“A Conversation with Diane Mehta about myth, fallibility, and plot twists”— curated by Tiffany Troy

Drawing from and extending epic poetry “defined by kings, geometry, chiaroscuro, constellations, [and] countryside”, Diane Mehta’s Tiny Extravaganzas sings of “ordinary pains and ordinary tenderness” of being human. Like Mehta, we are struck by pockets of beauty in trees “offer[ing] daily instructions in yellow and red,” paintings for which Mehta “drop[s] everything and train[s] it downtown” to see, and poems she read “a hundred times over.” What is contained within nature, art, and literature is a house made “with feathers, sticks, and love.” I enjoyed Mehta’s vantage point in contemplating what it means to be a skylark “aging in its cage,” as we learn how “color is made / of more than one thing.”

Diane Mehta was born in Frankfurt, grew up in Bombay and New Jersey, studied in Boston, and now makes her home in New York City. Books include two collections of poems, Tiny Extravaganzas (Arrowsmith Press, 2023) and Forest with Castanets (Four Way Books, 2019) and an essay collection (University of Georgia Press, 2025). Her latest project is a poetry cycle connected to The Divine Comedy. She is also collaborating with musicians to invent a new way of working through sound together and is involved in a long-term project with a chamber ballet.

Tiffany Troy: How does the first poem, “Rendezvous” set up the collection that is to follow? To me, the beginning of the poem, “You have to lose all beginnings to know where the story/ really behind, all the wandering by accident or design / a way to find your tongue” immediately sets the speaker up as an epic bard, but the addressee, the muse, is a personal muse whose story may or may not have changed “aging in its cage.”

Diane Mehta: I wanted the title to hint at the relationship I hope to develop between the reader and myself, and for the beginning to indicate a call to action–it’s good for a reader to get lost in a book, just as it was good for me to lose myself in order to figure out what kind of writer and person I could genuinely be. As a poet, I have a moral obligation to isolate myself a little and discover what I feel rather than worry about what everyone else feels. The beginning is a combination of an apostrophe and a sermonizing summing up, which I love pairing together.

All that Dewey Decimaling of experience is a recognition that history is there but only if we catalog it. I’d love to put an event in a drawer and check it off or refer to it, but it’s rather meaningless because life is not about events but about the entanglements and development of love around those events.

I also challenge the reader, not an easy beginning! All the “promiselands” are plot twists, and now the story has changed: who are you, lugging around your old story and then your new story? Truth doesn’t care about you! It has its own design. So the epic bard tells the muse that she has to find her own story–the bard knows the truth but she is not going to tell the story for the muse. I love the phrase “aging in its cage” because it gets at the ordinary reality of being human, no matter how free, young, pretty, or righteous we think we are.        

TT: This tacking and tracking feel sui generis to the making of modern-day Tiny Extravaganzas, for sure. I love what you said about capturing in the book the “ordinary reality of being human,” and wanted to ask you: How does the idea of “tiny” and “extravaganza” shape your writing process for this collection?

DM: Thank you for saying that. The phrase sums up the way I approach sentences in the book, and my sense that the low-excitement details of life are what end up being so poignant if you approach them with excitement. For example, I was on a ferry boat in Venice sailing back to my hotel after a lovely day exploring, and felt disappointed that the day was over and now I was just sitting there on the ferry–but then I reminded myself that this was a pleasure, and it would benefit me to embrace it. So I immersed myself in those moments of the ride taking me across Venice with a group of strangers. I looked out the window and saw balconies, curves in the canal heading off in other directions, people walking, and I memorized the experience. I treasure it now and think of it often.

The poems try to express tiny moments of big feelings or big noticings, as it were—how does an enjambment transform a line or surprise a reader, move it faster and then arrest it with a comma immediately? An epigram is compressed on the page but it is no less interesting than a longer and looser poem that tries to get at an idea in another way. So the “extravaganzas” part is more of a literary approach and a device, and at its best it means lyrical moments in a sonic environment. The little sermons I embed so often are another kind of extravaganza, but more existential, more of an interrogation.

The way the concept shapes the collection: Back-tracking from the movement of the collection (I chose the title after I was done), I set out to write poems about art that also noticed the artist and their relationship to the art. An artist’s daily practice offers so much to think about: lines, shapes, the organization of shapes, color choices. Same for the syntax and rhythms I’m building; I like to overlap alternate meanings on adjacent lines or amp up tension in a sentence. The most difficult sentences to write are the ones that break rhythm and make me suffer at their awkwardness until I get the awkwardness right.

TT: I really felt you made even the most ordinary come alive through your deep (and sometimes chance) realizations, as in “The Caged Skylark Reflected on a Green Vase,” when you write of “Hopkin’s verses/ are reflected in the [sea-green case your son made] like torn-off wings.” I love how you contemplate that moment and ask “but what is art if not an object you labor over and cast in fire?” What was the process of poems contained in Tiny Extravaganzas like? Does the form serve as a vehicle of thought like your son’s vase contains a multitude of colors and how do myth (your son at the kiln like Hephaestus) and the epic come into play?

DM: If art-making is a metaphor for raising a child, raising a child is equally a metaphor for learning and improving art. We sink into fairy tales with our children and get to relive some of those emotions with them. I feel this way about Homer, who I’ve been rereading since my twenties.

I spent a lot of time preparing emotionally for my son to leave home while creating this collection; the poems emerged quickly, over two years, beginning during the pandemic and accelerating in Italy, in 2021, the year before my son left for college. There was so much to think about, which probably had something to do with imagining my possibilities as a parent outside the home. I made a conscious effort to look at experience broadly. To this end, I varied the forms, adding poems of different styles and lengths (some that were lighter and others with heft), and gave myself more leeway in the process of putting a book together. This came out of a recognition that I had to do more than one thing well as a mature artist. For me, all poems start with a rhythmic phrase and eventually find a shape. Just as quickly, the form reveals flaws and pushes phrases along or ruins them. 

