Mekiya (rhymes with Papaya) Walters is an aspiring author and poet studying Creative Writing and Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He has lived in Asheville, North Carolina and Hyderabad, India, enjoys cooking and funny hats, teaches Tae Kwon Do periodically, and will someday institute a global revolution using only double-ply color-changing merino wool and size 2 knitting needles. His work has appeared in Atlantis Magazine, Gulf Stream Magazine, and Diverse Voices Quarterly.
In this interview with editor Dariel Suarez, he talks about the experience of being an outsider, about the use of contrast in poetry, and about psychologists and storytellers.
Dariel Suarez: You mention in your bio that you’ve lived both in North Carolina and India. Can you speak about how living in such different places has shaped your perspective and your writing?
Mekiya Walters: I lived in India for about four and a half months, and both “The Jackhammers” and “Personal Birds” were written before I left the States, so this is a difficult question to answer. But I’d say the biggest influence living abroad has had on my writing is that it’s helped me become more attuned to the peculiarities of Western culture. I think of art as an opportunity to encapsulate the disorienting experiences of the foreigner in the language of a native. Before you can do that, you have to actually be a foreigner—even if it just means sitting alone in your bedroom every Friday night, translating Virgil from the original Latin. That’s a kind of foreigner too. I was, and am, that kind of foreigner—not that I remember much of the Latin; I’d be lucky to conjugate a single verb, but it’s convinced me that you have to be an outsider in some sense before you can write. Going overseas is a whole different kind of outsider experience, a whole other level. I would almost say it made me feel more legitimate, as though I’d reached some level of outsider certification I’d been working towards for years. I felt like I could finally step back and breathe and think: Yes. I get it. I’m not tied to any particular culture anymore. I have a right to tell this story, not just because I grew up here, but because it’s about human beings and I’m a human being.
DS: What themes are you most interested in exploring in your poetry?
MW: I’ve always had a general penchant for pairing elements that are usually considered contradictory, even incompatible. When I was a kid, I read a lot of books on things like astrophysics and paleontology, so that scientific language got into my brain and my blood at an early age, but I never stood a chance at becoming a scientist; I’m too much of an interpretive thinker. Anything goes if you can back it up, in my book. Still, you can see how I like to use scientific language in “Personal Birds.” There’s physics in the diction, mathematics, neurobiology—but it’s not supposed to feel clinical. Scientific language almost always gets written off as technical and soulless, or else just pretentious, but I feel that’s a sort of poetic tragedy. We’re not just giving up vocabulary when we do that; we’re giving up a whole way of thinking. So if I had to name a theme that I always come back to in poetry, I’d say contrast. Paradox. I love to juxtapose the language, and all the implicit expectations that accompany the language, with the soul of the poem itself, and see what happens, what sorts of pressure systems form.
DS: In your poem “Personal Birds,” there’s a constant tension between the “you” and the “I.” Could you tell us a bit about whom they symbolize and why you chose to write the poem this way?
MW: “Personal Birds” was originally conceived as an address to someone I loved—someone who, naturally, didn’t love me back—but at some point when I wasn’t looking, the poem decided it wanted to be something else, macrocosmic and postcolonial. The “you” and “I” are leftovers from its initial incarnation as a kind of cerebral torch song, but they continue serve a purpose in its current form, taking potentially overwhelming issues like cultural hegemony and mass genocide and personalizing them. I’m not a stickler for absolute meaning, so as long as you don’t read it as an endorsement of genocide or hegemony, you can interpret this poem any way you want. For me though, because “Personal Birds” still contains a seed of that original theme, my preferred interpretation is that it’s an expression of the collective hurt and betrayal experienced by cultures just beginning to emerge from the yoke of colonialism—not unlike the lover realizing that he or she was never really loved in the first place, merely mined for resources. The subversion of agency, the cutting off of hands—it’s all historically accurate, but it’s also symbolic and visceral and personal.
DS: Do you write in other genres besides poetry? If so, what themes do you explore?
MW: At heart, I’m a fiction writer, but writing poetry helps my fiction even more than reading it does, and reading poetry helps my fiction quite a bit. When I have time, I’ve been working on a novel that’s set here in North Carolina and deals with a lot of broad issues: religion, politics, sexuality, morality, and the law, to name a few of the bigger ones. (Also HIV, cocaine, and—with a respectful nod to John Irving—bears.) In terms of genre, I’ve recently become quite enamored with fantasy realism. I’m intrigued by all the symbolic potential, and I get off on exploring the line between the mystical and the literal, scuffing it up, seeing just how blurry I can make it. It’s crept into the novel, and it’s also infiltrated my short stories. Mystical figures have begun showing up and interacting with the world in ways that make it hard to say for sure what kind of agency they have, who can and can’t see them. I suppose you could think of this as a sort of irreverent spiritualism. (I believe all the best artists are irreverent to anything that doesn’t make us more human.) But blurring the lines also helps to deconstruct some of the categories that we take for granted, so in that sense it’s not just irreverent; it’s subversive. Every power structure is built on hierarchical categorization, so if we can break down the superficially concrete ideas of race, religion, gender, etc., then we can break down the foundations of inequality itself. That’s all very idealistic, of course. But ideas eventually turn into behavior, and sufficiently ingrained behaviors turn into Law. I’ve only gotten to do a little bit of serious academic writing as an undergraduate, but one project I’m really passionate about is an analysis of gender narratives from the Partition of India. I’ve been working on a paper that’s going to be available soon in an online journal called Palaver, so if you’re interested you can look me up there.
