Creativity: Author and Artist Jalina Mhyana

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Jalina Mhyana is an American artist and author of three poetry books, one of which won publication in Pudding House poetry chapbook competition, as well as the hybrid collection Dreaming in Night Vision. Mhyana holds an MFA in literature and creative writing from Bennington College. Her poetry, essays, and prose appear in or is forthcoming from The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, CutBank, The Roanoke Review, Structo, and many others, and she is currently collaborating with artists around the world to illustrate her most recent collection of prose. Learn more at www.jalina.co.uk.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte?

Mallarme wrote, “Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; the interconnections; the puns or bridges, the correspondence.” I’ve always found connections between disparate elements and created something completely new from the juxtaposition, whether that’s art, poetry, or some kind of revelation.

Rough drafts motivate me; how forgiving they are, how they offer themselves up for violence under my pen or my knife. At the end of several hours’ work I love that I’m ankle-deep in discarded words and confetti from my papercut artwork. All the discarded negative space from my composition and all the words that have gone unsaid is just as important as what I choose to leave whole and choose to say. In that sense, every work of art and every book has so many conversations going on beneath the surface, so many lives before they reach the cover or the frame.

These early iterations urge me on and give me confidence.

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What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte?

As a writer and artist, I’m always looking for the “underglimmer” – what the Japanese poet Basho described as deeply meaningful or poetic moments hidden in the mundane. My attention is always attuned to these discoveries, being a beachcomber in everyday life, filling my pockets with scribbled passages in lieu of seashells. Like Pippi Longstocking being a Thing-Finder; I’m without a doubt a thing-finder, though my “things” are usually ideas put in motion by my experiences.

What strength do you admire in others?

I admire integrity and honesty. Artists and writers who strip their souls to the bone. Billy Chyldish, Gide, Forché, Oswold, Dickey, and Thoreau, for instance.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it?

A well presupposes a finite and individual store of creativity. I don’t see it as a well but rather I feel that inspiration is as ever-present and communal as rain. In that sense it can never run dry and it’s accessible to all.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have creative problems.

My problem is, I have too many ideas. I’m in a perpetual state of rhapsodic inspiration which is a curse if you ever want to get anything done. My studio is filled with half-finished projects that I’m desperate to share/ publish/ send to contests/ show, but halfway through I’m already flirting with the next idea, the next project. My roving eye is truly the bane of my existence. I have countless canvases and manuscripts everywhere. It’s such a tease.

What fills me up? Hmmm. My journals fill me up. I’ve written journals since I was twelve – they’re the one place I can be as honest as the writers I admire. I often draw upon my journals, not just for inspiration but also when I’m writing lyrical essays. After being deported from the UK, my journals helped me chronicle my three-year exile in Italy for my memoir A Natural History of the Sky.

Curiously, editors of literary journals most often publish my rough drafts and journal entries over my more polished work. They tend to be enthusiastic about the pieces that my self-consciousness hasn’t had a chance to ransack yet. The pieces are feral and wild, even sort of mortifying, actually – but their acceptance in the better journals confirms what I believe; that what we need is honesty over artifice.

Do you have techniques you return to?

When I’m having moments of self-doubt, which happens to me often, the best cure is to hide, to burrow into my books and journals and my imagination, which is partially because I’m agoraphobic and have difficulty leaving my apartment in the first place. But artists are known for being highly sensitive – we need to escape the chatter, noise, smells, sounds, temperatures of the outside world in order to wipe the slate clean and regenerate. To make space for new ideas. Otherwise I become so saturated with the world, I feel I’m disappearing beneath the weight of it.

I stay in my apartment for months on end. If you look at my social media pages, you’ll notice months at a time when I just go missing. My friends and I call it “falling off the edge of the earth.” Which is apropos, because when I’m creating, I always push myself off the edges of my comfort zone. Without this rest cure, being able to hibernate or go fallow and create, I wouldn’t be able to cope. The body and soul know what they need. They demand it.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice?

