sort of novel.
What’s your writing process?
I often carry around a small notebook (or at least a bunch of old receipts and a pen) to jot down my thoughts every now and then. I don’t actually write very much when I do this, typically just a single word to remind me of a more extended idea, or perhaps a few words together that I overheard somewhere and found interesting, or maybe a funny observation or a quick memory. This practice leads to a notebook (or a stack of crinkled receipts) with tons of decontextualized words or images, 90% of which I wonder about or laugh at later.
I always have an accumulation of these words and moments, so when I actually decide to sit down and write in a disciplined, professional manner (which takes effort), I begin by elaborating on any of these moments. Somehow, after I begin writing about one instance (which seems to create a single decent line of poetry or several pages of prose) I find that many instances that didn’t at first relate at all in my notebook actually do. Themes emerge and some loose ends are tied, while others are left unraveling.
What are you currently reading?
A good friend gave me a book of Bukowski’s poetry, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. I continually read a poem or a dozen, flipping through the pages selectively. I keep reading the last poem in the book, “Roll the Dice” over and over (and I will forever) because it is reassuring in creative pursuits. I’m also working on The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka and a little book of poems called Don’t Go Back to Sleep by Timothy Liu.
Have you ever worked in a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?
Yes, primarily, I am a painter! In much of my recent work, I’ve explored a systematic kind of making, relying on the grid and simple geometric shapes and patterns to arrive at something more complex. In painting, I combine long stretches of methodical labor with exciting moments of intuitive insight. While systems allow the compositions of the paintings to emerge, other formal aspects of the paintings are more reactive and sensitive; I indulge in heavy paint, texture, and collage elements, as well as specific color interactions. I am finding that my writing process happens in a similar methodical way, as I piece together small (potentially meaningless and perhaps indulgent) moments and observations to make sense of them.
Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.