Cover image credit from the City of Edmonton
Nisha Patel is a University of Alberta alumni and among many accomplishments is the author of the poetry book Coconut. Additionally she was also the eighth poet laureate of Edmonton and has co-founded a local and Edmontonion partnership publishing house called Moon Jelly House. On November 19, 2021 I conducted an interview with her.
*Questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Could you explain more about your involvement with Moon Jelly House?
Moon Jelly House is a publishing house partnership between myself [Nisha Patel], Matthew James Weigel – a poet and PhD student at the University of Alberta – as well as Katherine Abbass – a former student at the University of Alberta and is now a Master’s student at Concordia University. So, the three of us who are all writers run this publishing house and essentially our goal is really to find people who have been excluded from publishing or really don’t have much work out and give them a chance to publish short collections in the form of chapbooks. And so far our mandate is just to publish people who identify as BIPOC – Black, Indigenous and people of color. And we’ve had our first four top books come out and we’re currently working on our next season.
The hard parts weren’t even getting the word out. It was honestly when we first had to send out rejections or we didn’t have the resources to put everyone on the page. That was probably the most difficult thing that we had to do.
What was it like creating your own publishing house?
It’s honestly such a complicated question because the biggest thing was getting the team together. So my partner Matthew James, who is really passionate about book making and getting print materials together, was someone who I had wanted to work on a professional project with. Both of us [usually like to work individually], and our work doesn’t overlap. And I thought it’s such a shame that we live and work in the same space and we don’t really have anything that overlaps. And so putting it together was – the hardest thing was actually finding a name that really reflected who we were as people. And we’re big fans of the Edmonton magpies and the birds in the area, but many of them were already taken by other presses. And so we went with what is actually a very personal name, which is Moon Jelly House – which is a nod to both of our love of moon jellyfish and the significance that moon jellyfish have played in our own relationship. And also my partner is a former aquarist. So, he worked with wild animals, especially with saltwater fish.
And so it was kind of a little callback just for us. And also a lot of small presses, they do have these long stories about where their names come from. We were like: OK, we would like to be a part of that. The hard parts weren’t even getting the word out. It was honestly when we first had to send out rejections or we didn’t have the resources to put everyone on the page. That was probably the most difficult thing that we had to do. We were so excited. We had all this great work. And then in the end we were like: This is self-funded. We don’t have the resources to do as much as we want. Obviously, I think if we end up continuing to do good work and [if] the revenue stream comes in and we’re not self-funding, we can really expand. But, our goal is really to be quite small and to kind of just do it as a hobby. This is not going to be our main job and we’re okay with that.
So can people buy chapbooks from the Moon Jelly House soon? Because I think I read online that the first collection was going to be coming out soon.
So, the website’s a little outdated. We actually did a Kickstarter for our first fund-like campaign and all the books sold out. And so that’s why I think we haven’t been able to put any others up for sale. But I think in the future they’re actually going to be available at our friend’s bookstore, which is Glass Bookshop. And so they’re a local bookshop here. They just started with two queer folks a couple of years ago, and they have really great channels for distribution. So instead of us trying to mail out and package everything on our own, they’re going to handle a lot of that once we get the books to them. So, we’re printing more for our next season because the first season sold out almost immediately, and we’re hoping that this can be a good compromise.
Did the writing speak to us? Did it move us? Did it excite us? And that can be a really tough question, but it also can be a really simple question.
What was the selection process like for choosing the writers? It must have been really, really difficult. You probably got so many submissions.
Sometimes when you apply to scholarships or grants – especially BIPOC – people will have to list all the challenges they’ve had and it’s actually a really sometimes humiliating process to be like: Oh, I faced racism and discrimination, and I really want this $500 grant to do a cool thing. And we didn’t want our authors to have to do that. So we don’t really look into too heavily what people have been through. All we ask is that our authors who fall under the BIPOC category are also people who have not published more than 20 pages of their material before. And so we thought that was a pretty low bar. We’ve also had people kind of be on the edge of that. We didn’t want to turn someone away because they had twenty two pages published or twenty five pages. So, it was more important that within those guidelines we picked people who we thought we could really get along with in terms of the production process, but also most importantly whose work we really believed in. And it’s tough because we do believe in basically almost everyone who came to the press.
