Diane Mehta’s debut poetry collection, Forest with Castanets, comes out in March 2019 with Four Way Books. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, and raised in Bombay and New Jersey, Mehta studied with Derek Walcott and Robert Pinsky in the nineties and has been an editor at PEN America’s Glossolalia, Guernica and A Public Space. Her book about writing poetry was published by Barnes & Noble books in 2005. She lives in Brooklyn.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, How to Write Poetry (Barnes & Noble, 2005), got me to order my ideas about poetry carefully. Writing a book that focused on teaching step by step was a lesson in how to break down a poem, understand how to read a poem, and convey a very specific moment and methodology to someone in a clear and accessible way. It reminded me to always think about what came before me and why I was writing each line in its own particular way.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started shortly after coming to America, at seven, and for years didn’t know that my scrappy thoughts would turn into poetry or even what to call them. By high school, I had a sense of what I was doing and felt wildly passionate about it. And then just never imagined I’d want to write anything else!
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It has changed over the years. It used to be that it would take about 20 hours of work to get a poem to start resembling a first draft, and I’d work pretty consistently. Over time, I figured out how to work better and now some poems take a few weeks total while others take months or even years. My debut collection, Forest with Castanets, kept changing over time. I waited until I felt I had a book that works as a collection rather than a group of poems in a list.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Often with a rhythm or a thought that keeps circling around in my head. Even more often, I get so revved up by something I’m reading that I just switch immediately to writing. Too often than I’d like, not much makes the cut. A book as a concept is too big to work on. I prefer thinking about series or sequences, and then later figuring out how to fit them in.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love the process of reading, and was trained in grad school to do it well and carefully. There’s a lot of emotion in reading slowly, and I find that in public I can enjoy the words rather than just read them. I tend to pause and inflect and sometimes vary up how the phrases come out. And reading out loud is also how I write, as it makes flaws or successes quickly transparent.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Theory isn’t me at all. I believe the rhythm should be asking the questions, and that it’s all a nonstop series of questions that a poem partly answers, and often only for myself.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
She or he should take a position, understand what it means, and be courageous. I believe writers should convey the difficulties of just plain living at the very least, and show the world how to have more complicated and conflicted feelings.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it incredibly useful if you have a like-minded editor, but that is very rare.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Robert Pinsky told me to wait. It’s tough to learn patience but it fixes all things and makes you smarter. More to the point, time makes you smarter.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I love it and as a working journalist, novelist, and essayist, it’s my intellectual bread and butter. Prose helps modulate my poetry and vice versa. Everything is useful.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I flex between paid work and writing, but if a piece of work is flowing, it is always urgent and I’m constantly putting down everything for it; I’ll start with it in the morning, return to it regularly, and keep going on and off until I get to a good spot.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Diesel. I grew up partly in Bombay. There was a lot of diesel and garbage.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The Dirty Projectors for their lyrics and rhythmic surprises, astrophysics for endlessness and Why?, and Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies because there are tiny moments of magic between impoverishment.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
It’s too hard to name a handful of people and I’d leave someone out. And since I write in every genre, included reported articles and cultural criticism, everything is inside my work. Again, everything is useful. What’s really important is just looking at art, and returning to see a piece of art repeatedly—literally dozens of times, like Hans Holbein’s Sir Thomas More at the Frick.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Leh in Ladakh, for the monasteries.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’d have liked to be a volcanologist for sheer delight and the complexity of science. Public health would be next, because then I’d have a chance to help underprivileged populations around the world.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I never got interested enough in anything else and always only felt passionate about writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away and Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters turned me inside out, and surprised me both compositionally and with its layered plot.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A sonnet series about California and a poem about a homeless man on a train. I’m also working on a collection of essays, so I have a few that are half-done, including one on Lanz of Salzburg nightgowns.