That’s a good question! This circles back around to my response to question one and the artists and writers that I love. They aren’t bound by any trendy moral conventions and you can pick out a line from their painting or writing and recognize their voices instantly. I like to think that I push myself until I feel mortified and totally exposed – that’s when I know I’m doing it right. It can be paralysing, but I’m very bold when I’m alone in my writing studio. Ask me to explain my work face to face and I’d probably crumble, but behind my keyboard I’m like the great and powerful Oz.

Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

Though I’m all over the internet in one way or another, I have to say that nothing stops me in my tracks and makes me doubt myself like social media. It’s been said a million times, but it’s true: the way people present themselves in a perfect light on social media makes it difficult to be authentic and flawed. I tend to adopt an insincere voice, and as I write I’m thinking of all of my “friends” who might read it, and so my posts are censored by dozens of people before they even reach the keyboard. It’s so much easier writing for strangers in literary journals. On social media I am not the great and powerful Oz. It draws the curtain aside and reveals me as a self-aggrandizing coward.

I really miss the idea of writers and artists being unpredictable renegades and rock stars of sorts leading glorious, fever-pitched lives. It seems to me that artists and writers these days are expected to be perfectly responsible business people who print out charts to organise their weekly social media posts in advance in an effort to publicize their latest book or show. It seems such a shame to me. I try to do the publicity thing too but ultimately feel like an impostor and can’t stand myself.

I’m definitely more the old-school type of artist – the eccentric, awkward one that’s always a day late and a dollar short, whose life is stranger than fiction. On social media I tend to tone myself down and hide anything that’s sacred and real. My voice suffers for being hidden.

I can think of several people who are engaging and witty on my feed, though – they have fantastic conversations with people and they manage to be completely genuine. They’re endlessly followable and likeable. I don’t understand how they do it nonstop, day in and day out, 24/7. I just feel stifled and bewildered by it all and can’t take more than an hour a week or so.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way?

I won an art contest when I was nine. This was the first time I was singled out and given recognition for anything. When I was seventeen I won poetry competitions and was encouraged by the poet Bob Arnold, who made me believe I had promise. Even back then my writing was very visceral and shocking and it was this self-awareness that won me accolades. By then I had the itch. I had to create.

But I had no idea how to make a career as an artist/writer so I had many false starts and my creative work became relegated to hobby status. It wasn’t until I was thirty, living in Japan, that poet Laurie Kuntz took me under her wing. With her encouragement I went on to get my MFA in creative writing and my manuscript won an international poetry award. From then on, my loyalty to my artistic impulse has remained steadfast and passionate but it was subjugated for a long time.

I often regret that I didn’t pursue my art more diligently through the years, but I was busy raising two incredible daughters, volunteering, and adjusting to living in new countries all of the time. Now, for the first time in my adult life, I can concentrate on my artwork and writing.

Were you encouraged and supported by your family?

My family always supported my writing; for instance, my grandmother bought me a thesaurus when I was a teenager with an inscription that read, “To help with your writing career, Lina Girl!” My parents have always nurtured my creativity and built me up. When I’m down, my dad reminds me that with my creativity, I can create a whole new world for myself, a better world. This reminds me of Anais Nin: “I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live.”

Does your national identity influence you?

After living overseas for over twenty years I don’t feel that I have a national identity. I envy writers and artists of place who have roots in a specific culture or tradition. I’d give anything to feel rooted in that way, to have my voice be a product of the terroir or ancestors. To be the voice of a specific place and time in history.

But instead my itinerant lifestyle makes me feel that I’m a perpetual visitor in other people’s cultures. Last year when I was homeless I went on a solo pilgrimage across Europe from Canterbury to Rome, alternating walking, hiking and train travel. This journey was the pinnacle of my peripatetic lifestyle and my rebellion against exile. If I couldn’t have a home, I would live in monasteries, hostels, and on church floors. I’m writing a sort of nomad’s poetic travelogue called Vagabond Reverie– a pillow book of poems, journal entries, texts, emails, travel lore, saints’ miracles, and mythology that recounts my journey.