The fact that my son was a potter felt central to my process, because we were both creating objects during a time in which we were also separating and planning our futures. He was looking back in time to recreate Korean moon jars and I was reading back in time to Homer’s Iliad and to Hopkins’ “The Caged Skylark” and other verses. I just kept rereading work that had influenced me, and contemplating the influence I had made on him as a mother while also trying to figure out the ways in which being a mother has changed my art and changed me.

The most exciting part is not metaphorical: he learned to become a better potter and polish his ideas, and he was rather unforgiving about achieving perfection in the shape, form, and glazes he used. Hephaestus’s shield for Achilles is a useful way to think about the labor that goes into producing objects that are powerful or important to other people; we forget that the object (like my son’s green vase) contains an entire history of one person’s skill-building, labor, and personality in it. I learned to do the same, partly because I was rereading Homer, Dante, Hopkins, and Milton, and studying their skills. They are fast, weird, experimental, sonically complex, syntactically interesting, rhythmic, precise, exciting, epic, violent, and never funny (well, Dante can be funny).

Epic poems have changed the way I think and write. Homer knew how to tell a good story, puppeteered with myths. I’d have to write a novel to explain how Dante fictionalizes his world with classical and Christian myths while also dragging Virgil’s and Homer’s mythological references and scenes in. This is just one tiny part of reading Dante. Myths are central to his argument of how culture progresses and becomes modern–the past is always alive in his present, and he does that not by entering the afterlife but by incorporating myth. As literary architecture, “myth” is kind of unbeatable. You can go a million ways with it, and it feels meaningful to be connected to so many cultures. In this book, I am focused on Greek myth and classical culture, but I have been deep in Indian mythologies and Jain cosmologies in my prose and in previous poems; all of it is true to life, true to childhood, and true to the ways I think about what epic is. I grew up reading stories from the Mahabharat and Ramayana as illustrated in comic books, and those have probably had the biggest influence on me, aside from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. 

TT: Can you speak to aspiring poets who like you are fascinated by myth but want to incorporate and make it theirs anew? We touched upon this a bit when we discussed the opening poem and I suppose the question is how do you approach having your muse (a kind of alter ego for your poet self) find her own story?

DM: Every myth is a story about the human condition, and when a character or a story strikes us, there is probably something we are trying to figure out about what gives our lives meaning. Achilles is a heroic warrior who saves the Greeks at Troy, but he is also just a broken hearted guy who is taking out his anger over Patroclus’s death on the battlefield. The myth of Achilles, and even of Hephaestus’s shield, is about how you survive a loss and regenerate. The new shield and armor are better than the previous battle gear–a signal to me that this is going to be Achilles’ greatest moment. It is–he is better than anyone else at killing–but only because he is growing into experience. (The armor and shield are also symbols of a mother’s love and protection. She does not want him to die; her wonderful and complicated goal is to get him to live his fullest short life and win the glory that makes us admire him now.)

I tend to fall in love with characters who are tasked with figuring out how to manage tremendous rage, such as Achilles, or Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. What’s wonderful about the Satan myth is the way it ties into myths about a happy place called Eden where a nice woman named Eve ruined everything for her husband and caused eras of slaughter and then finally the apocalypse. These are terrific myths about being perfectly human; Eve falls under the spell of someone (Satan-the-snake) who entices her to eat a fat, juicy fig that will give her the intellectual life that God and Adam will not, and maybe she can get out of this homestead called Eden and do something more compelling.

There are so many myths in the Satan story that resonate with me: his determination (in Milton’s version) to be the king of hell and make the best of his miserable circumstances. He had a pretty amazing life as the arch-angel Lucifer, and then suddenly he’s stuck in the muck and has no idea how to be devilish, so he teaches himself. The story of getting Eve to eat the fruit is the culmination of his ability to fulfill his destiny to be the worst guy in town.

Eve’s myth resonates with me because I read it as a charming story of feminist awakening. I think what’s interesting about all these myths and others–Job, Arachne, Pandora, Icarus, Midas, Orpheus and Eurydice–is that they’re all built around fallibility. The human condition is to be uncertain, anxious, and eager for experience. Most of the myths become background for reading material that contains emotional content disguised as storytelling, so it’s easy to find something resonant in my own story of becoming a proper human as long as I keep reading. 

TT: In closing, what are you working on now and what excites you most about this project?

DM: I’m working on collaborations with other artists. The first and most important one is a poetry cycle connected to Dante’s Commedia. The poems are process art: reading and responding to the reading is part of the work necessary to doing good work. But I’m not reading alone–I’m reading the Commedia (forever) with two other artists, and that is an equal if not the primary collaboration. Over time, I’m connecting to Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim.

Now add to this three more collaborations. I’m working with a chamber ballet on a long-term project that will include multiple parts, but in short I’m going to rehearsals and taking notes, waiting for a trigger that sets in motion a new poem, and contemplating how to use the prose. It’s a ongoing commitment, and the next part promises to push my brain in new directions.

I’m also working with musicians to invent new ways of creating sound together, and this is slow, intense work–it involves cultivating my voice and speech techniques while figuring out how to improvise, sample, and listen. It’s sort of like being in the moon canto in Dante’s Paradiso. The most straightforward collaboration is with a visual artist, but we haven’t figured out how to work together yet. Each thing is its own new language and has its own form, but all of it is unexpected. I’m lost a lot of the time, which is exciting because it means I’m scrambling and pushing my limits, so when something clicks in the tiniest way, it feels like a surprise and a major achievement.

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor of Tupelo Press, Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and Assistant Poetry Editor at Asymptote.