I was introduced to Shivani Mehta during the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago, and quickly came to discover that she is a brilliant prose poem writer. I quite enjoyed her debut collection Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded from Press 53, and have reread the title poem more than once to understand what it is doing. It combines the best surreal elements from her prose poems in the form of an instruction along with two footnotes. Even with all of these elements, Shivani manages to imbue the poem with a very human quality that keeps it from being much more than just clever. Hope you enjoy!
Useful Information for the Soon-to-be-Beheaded
The following is an excerpt from a pamphlet designed by the Commission on Public Severance, handed out to condemned individuals as they waited in line for their turn at the guillotine. Reproduced here with permission:
1. Close your eyes tightly so as not to get dizzy when your severed head falls off the executioner’s block and rolls across the wood platform, picking up splinters and human debris.
2. When you cease to feel movement, it is safe to open your eyes. Remain calm as you watch your body dragged off and stacked on a pile of headless bodies. Your head will be tossed or kicked into the basket of severed heads.
3. This is likely to be the last time you will see your body. Expect a period of adjustment to the separation. You may experience a lingering sensation of movement in limbs you no longer have. This will pass.
4. This is where your head will remain for whatever period of sentience it has left. Your vocal chords will not work. You might begin to feel a sense of freedom, of lightness, buoyancy, like a balloon that is suddenly untethered.
5. Think back to the day you were born, remember what it felt like the first time light fell across your closed eyelids, the weight of air on your forehead. Remember the last time you were born human, the sensation of trailing your fingers in a lake, cupping water in your hands. Or, think of the time you were a bird, remember stretching your wings, pushing against the wind, taking flight. Remember that it always ends this way.
 If the basket contains other heads, they will ease your transition. If your’s is the first head in an empty basket, try not to think about the abrupt separation from your body. Focus instead on the details of your new surroundings: the closely woven fibers of the basket in which your head lies, the checkered spaces between the weave where sunlight passes through, the intermingled scent of sweat, tears, blood that permeates the air.
 On average, severed heads retain approximately fourteen seconds of sentience. However, exceptions have been known to occur. It has been reported that some severed heads remain sentient for several hours, and in a few cases, for more than a day.
About the Author
Shivani Mehta’s first book, Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded, a collection of prose poems, is out from Press 53. Her work has appeared in numerous journals. Shivani was born in Mumbai and raised in Singapore. A recovering lawyer and accomplished mother of toddler twins, she lives in Los Angeles with her family. In exchange for a promise that they will never have to eat brussel sprouts, the children allow her to write prose poems whenever she likes.