At Canterbury cathedral as I was receiving my pilgrim’s blessing, the Deacon told me not to expect any pillow softer than stone on my trek. These were the words given to The Archbishop Sigeric who started the via Francigena pilgrim route in the year 990. So, I decided to make my own pillow – a “pillow book” filled with scraps, brochures, receipts, musings, and poems. The makura no soshiliterary genre brings me back to Japanese culture – Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Bookas well as Basho and his search for underglimmer on his pilgrimage through northern Japan.

My cultural identity is tied up with being a wanderer and being in exile. There is strength in numbers and in heritage, without which I often feel alone. But I like to think that my writing addresses this issue and that maybe it can give a voice to other uprooted people such as myself, people who long for a home they once had, or long for a home they’ve never had. That feeling of sehnsucht, or nostalgia for home is at once bittersweet and vicious.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I lose my identity and become depressed. I also become jealous of other people who have found the sweet spot of purpose in their lives. Of course, envy is ugly but I like to think of it as an indication of what’s missing and use it as a signpost. Whenever I feel a pang of envy, I know that I’m not being true to myself. Envy exists for a reason and isn’t bad in and of itself; it’s what we do with it that defines us.

It fuels me.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

No writer or artist is unilaterally applauded. Having been a member of writers’ groups from Vermont to Heidelburg to Oxford to Florence, I can honestly say that criticism doesn’t bother me like it used to and sometimes it proves really instructive. I usually need to let a critique sit for a few months before I act on it, though, because it’s too raw.

I used to be too easily influenced by my peers so these days I take time to weigh the voices in critiques against my own. Sometimes people can give revelatory feedback but at other times there can be too many cooks in the kitchen. If I go against my intuition, my writing comes out timid and disjointed, a Frankenstein’s monster kind of hybrid that has nothing to do with me anymore.

My favorite authors have been dragged through the mud again and again. Gide, for instance, collected his bad reviews – hundreds of scathing attacks of his writing and his character – but went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Public favor waxes and wanes. I don’t take much stock in it. The same goes for praise – it makes me happy, but I know how terribly subjective it is.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

My husband and I are currently collaborating on a monograph of his self portrait photography. I’m writing responses to his gender fluid images which are visually as provocative as my writing. He is a strange boy and I like to think of him as my own personal Frida Kahlo, so I delight in passing my hand into the frame of his photographs and poeticising him to the world. This is only possible because he believes in me and there is a total absence of ego between us. There aren’t many people I would be able to be so open and vulnerable with.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this?

This follows on nicely from the last question because just this month my husband and I started a graphic design business in our studio here in Florence, which is the ultimate collaboration. It’s hard work but also great fun. The opportunity to harness my artistic skills and have people pay for the things I create is an enormous pleasure.

Last year I started an editing business that was going pretty well, but the work was sporadic and I wasn’t able to make a decent living. On a lark, my husband and I branched out into design, and we were astonished by the reception we received.

We don’t mind living on meager artists’ income. We usually work for several hours, then take naps or play ping-pong across the studio space with a balled sock. Playfulness breathes life into the creative process and lets us escape the feeling of having been glued to a computer screen all day. We overcome the struggle of 16-hour workdays by breaking them up with naps. Our clients are international, so we nap between time zones, working on our contracts in Amsterdam, Paris, etc all day, then communicating with the USA around 3 pm, and around midnight, Australia gets going and we can interact with our clients there. We usually have our biggest nap at around 5 am, sitting in bed together gazing out at the hills of Fiesole just as the market vendors trundle by with their stalls below.

It’s a lovely, gentle workday and work environment that accommodates my chaotic and taciturn nature. I could never work in an office, so being able to make art for a living is a dream come true.

What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I’d say to cultivate a love of small pleasures. No one can take these away from you. A modest wish list will allow you to sustain a life centered around your art. Other than that, I don’t have much advice. I can only say that my writing and art sucked for about twenty years. If I’d given up I’d be really unhappy today. Don’t do that to yourself.

