Poet Diane Mehta ’88 sounds like a jazz musician explaining the joy of nailing a solo.
“I’m attracted to that moment of pure feeling when I’ve hit a groove, taking a leap of faith with diction and idea,” she said. “I love getting out of my comfort zone while I’m writing the poem. I know I can shape rhythm. I know I can use certain words to get the poem to a certain place.”
Her musical approach to poetry comes naturally. Five years of piano lessons during childhood solidified for her that “the art I felt closest to was music,” she said. “The influence of musicians on me in terms of sparking my imagination is huge,” she said. “What they’re doing is magic to me.”
During a recent residency at Yaddo, an artist’s retreat in Saratoga Springs, Mehta met a composer who played variations of Beethoven’s sonatas to demonstrate the importance of pacing and pauses.
Mehta’s creative process often starts with music. She listens to the same music repeatedly to unpack a rhythm and chart her course.
Her listening habits lean toward jazz, an art form that – like poetry – employs improvisation and unexpected turns. She collects words that captivate her and sprinkles them into her poetry: “threshold,” “cannibalize,” “proverbial,” “scraggle.” She invents words like “mavericking.”
Mehta finds that poetry, like music, needs to be performed to be appreciated. “I put a lot of effort into pauses and intonation because it changes the way the poem is heard,” she said. “If you speak slowly, it helps the listener.
“I love reading,” she said. “I used to get anxious. But if I’m in love with my poem and it’s in love with me, I’m there with my poem and I forget the other people.”
Mehta was honored this year with the Peter Heinegg Literary Award, named in memory of the professor emeritus of English whom Mehta recalls as fascinating and charismatic. Heinegg retired in 2017 after 42 years at Union. He died in 2021.
She was on campus this fall for a reading with students in Shena McAuliffe’s creative writing class and Jordan Smith’s poetry class.
Alex Roginski '26 was struck by Mehta’s questions about legacy, in particular her poem, “The Organized Magic of My Father.” It concludes: “These dreams you wondered over, waited for / are starkly lit. They whisper: What is your ultimate belief / in your last life, what will you leave me with?”
Anushka Kaiwar '25, a native of India, connects with Mehta, who spent part of her childhood in Bombay, over the poet’s explorations of feminism, faith and family. “Being a third culture kid who spent a good part of her life in India, her poetry speaks to me in a way most other poetry cannot, bringing to life parts of my mind that I haven't been able to put into words. A safe space I didn't know I needed, but found solace in now.”
An English major at Union, Mehta recalls some favorite classes: Adrian Frazier’s course on Irish literature, Linda Patrik’s radical feminism and Byron Nichols’ class on moral dilemmas. She wrote for the Idol, the student literary magazine. She played rugby, her small size notwithstanding. “I was really fast,” she said. “I played wing.”
After Union, she earned a master’s in poetry at Boston University. She studied with former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, a jazz fan who taught her to write in meter; and Derek Walcott, the Saint Lucian Nobel laureate who stressed the importance of memorizing poems and slowly reciting them for the listener.
Mehta regards herself primarily as a poet whose associative mind is also well suited to essays. “It’s thrilling to write an essay because the natural flow and rhythm of the poems can easily fall in there and I can just let it happen.”
Mehta, who lives in Brooklyn, is the author of a poetry collection Forest with Castanets (2019) and How to Write Poetry (2008). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harvard Review, American Poetry Review and Prairie Schooner among others.
Of her writing process, she says that poems can take three weeks, essays longer. She never comes back to a piece later, but rather stays with it until it feels done.
“It’s grinding work,” she said. “But it’s thrilling when it comes together.”