DS: You also mention in your bio that you practice Tae Kwon Do. I practiced Karate and Kickboxing for several years as a child and teenager, and it taught me a kind of structure and discipline that I still use when I sit down to write. Has Tae Kwon Do influenced your writing process in any way?
MW: It’s a difficult thing for me to write. Everything that’s been in my life the longest is difficult for me to write about because I don’t really know who I’d be, how I would write, without martial arts lurking there in the background. One big influence I can name is that it introduced me to concepts of eastern philosophy, Buddhism and Taoism, at an early age. And yes, it also taught me discipline and structure. But it’s always been one of those enigmatic things that I can’t quite put into words. I’ve only ever written one story about martial arts, and yes, it deals more with the psychology of power and subversion than with glistening sweat or bulging muscles. But my actual experiences have been so much richer than that trope of power and combat. I’ve never been a fighter. I’ve always been more interested in the technical side of martial arts: the kata and physics and physiology, not to mention the psychology and philosophy. I might even go so far as to credit my practice as the formative influence in how I write sensory detail. I’ve never been a very athletic person, never really lived in my body. I was that kid who wouldn’t even make papier-mâché because it got my hands too goopy. So if it weren’t for martial arts, I might not have had any point of entry to the sensory world. Texture and color and body language have all become extremely central to my writing, to establishing tone and developing meaning. I think that’s the physical practice talking.
DS: Does psychology play any part in your approach to your craft or the content of your work? Do you ever think of a writer as a kind of psychologist for his characters, or the other way around?
MW: Absolutely, yes. I chose to study psychology in addition to writing because the two complement each other. Writers are psychologists. They have to intuitively understand all kinds of experiential phenomena and portray them accurately and honestly, or risk losing their audience. The earliest psychologists, Jung and Freud, were also storytellers. That’s why they gave us all these archetypes and complexes named after figures from Greek mythology.
Freud basically built his psychoanalytic approach on the idea that if you can turn your life into a narrative, you cease to be a passive character and gain authorial control over whatever it is that’s eating you, and then you can overcome it. Modern psychology has really moved away from that approach, and that shift has brought a lot of benefits, but in the process the whole field has developed a sort of inferiority complex towards neurobiology. We’ve forgotten that when you take something apart to see how it works, it stops working, and that somebody’s got to step back and look at the systems of experience instead of trying to parse the individual pieces.
Psychologists today don’t spend nearly enough time looking at how the stories we tell each other and ourselves influence our behavior. I don’t think that psychology, in its ideal form, should be considered a science at all; I think it should be considered a bridge between science and the arts.
DS: What are you working on at the moment?
MW: As I mentioned, I’m working on a novel. I’ve also got a number of poems and short stories in various stages of development, and I’ve got a blog that I wrote while in India that I plan to edit and eventually publish on my website (when I have a website). Mostly I’m just trying to keep my head above water while I finish my degrees, so I don’t get a lot of time to focus on personal writing, but my undergraduate classes have spawned some academic projects that I plan to continue developing in my spare time. Most of it has to do with gender identity and gender malleability, which are actually becoming central topics in my fiction as well. That’s really the direction that most of my writing is taking.
I do plan to continue writing and publishing poetry and fiction. Whether or not I make a living doing this remains to be seen, though it’s certainly what I hope for. I may get into travel writing, editing, or publishing, and I definitely plan to work in higher education, but at the end of the day, making art will always be my happy place. I also plan to work with prisons and develop writing and literature programs that can function as rehabilitative opportunities, but that’s a very long-term goal. For the time being, I’m just focused on writing and getting my work into the world.
Poems I’ve written are available in Gulf Stream Magazine, Episodic Magazine, and a publication called Howl. One of my short stories can be found in Diverse Voices Quarterly, though it’s rather old now and may be in need of revision. If you’re in the Wilmington area, you could pick up a copy of Atlantis, UNCW’s student-run literary magazine, for which I’m a current editor and past contributor. The Spring 2014 issue of UNCW’s online interdisciplinary journal Palaver will also be available soon, featuring my work on gender narratives and the Partition of India. I’ve been very fortunate lately in receiving a number of acceptance letters, so hopefully this list will continue to grow!