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What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Being an artist is to be awake and pliable, in an eternal state of learning. My dad lovingly jokes that my husband and I spend our days in a fort under the table together, creating art and playing games by candlelight like children. This is astonishingly accurate. Playfulness permeates all aspects of my life. The artist in me refuses to grow old, and my childlike sense of wonder has helped me survive grievous episodes in life.

How do you view the role of the arts in society?

Virginia Woolf wrote, “We need the poets to imagine for us. The duty of Heaven-making should be attached to the office of the Poet Laureate.” Similarly, a housemate once told me that poets are “engineers of the soul.” I confessed to her that being a poet feels insignificant in the modern world, that I sometimes feel silly when I tell people I write poetry. Her occupation – green engineering – struck me as so much more beneficial to mankind than metaphors.

Ever since she mentioned engineers of the soul, I’ve noticed it in myself; how my soul is patched together with a rich brocade of poets’ words, or the poetic images of artists. Poetic gestures, too – some of the best poets I’ve known never wrote a single line of poetry. They don’t have to. They live and breathe poetry in the way they move, the way they make connections, the way they see things. They have a bit of magic about them. These things have engineered my sensibilities.

I remember reading Sartre’s The Words twenty years ago and thinking that he was writing my own thoughts, that he was a more articulate and brazen version of myself. He and so many others became my literary family. Sartre felt he knew the great authors personally. I share that sentiment, that sense of possession – the artists and writers I love are my tribe. I loathe talking about literature and art because I don’t want to muddy my affections or to whore my loves around. I think it was Ayn Rand who wrote that what we hold dearest to us we keep from promiscuous sharing. Art has the power of making us feel that it was made for us alone.

I believe that the arts allow us to be deeply human. I’ve cried so many times over books that spoke my secrets and reminded me that I wasn’t alone. This is sacred work. We have to approach it, as Casanova wrote, “with the knees of the mind bent.”

What is the role of the artist?

To expose the vulnerabilities and folly of humanity? To be a sort of cultural barometer, maybe?

But really, there’s no prescribed way of being or expectation or yolk the artist must wear. We’re all artists in our own unique way – if our path were defined, there would be no artistry, no seeking. We must set off into the wild and stamp down our own paths and create our own expectations of ourselves.

That said, in my own writing I sometimes explore charged issues, to be a spokesperson for this or that. For instance, I write a lot about mental health disorders, gender fluidity, open marriage, childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, drug addiction, exile, and poverty. But I don’t write these things because I feel I have a responsibility to make a statement. I write about these things because they’re part of my life and have shaped who I am. It would be strange not to write about them. But if someone told me that I have a responsibility to do so? I’d balk at the enormity of the burden.

One of my readers wrote me a letter a couple of years ago saying that my book saved her life. I would have never imagined such beautiful feedback, especially since I didn’t set out to save anybody. When we share our deepest selves, we connect. It happens accidentally, serendipitously.

The pieces that move my readers most – the poems, essays or prose pieces that they recite to me in letters or what have you – are almost always throwaways. Things that would have never made my favorites list. We never know how our words will be interpreted and how they’ll help someone.

Another reader wrote to me, saying that he felt understood for the first time in his life. It was revelatory to me that I was beginning to do for others what Sartre, Rilke, Mavor and Exupery, etc. did for me – that I was making people feel less alone. I’m so happy that my writing has a ripple effect. But if I set out to achieve any of this, my writing would be tedious, wooden, and unforgivably dogmatic. I leave it all to fate and coincidence.

Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

I believe that as humans we all have a responsibility to stand up for those in weaker positions and to demand justice.

The literal meaning of responsibility – the ability to respond – is inherent in the artistic process. In essence, responding is what artists do – they respond to ideas, to culture, to the environment. That is our entire creative act – responding.

