Friday Feature: Interview with Alexa Mergen
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 Alexa Mergen, 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?
When Washington, DC’s City Paper published a long essay about springtime on Capitol Hill, I felt like a writer. I must have been 18 or 19 years old. The piece was influenced by the rolling rhythms of Dylan Thomas and reflected my love for my hometown. Around the same time, a now-defunct Berkeley literary journal called Portfolio published my poem “Farmer’s Market” about visiting Eastern Market Saturdays while growing up. Both pieces were an early attempt to understand the patterns that had shaped me. Knowing others might read them made me feel as if I were joining a tradition of writers.
What inspired your pieces in the Jenny?
“Rolls” is pretty autobiographical. On a road trip from Washington, DC to California when I was 19 years old, I stopped in Nevada and Utah to visit family. The car broke down. A stranger helped me and my boyfriend get it towed. We shared my aunt’s cinnamon rolls. In the story, the protagonist travels alone and ends up in another’s home. That home and its characters are composites of many people who have helped me on travels and to whom I am grateful.
What got you into writing?
I can’t remember when I didn’t write, really. I was drawing and then writing. Many sheets of construction and typing paper ended up as little homemade books. One of my grandmothers was a journalist. My dad’s a writer. My mom’s a huge reader and a talented writer. I was encouraged to make things and tell stories. I had numerous pen pals. My mom and my other grandmother, a fabric artist, kept me supplied with quality markers and calligraphy pens. I hammered away on my parents’ typewriters.
What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?
When I am writing fiction I lose myself in an imagined world. My characters demand to have their stories told and the psychology of people is endlessly entertaining. When I am working on fiction, I might write through the night without noticing time passing at all. Poetry, however, keeps me engaged in this world. It’s a different process. When I focus on poetry, I feel awake and attentive. This is what I try to teach in my workshops, to pay attention to details and how they relate to the whole. I write nonfiction, whether essays for publication or posts for my blog Yoga Stanza, when I am trying to puzzle through an idea. And when I am writing an informational piece, like an article, I enjoy the clarity of direct communication.
I also occasionally translate poems from Spanish to English. Translation feels like detective work to me. I have several dictionaries open, pieces of paper everywhere, and I am opening myself to new connections.
What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?
People, especially non-writers, are my biggest influences. I love to talk with strangers, whether on a bus in my own community or at a diner during travels. Being outside, in nature, clears my mind. Most of my ideas come when I am walking. My favorite writers shift all the time depending on what I am thinking about. And teaching, whether poetry or yoga, keeps me on my toes.
What’s your proudest moment as an author?
A woman came up to me in a grocery store to tell me how much my chapbook “We Have Trees” means to her. I didn’t know her and yet she took the time to approach me. I appreciate that.
How has your writing developed over time?
I put everything I have at that moment into whatever I am writing. I am able to be completely present, trusting the process more than ever.
Are you currently working on anything?
My blog, Yoga Stanza, is coming up on a two-year anniversary this fall. Readers tell me they find it inspiring so I will keep that going. I’m always working on poems and articles. This summer, when I am at the A Room of Her Own Foundation, I’m going to think about a longer piece on spirituality and mysticism. I’m curious how and why my father, raised a Catholic, and my mother, who adopted the Episcopal Church as a teenager, dropped religion entirely in the three years between my older brother’s baptism and my birth.
I was raised in an intellectual household without formal religious instruction, led to believe that anything not quantifiable is a silly superstition. Yet, I was always hungry for meaning — this led me to attend churches and temples with friends, to travel, to dive deeply into poetry, spend blocks of time in nature with animals, and, eventually, to teach yoga. I’ve had some strange experiences and would like to spend time exploring them in a context that might be useful and interesting to a reader.
What’s your writing process?
Read a lot and everything. Practice stillness. Pay attention. Listen. Receive. Revise. Revise. Be honest enough to toss out anything that’s not working. Welcome opportunities to share.
What are you currently reading?
Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. Yoga stuff. Newspapers.
Have you ever co-written something with another author? If so, what was that experience like?
I work as a “writing guide,” not quite an editor, more like a music producer, drawing the poetry out of the poet. Side-by-side with my clients, we get inside their poems, figure out how they are working and how to strengthen them. It’s not co-writing but it’s collaboration. I love it — it’s thrilling to help lift a poem off the page. It feels magical.
Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?
My favorite short story, “Learning to Swim” was read by an actress for the Davis Stories on Stage performance. She did an amazing job. It’s on YouTube if anyone wants to check it out.
Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.