And so we had to do a hard look at what our budget was. And once that was clear to us, we were able to make a selection of: Who are the people who could really benefit the most from the publishing and really get their own names out there along with our help? And so that ended up being a really key factor because we are so small of a press. We can’t do all the marketing for everyone. We do need people’s help. And so that ended up being a good consideration. But first and foremost it was the writing. Did the writing speak to us? Did it move us? Did it excite us? And that can be a really tough question, but it also can be a really simple question. If you read a lot, you read a book and you’re like: OK, this book is staying with me. We didn’t have a lot of moments where we thought back: OK, did this book leave an impact? We kind of just knew when we read them whether the book was impactful.
I bought this book [Coconut] and read it. So I just wanted to ask: what is the writing process like for you?
It’s really varied over the years, but for [Coconut]: the process for that was I just wrote individual poems over a series of four years. And after that time someone was like: Hey, I think you have enough poems to make a book. And so I put all the writing that I thought was good together, and I decided to submit it to different presses. And I did get rejections, and then I got a couple acceptances. And from there I was like: OK, I would like to publish this because that was a really exciting thing. But it was also a long process to look at. Your work takes months and months. But it was because my friend had just been like: Hey, I think you have a lot of poems. Why don’t you put them together and see if they could make a book? And so the poems in this book are kind of about lots of different things.
My writing process now is very different because I’m writing a very specific book. I’m writing a book about disabled poets and about disability, and my mental illness and my medical illness and stuff like that. And so I’m doing really specific research, and I’m reading other books from disabled poets and that’s really going into my process. Whereas the first book they were just poems that I would write. Some days I would write about racism, and some days I would write about love and they all came into the book. But this next book I’m like: This is a project. I’m going to treat it like a project, like you would like a class assignment. And I’m slowly making my way through all the different themes that I’ve wanted to touch on.
So, who are some of your favorite poets and inspirations?
In [terms] of the city and within the country, I would say Titilope Sonuga, who is the new poet laureate, the ninth poet laureate of Edmonton. Billy Ray Belcourt, who is [probably] everyone’s favorite poet in Canada. But I have to say it because his work has had a huge impact. I can’t lie about it and say that he hasn’t impacted me. Those are two really great poets. Jordan Abel, who’s a professor at the U of A – but also an award-winning poet known nationally – has been a really good mentor to me, has really helped me out. And his work is multi-genre as well. It’s not just poetry. He’s done work in other places and that’s been helpful to my writing process as I also branch into new genres. So those three have been really instrumental. And then a few poets out of the states have also been really big to me. So Sarah Kay, Hanif Abdurraqib – who also is multi-genre – and Franny Choi, an Asian spoken word poet who I think is now teaching in a lot of places.
And I’m not a widely published poet in terms of journals or magazines or things like that, but I’ve slowly been putting my work out either self-published or through local channels, and those local people have really done a lot to really uplift it and encourage me to apply more broadly.
I think you already answered this already a little bit: but is it difficult breaking into the publishing industry?
It’s a complicated question because just by being involved locally people would approach me and be like: Hey, have you thought of submitting here? You know, like after I would perform. And a bunch of those people rejected me after I did that. But there was one person who is [with] the press that I published with. And he was like: Hey, our submissions open this month. Please submit. We would love to publish a local author. And so I waited, and it actually took them six months to get back to me from my manuscript submission. And they ended up being the press I went with because one they were one of the two that said yes out of all the rejections and two they were local. So they knew people in the city that I didn’t know, and that was my first step into publishing. I didn’t know anything about the publishing world. And since then I’ve been able to connect with folks online on Twitter and through other places. And I’m not a widely published poet in terms of journals or magazines or things like that, but I’ve slowly been putting my work out either self-published or through local channels, and those local people have really done a lot to really uplift it and encourage me to apply more broadly. So I think for this phase of my writing now I’m really trying to find more reach, find audiences that are bigger than just the Edmonton scene. And that’s been just an ongoing process.