But the idea of artists “having a responsibility” is dangerous. I always bristle when this question is raised, as I believe the only thing artists should be concerned with is being honest to themselves. This may sound indulgent, but the minute artists and writers feel the need to be responsible, we start to question ourselves. We become preachers and advocates rather than artists. Or we just seize up under the weight of expectation.

The artist’s debt to society or moral code or intention is irrelevant. Art is a vessel to hold viewers’ emotions. Schopenhauer wrote, “Something, and indeed the final thingmust always be left over for the (beholder’s) imagination to do.” We all bring our own visions and humanity to artwork and literature and invest it with our interpretations. It’s a lot like Rorschach tests or cloud-busting. The artist’s sole responsibility is to make art – to do more is to deny the beholder the gift of completing the work themselves, of collaborating in the heady process of soul-engineering.

One of my favorite aphorisms goes something like: “Two girls find the meaning of life in a single line of poetry. I, who wrote the line, don’t know the meaning.” My teacher read that aloud in 10th grade and I’ve repeated it a thousand times since. Funny that one of my favorite quotes is about a quote that wasn’t intended to be meaningful.

Another approach to this question is artists’ ethics, though I bristle at this as well: when people expect artists to lead lives beyond reproach, sometimes to the point of boycotting their art if they fall short. “So-and-so was a chauvinist, so I’m not going to read his books/ watch his films/ listen to his music.” This feels so wasteful to me, since art inevitably takes on a life of its own and shouldn’t be constrained to or defined by a single fallible life. Art transcends the individual.

Besides, how would we judge ancient writers? How about Homer? Ovid? Catallus? Fast forward 1,600 years to Marlowe, Shakespeare, Tintoretto. Were they chauvinists? How could we possibly know for sure? Honestly, we would have to disavow the entirety of the western canon if we were to judge artists and writers by their scruples, held up against modern social norms.

Speaking of fallible lives, the fabulous historical fiction writer Christine De Melo and I recently gave a reading at St. Marks for Florence Writers entitled THE FLAWED PROTAGONIST – a glimpse into the lives of two very different fictional women who tell their shocking stories without apologies; one a modern American expat living in Germany, and the other a 14th century Veronese woman. The talented writer/translator Lori Hetherington asked us questions that really got to the bottom of the flawed heroine stereotype, and we decided that being flawed is being human.

At the end of the month I’ll be interviewed by a NYC journal called Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Art, Politics, and Culture – about my experience of deportation from the UK and subsequent exile in Florence, from the perspective of a writer and artist. I’ve been writing a memoir about my experiences here that is a bit of an antithesis to the popular “middle aged woman comes to Florence and kisses an Italian man on Ponte Vecchio” sub-genre. It’s much grittier than that, and examines my personal exile in the context of today’s immigration climate, Brexit, Trump’s wall, etc. as well as historical instances of exile (Dante, Ovid, etc.). The personal becomes slightly political. The first chapter of my memoir, entitled “Prospecting,” if forthcoming from The Southeast Review.

I hope my experiences as a flawed protagonist in my own flawed life might shed some light on the brutality of draconian immigration policy and make people think twice before drawing lines in the sand designed to keep people apart. My husband and I are finally living together after three years apart, but Italy is the only country that will allow this. Our own countries – England and the US – won’t allow us to live together, despite spending tens of thousands of pounds on bureaucracy that has come to naught. Though Italy was never where we imagined ourselves living, or even wanted to live, we will be eternally grateful for the welcome we have received by the local government as well as the wonderful community of artists, writers, and friends in Florence.

These past three years have been really fertile for me as a writer and artist, though – and I’m just beginning to share my work again after going feral or fallow for a long time. I’m pleased to announce that my book of poems – ECHO BOREALIS – one such project completed here in Florence – is available on Amazon. I’m excited to share my collected works, some of which were originally published by Bad Moon Books and Pudding House Publications, as well as various literary journals. The Echo Borealis book cover seen here is an example of my artwork – and an art magazine recently asked to feature my work! So I feel that after a long hiatus in exile here, not knowing which way was up, I am finally reclaiming my creativity and getting it out into the world. It feels fantastic.

