Poet Of The Week

Diane Mehta

     January 21–27, 2019

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.

Author photo by David Yellen

Saturday Afternoon at Queen of All Saints Church in Fort Greene

This is a place of people moving
up and down, kneeling to be supplicant
despite hymns that lift them up.
The only real motion is you.
I want to yell hosanna. Instead I follow you,
holding my hands out to this lord
the priest loves, and believe that he
believes. Pews are dusted with old light
the way the afternoon diffuses through ancient trees.
It is something that only happens in churches,
coaxing the sun in gothic windows
with gothic feelings of total delight,
the way a child experiences a forest,
with switchblade ferns that snap
suddenly out, and mad blossoming pink-petal eyes
warning them not to linger long
in their perilous groves of beautiful sunlight.
But we sneak fistfuls of radiance out,
something for ourselves.
That light, however little I believe, burns eternally within.
Perhaps you are more eternal than I will ever give you credit for.
The priest leads in right feeling, this feeling right
with you on this Saturday afternoon, though I had wanted
to go to the Frick and pretend I was O’Hara.
I gaze up at the stained glass windows,
raised high to show me the spirit-path—
red-robed Gabriel annunciating to Mary
who smiles with uncertainty and surprise,
and wonder why angels turned up in both our stories,
why I walked through this door with you today,
your hands open to the dream of church,
and my hands, so long in my pockets, opening too.
We leave when others take communion,
with feelings so various that light follows us
and bursts into bloom on the sidewalk.
I slip my shadow into my pocket and feel,
bless you, blissful; we have stolen the swanky feelings.

—“Saturday Afternoon at Queen of All Saints Church in Fort Greene” from Forest with Castanets (c) 2019 by Diane Mehta. Appears with the permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

In 2015, I’d been doing a solo churchgoing project, to watch strangers and listen to sermons and people singing. Then I fell in love with a man from Texas who’d been dragged around to churches as a kid, so he was eager to join me. After going to Brooklyn Flea, we needed a break and wandered into this church on the corner. The poem is about that first sharing of this churchgoing experience. The line “But we sneak fistfuls of radiance out” is a nod to the church that, being selfless, let me steal from it the swanky feelings that churchgoing gives you. I kept them for myself so I could stay in love.

What are you working on right now?

Sonnet number three in a series about California, for my next book. I’m also working on an essay about the connection between free diving and immigration, and shopping for an agent for my historical novel, set in 1946 Bombay.

What’s a good day for you?

Muddy French-press coffee and homemade granola, followed by reasonably well-executed laps doing the crawl, in which I remain buoyant instead of spastic. I’m teaching myself to swim. I feel good when I get new drafts or serious edits done plus a little reading in.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to Park Slope for the public school system. I’d always been fond of Brooklyn because my grandparents lived on Eastern Parkway, across from the Brooklyn Library, where I spent many afternoons reading. My grandmother loved the rose garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and I go there still.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve been in Park Slope for twelve years. It’s a quiet, leafy neighborhood full of brownstones and populated by a mix of middle-income lefties and wealthy families. It’s shabby-chic glitz compared to my former apartment in Peter Cooper Village, a sprawling rent-controlled development of older people by the East River. I grew up in Bombay, so I love big cities and the diverse neighborhoods inside them. Suburbs terrify me. That’s where we landed after emigrating from Bombay.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I went to the Coney Island mermaid parade for the first time when my son was twelve and along with lots of electric and skimpy costumes we saw one topless woman with the phrase “Still not asking for it” written across her chest. We were both silent for a second before I jumped in and explained, matter of factly, “So that means even if a woman is wearing something revealing, or nothing in this case, it still doesn’t mean it’s okay for men to touch her. It’s a comment on rape vs. consent.” And then I fell silent again. “Okay,” he said.

Having to explain to your preteen son that a woman has to take off her top to get the world to listen was stark. I’ll be grateful to that woman forever, and am grateful that Brooklyn hosts a parade where everyone can prance around and be beautiful, sexy mermaids who own their own bodies and celebrate that.