And so when I put the poems together, I really picked poems where I was like: OK, if a teen or a young adult reader read these poems would they feel empowered? Would they feel like they were heard? Or would they feel like someone understood them?
I read Coconut. It was really beautiful, but the poems are really vulnerable and personal. I write poetry too, but I’m really too shy to share my own poetry. So my question is: how do you find bravery to share such vulnerable and personal and intense poetry with the world? Because I imagine lots of people would feel shy about sharing it.
I try to think of [it as] if I was sharing some of that stuff with someone who needed to hear it. Like if I could talk to my younger self, if I was 16 years old and I was scared of the world and I didn’t believe in my own voice or anything like that. Like I didn’t even write poetry. I think reading this book would have really made me a stronger person. And so when I put the poems together, I really picked poems where I was like: OK, if a teen or a young adult reader read these poems would they feel empowered? Would they feel like they were heard? Or would they feel like someone understood them? And I didn’t intend for the book to be kind of that younger audience because there’s people of all ages who have read it. But I definitely ended up writing a book that was mostly for my younger self and you can be personal with yourself. And I tried not to think about other people reading some of this stuff.
So, by putting this really straight and narrow view of who was going to read this book, I was able to kind of ignore the idea that all these public people who I didn’t know would read it. And honestly, we didn’t expect the book to reach as many people as it did. Local publishers expect local reach and if a couple of hundred people pick up your book that’s a really good sign for a local publisher. And so for so many people to have read [Coconut] it is really hard sometimes because people are like: Oh, I read this about you. And there’s poems in there about my vagina and there’s poems in there about my ex-boyfriends who have treated me poorly. And you have to remember that a poet isn’t everything they write about, but also a lot of my personal stories are in there, and it’s kind of nice to let people in and it’s mostly worked out that I mostly feel OK with it.
What message do you hope that most people receive from reading Coconut?
I guess if there had to be one message I would just say: No one cares about all the things you care about, so you might as well write about the things that you care about. Because you’re not going to be able to write the book that everyone needs or write all the topics that someone else wants you to. So you might as well just make yourself happy in your first draft and your third draft and your final draft because you can’t please everyone. And trying to [please everyone] will destroy the book. At the end of the day, I had at the last minute pulled ten pages out of [Coconut] because I was on the fence about it. And even my editor was like: These are good poems. You should include them. But I had bad feelings about them. I didn’t feel good about them. And then at the last minute I was like: No, this book is for me. I have to take them out. And I did, and I’ve never regretted doing that.
Read poetry from people who are like you, but also poetry from people who aren’t like you and really try to diversify the type of poetry you read. And it’ll make you a better writer because it will expose you to just all the possibilities that are out there.
Do you have any advice for aspiring poets and writers?
I would say read as much as you write or read more than you write. And read poets. Read poetry from people who are like you, but also poetry from people who aren't like you and really try to diversify the type of poetry you read. And it'll make you a better writer because it will expose you to just all the possibilities that are out there. If you try to write without reading other poets, then you eventually get stuck in your own head and reading someone else can be really freeing and also instructive. And I'm mostly a self-taught poet. I've only taken one university course, and it was last year - six years into my career. So I would say you can teach yourself poetry. You can just read a lot and go to [poetry] shows and stuff like that. And that’s enough to be a poet. You can really do it yourself.
Deena is currently majoring in English. She is excited to be a blog writer since shes hopes to spread more awareness on topics she is passionate about and to also hopefully spotlight women who are doing amazing things in the local community.