Here is a sample poem that will actually be included in my book-length narrative poem about my solo pilgrimage from Canterbury Cathedral to St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican last year. I walked about 500 miles and took a motley assortment of trains, bikes, random rides, etc the rest of the way. As the requirement to obtain a pilgrim certificate of completion is 100 KM, I managed 5X the average though I was incredibly ill-equipped, hadn’t practiced hiking, wearing a pack, and had no map or guide or plan…The following poem, A Piedi Nudi, begins in Lucca and follows on through San Gimignano.

A Piedi Nudi

I shed pilgrim footprints
like a medieval sinner
within Lucca’s city walls.
Is this exorcism
or penitence
dragged along Roman roads?
This is my survival: all
candles burned low
between soul
and skin. This is my demon
suit, my body hell.

I double back in spirals,
trace my steps to
a cathedral portico where
a thumbprint is chiseled
in stone like Borge’s
Labyrinth in a column
of Carrara marble.
The maze is smooth
with caresses, Cretan
helix worn by Theseus’
fingertips and all of us
pilgrims following his
lead to the demon
inside us.

Double back,
retrace your steps.
Listen for the roar,
feel its tremor
in city walls.

You’re getting closer.

In San Gimignano
I may as well be
a piedi nudi,
despite my well-worn shoes.
My feet are strapped with gauze,
prayer, and bit-lip bravado.
They shred and peel,
bad fruit.

With torch in mouth
I tend them: antibiotics,
lighter and safety pin
under a tent of paper sheets
at the convent.
I trail blood from
cot to shower as if
nightmares followed
me out of bed.
I kneel and scrub my wound
from Tuscan stone.

My body molts without
shade or shame,
no private pain or modest skin.
I break apart; a burst pod
or seed, a village spectacle.
Tourists with selfie sticks
and African bracelets
can scent me.
Sense that I am feral
and ripe, sweaty,
all blood and nipple.

Slightly crippled, my swagger
leans on a limp.
There should
be flies and young men
alert to this sweet
pitch of musk, slanted
sun and dust motes
dance through pheromones.
In an hour
I’d turn
and be no good.

Keep going.

Downward dog eyes
roll soft, gentle gaze
lets the world
be the world. It gives
me wilted flowers for my hair
and soft-sand river
banks for burying my
feet. Screams
fill with silt
up to the silent ankle bone.
Water sighs with me,
lets itself go lax and dally
whereit will. Path of least
resistance. I envy
its faith in gravity,
in deltas and tributaries.
Its belief in the sea.

Villages become neverlands,
all imagination.
Italy is one long vineyard.
I meet no one,
don’t speak for days save
curses and prayers.
Maybe curses are my prayer,
my savage fear:
rapists in every cave
and abandoned
building along
the forest path.
Straps hold me to this pack
and this parcel
of land.

If a man came at me
I wouldn’t shed
my gear fast enough—
breast buckle, shoulder hitches,
waist cinch;
the rucksack a built-in
bed, ready-made—
duct tape and sailor’s knots.
I’m more attached
to this pack
than my own skin
that sloughs away like the landscape
as I crest horizons.
I clench stones in my hands
to double my fists,
just in case,
and will myself
a kilometer farther
into this madness.

On lonely treks
I follow footsteps
of pilgrims who came
before me:
treads with leaf patterns,
diamonds, spirals.
They come and go.
When they reappear
I greet them, say hello
old friend, where
have you been?
Like inmates talking to spiders,
all the heart spilling over
to connect with
something outside
ourselves. I step in
their footprints, my tread
on theirs, like dancing
on my father’s toes.

Another day closes.
I climb a metal bunk ladder
in a monastery,
all squeaks and painful insoles
beneath the rung campanile.
I walk in my sleep, miles
of sheets,
looking for pilgrim
emblems
on sign posts
leading the way
to Rome.

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