Have you found a poetry community here?

A literary community more than a poetry one. I bump into people or go to events, and everyone’s writing in cafés. The life of writing overlaps with the life of the neighborhood. I’m lucky to be part of the community of A Public Space. The carriage house doors open in good weather, and you know the time of day by screams of children when school lets out.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

The critic and writer Brenda Wineapple helped me discover Adrienne Rich in college. Diving into the Wreck gave me the authority to dig deep. I studied with Derek Walcott and Robert Pinsky in grad school, and each gave me different things. Both made us memorize poems and read them out loud, painfully slowly. It changed how I listened.

Robert taught me how to write verse, from filling out the meter to being vervy and idiomatic above the meter, like Robert Frost. He helped me develop a critical eye and a strong sense of poetics. And he stressed the practical work that needed to be done to become proficient. He taught me patience: Read Ralph Ellison, go to Yiddish theater, write, let time pass, he said. I kept his voice in my head to continually remind myself that there are no shortcuts.

Derek laser-focused on the tension between the line and the sentence, and made me work it. The most exciting technical skill Derek taught me was to limit the number of transitive verbs in a stanza so the action hinges around one. He also taught me patience. One afternoon, he sat with me for hours, waiting for me to figure out which transitive verb was inevitable and necessary to the sentence I was writing. We did a lot of gazing out the window at the birds. Exasperated as the afternoon came to a close, he told me the verb: illuminate. I learned to let rhythm and sound come first.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. The book’s a terrifying puzzle with the tension amped up. There are driving and overlapping forces of good and evil at work and there’s no satisfaction ever, until you think I knew it! and then you realize the horror is interior. All with sentences that merge unlike things psychologically so while reading you discover new and multidimensional angles to the world.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Milton’s Paradise Lost and all of Faulkner. I’d read Milton’s sonnets repeatedly when I was younger, but knew I needed time to pass before reading Paradise Lost. With Faulkner, I had no way in and the South felt like a scary mystery. But now my Faulkner-obsessed Texan boyfriend has promised to help me through them.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I’m a note-taker. It shapes my memory and creates a storytelling thread of my obsessions later. Digital books are poison to me. I hyper-focus on one book when it’s fiction, although poetry and short prose are refrains so I’m always flipping stuff open. Right now I’m veering between Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Rilke’s short prose and Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things. I get a thrill of discovery with weird edgy books but then put them into my queue and stick to what I’ve planned.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

A sequence that riffs off Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s briefs.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

At the tiny tables hidden in the stacks of the New York Society Library and the Map Room of the NYPL Schwarzman Library on 42nd St. In Brooklyn, I feel most inspired on the F train to Coney Island, where my grandparents took me as a kid.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Barbès has this Tuesday night Slavic Soul Party, a brass band of nine guys playing Balkan music and it’s a rush. Green-Wood because of the view and open space. I like following the angels to figure out the stories of the people they’re protecting—usually children. The Coney Island boardwalk feels like home. I used to go with my grandparents and love the dancing boombox people and carnivalesque atmosphere. As I got older, I started visiting off season because it’s so moody and the piers are full of fishermen. One secret is the bookbinding shop Talas, like something out of Dickens, where you can buy handmade marbleized paper. In the middle of Prospect Park, there are waterfalls and it’s cool there.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate myself in pirouettes across the pool,
And what I begin (promise me!) you must revolutionize,
For every gene belonging to me as good patterns itself in you.

Why Brooklyn?

It thrives on an anti-establishment attitude and life still takes place on the sidewalk. No one wears heels. I love that day in April when trees turn fluorescent green and cherry blossoms break out, followed by the ritual of gardening and pop-up nurseries. The variety of landscapes: life on and under the Brooklyn Bridge, the ocean coming into view from the El, disco ice-skating in Prospect Park. And my back yard is lush and quiet. Four kittens were born under my deck. After a snowstorm, the tree next door leans over heavily. I yank each branch so it rubber-bands back up and shakes buckets of snow on my head.