In the wake of the announcement that MFA in Creative Writing alum Roberto Montes’ first poetry collection, I Don’t Know Do You, has been named a Finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry, Roberto and MFA '13 alum Brooke Ellsworth traded some thoughts on his early interest in fiction, bewilderment as subject matter, bewilderment as process, and the tenacity of bewilderment. Likewise, of this collection Nick Sturm writes: “The not knowing of I Don’t Know Do You is the affirmative uncertainty of a book whose joyous looking is bound to a glowing pain.” I Don’t Know Do You was also named one of the best books of 2014 by NPR.
Brooke Ellsworth: When did you first start writing poetry?
Roberto Montes: I began to write poetry in earnest in college after taking an Intro to Poetry workshop, taught by Rebecca Morgan Frank, on a whim. I discovered fairly quickly that everything I liked about writing (I had enrolled in college under the impression I was a fiction writer) was better suited for poetry than stories.
BE: What about your stories made them “better suited for poetry"?
RM: In my fiction workshop I kept receiving critiques that took me to task for not developing characters, not making characters realistic, or not establishing plot lines that made sense, and just generally being a terrible fiction writer. What I aimed for when writing stories was much easier to approximate in poems. What I was aiming for is somewhat hard to say, but it is something like an acceptance of the feeling of constant bewilderment. After a semester or two, I stopped caring about stories entirely and decided that I would pursue a poetry thesis instead of a fiction one.
BE: Would you say this focus on “bewilderment” has persisted in your writing and carries into I Don’t Know Do You (IDKDY)? Or did that feeling somehow end or morph into other concerns?
RM: Bewilderment is a focus of my life in general so I suspect it carries into anything I write, and IDKDY is especially rooted in bewilderment (as the title suggests). I was interested in the ability of language—through rhythm, texture, and rhetoric—to affect a kind of authority in a way that obviates the need to justify itself. Political language and economic language is especially interesting to me in that regard, and I kept returning to tropes of both. Where language breaks down in spite of itself is where the real pleasure of writing poetry comes from.
BE: If poetry is where a language of economy and politics “breaks down in spite of itself,” do you see this language resisting poetry? Your poem, “The Poet Speaks of Beauty”—I see this poem as inhabiting that pressure in and between the politicized and the aestheticized, or the pressure engendered by the assumption of their separateness (“consensus is never beautiful”).
RM: I would like to clarify that I frame the breaking down of language as poetry, as opposed to the mechanism that gets us to poetry. Language is inherently authoritative to an extent (naming is probably the most powerful action a person has over something) but political and financial rhetoric seems an especially desperate tool to convince others of the speaker’s (and the language's) innocuousness. Because of this, you get a somewhat more colorful fight out of the lines. This is not to say that the language of politics and finance is the only thing worth breaking into, however. There is still, after all, an authority to be tested in “generic” lines like, “There was a tree I saw”.
BE: There is definitely an evocation of this rhetoric throughout IDKDY. This is interesting considering your preoccupation with bewilderment, because these poems are driven by conviction (“In this way I am already presidential”). To change the subject (or maybe talk about a different bewilderment / tenacity dynamic): I was wondering if you could talk a little about the process of putting together IDKDY? Did you do most of your writing while working on your MFA at The New School?
RM: I wrote 95% of the manuscript during my time in the MFA program at The New School. “Putting together” accurately describes the process, I think. I laid my printed poems out on the floor and tried to make sense of the flow of the book. The process was like gathering villages together and convincing them that they are one nation. They share a culture and a language but each poem has its own context and resources which can make for some difficult diplomacy. I’m happy that after a while the order began to come about organically. When you’re not writing poems with the thought that they might one day be collected in a book it can make for some interesting poetry but some difficult collections.
BE: The heft of IDKDY is composed of 2 poem sequences, the “One Way to Be a Person Is...” poems and the “Love Poems for..." Were these poems originally written in sequence? Was there a moment in writing and workshopping that you started to gain perspective on broader strokes throughout the manuscript?
RM: Yes, the poems largely came from sequences. It is rare for me to write a one-off poem. Usually, I stumble upon a particular logic or flow that interests me and I experiment with it until it exhausts itself. I remember being concerned that while the poems in the sequences were obviously related to each other, there was not enough of them to justify their own full-length collection. I wasn't sure how well a manuscript could hold together if it was comprised of three different sections of similar poems, or if it was comprised of poems that were mostly unrelated. Reading (New School MFA alum '07) Amy Lawless’s wonderful book My Dead helped assuage those fears in my thesis semester as I saw that sequences are capable of flowing into one another without too much disruption if you make an effort.
BE: If you could, in turn, help assuage any fears of the poets currently working on their thesis, is there any advice you wish someone had given you?
RM: A lot of MFA programs educate students on how to get published, but few let you know what to do once you are published. I was infinitely lucky to have Mark Bibbins as a thesis adviser, as he was gracious enough to loan his time and expertise in walking me through the various crises that accompany the book publication process. The important thing is not let the crises (and successes) ruin you or your work. Which can happen if you let it.
The Publishing Triangle Awards will be held at The New School's Auditorium at 66 W. 12th Street on Thursday, April 23rd at 7:00pm. The Publishing Triangle will present the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction, the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry, and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. The Publishing Triangle partners with the Ferro-Grumley Literary Awards to present the Ferro-Grumley Award for Fiction. The Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Leadership Award will also presented. The Publishing Triangle Awards are free and open to all, with a public reception to follow the ceremony.
Roberto Montes is the author of I Don't Know Do You (Ampersand Books, 2014), one of NPR's Best Books of 2014, and a Finalist for the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry from The Publishing Triangle. His chapbook, How to Be Sincere In Your Poetry Workshop, is available online through Nap University. His poems appear in Coconut Magazine, Apogee Journal, The Atlas Review, Everyday Genius, and elsewhere. Find him online at robertomontes.com, and on Twitter @RobertoGMontes.
Brooke Ellsworth is the author of the newly published chapbook MUD (dancing girl press, 2015), and the chapbook Thrown: A Translation (New Megaphone, 2014). She has poems in or forthcoming in Coconut, jubilat, The Volta and inter|rupture. She currently lives in Queens, NY. Find her online at brookeellsworth.tumblr.com, and on Twitter at @HellsBellsworth.