I Don’t Know Do You
(Ampersand Books, 2014)
Roberto Montes’s debut collection of poetry, I Don’t Know Do You, is a singular work of art. It’s clever and raw, cagey and open, asking as many questions as it offers answers. In its world, existence is met head-on and laid bare; the restless ideas pour forth in an unending stream of biography, desire, advice, admonition, instruction, invective, theory, fact, regret, opinion, apology, prayer, confession, aphorism, and ultimatum—often all in the same poem. You’re struck by the fatalistic energy from the book’s opening poem: “In life I have made only two mistakes. I saw the door. I opened it.”
I’ve known Roberto tangentially through different literary circles over the past few years—we both got MFAs from The New School but never had classes together—and we’ve kept in touch using the means available to two shy, self-conscious poets: Twitter and Facebook. Correspondingly, we conducted this interview by email over the course of a few weeks this past summer.
Andrew Weatherhead (Rail): So I want to start off with the “prose” sections of the book, the series of poems with titles beginning “One way to be a person is to...”
Reading these is such a fascinating experience. Each sentence seems to spill into the one that follows it while simultaneously refreshing everything that came before—yet each moment also feels totally self-contained and on its own, alone even. It’s like the past and the future collapse until all that’s left is the present. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s uncanny and it’s thrilling.
I keep coming back to these lines from “One way to be a person is too look forward to new teeth:” “As a child I had a healthy fear of children. It is not ghosts that empty their beds of them. Everything makes so much sense.”
Do you think you could talk about the genesis of these poems? When did you realize there would be many of them and they would have similar titles? When did you realize they would take a prose form? Was there a process behind the individual sentences and/or their order?
Roberto Montes: I’m so glad you saw that in the prose! Enjambment, for me, has primarily been a method to highlight the multiplicity of meaning in sentences by cracking them open. When I was writing the poems, line-breaking felt almost condescending to the reader—like I didn’t trust them to feel the internal contention in each assertion. The prose poems may not be broken but they are still composed of lines; each interfering with every other in a way that grows or diminishes them like waves in a pool. Heather Christle is a genius at this and her second book, The Trees The Trees, greatly informed what I realized could be possible with the person series. The actual process of writing the poems primarily consisted of trying to stay the hell out of their way as they unfolded.
The idea for the series itself came from anxiously pacing around the city before class, fantasizing about one day teaching a workshop whose only aim was to prepare MFA students for the spiritual and ethical distresses of poetry. (This is the part where I inform you that I’m not joking: I’m really that horrific a human being.) In the middle of my daydreaming “One way to be a person is…” constructions began to rapidly emerge in my head, and I wrote them down on my cellphone, to the great annoyance of anyone walking in front or behind me. I ended up writing a fair amount of the titles that day, and once the titles were written the bodies weren’t too far behind.
Rail: Do you think you could expand on the “the spiritual and ethical distresses of poetry?” Are you referring to writing it, reading it, or both? And how would you advise MFA students to prepare for these distresses? Is that what these poems are?
Montes: Reading and writing poetry converge along the same axis when it comes to distress, I think. It’s ultimately a very positive thing (unless it’s bad poetry) but it takes something from you. I am a hard-headed acolyte of Jack Spicer’s poetics of dictation so the single greatest joy and suffering of poetry for me is diminishing yourself to allow something outside to move through you.
There’s a lot in the business of publishing that endeavors to make you feel like you’re important which can screw up the works. I don’t think I was prepared for the management of expectation after I Don’t Know Do You came out (i.e. people want to view you as greater than or less than you are after you publish, sometimes simultaneously). Every moment was both big and infinitesimal and the spaces between felt unbridgeable even as they were crossed. The important thing for me is to try to shake myself from myself before things get hardened into a false sense of importance or meaning. Focusing on poetry at the expense of the poet (through Spicerian spooks or analogous means) is an invaluable tool for me to rein in my perspective.
I do wish I had received more heads-up when it came to the emotional stressors of publishing. It’s sort of like educating teenagers about the mechanics of sex and contraception but refusing to mention that sex itself is an irrevocably emotional and affecting event which, itself, can leave life-long marks on your nervous system (for better or worse). The poems themselves, I hope, fill in the gaps.
Rail: Molly Brodak, a fantastic poet, has this tweet that I think about all the time. Her account is private so I can’t link to it but it says: “sometimes if you want to become a better writer you have to actually become a better person”—do you agree with this?
Montes: Being a better person is ideal but just becoming a person might be enough. I am under the impression that the act of assiduously disassembling and reassembling yourself, keeping any border from solidifying around you, generally tends towards realizing the state of “good person.”
Rail: Do you think other artistic pursuits (film making, visual arts, music, etc.) can help a person become a person? Or is this unique to poetry? What about literary fiction?
Montes: I don’t really understand other mediums too well but I imagine someone who did would answer yes. What is unique to poetry is that it embodies the kind of affective becoming in a way that is more intuitive, I think, than the others. Poetry is a spatial construct that has more in common with dance and visual art than fiction. The way a dancer moves with and against music has always felt intrinsically parallel to the way a poem builds and disassembles against its own unfolding. Fiction stretches an entirely different muscle for me.
Rail: I’ve also found that poetry has the fewest barriers between impulse and practice. To paint you need canvas, paint, brushes, space, etc. To make a movie you need a camera, crew, actors/actresses, etc. You don’t really need anything to write a poem. You don’t even have to “write” it—you can memorize a poem, which is something you can’t really do with most fiction. I guess you can sing a song a cappella, but I agree that poetry is more intuitive and, maybe, more direct than most other art forms. That’s what I’ve always liked about poems—they’re like little windows into someone's consciousness, unadorned or accessorized.
I want to ask you about the idea of sincerity in your work. In addition to I Don’t Know Do You, you recently completed an online project called “HOW TO BE SINCERE IN YOUR POETRY WORKSHOP,” which is perhaps a tongue-in-cheek title for the “satirical” instructions that follow, but when combined with the “One way to be a person is...” poems, speaks to a very real desire to achieve personhood, self-actualize, attain enlightenment of a sort. And yet you’re a disciple of Spicer, who argues that the poem should come from somewhere other than the poet, that the poet should “get out of the way” of the poem. Do you think this desire to become a person and Spicer’s admonition to “get out of the way” are at all at odds with each other? Can a poet be sincere while applying Spicer’s ideas of poetic dictation?
Montes: Sincerity is one of those words that people tend to employ in creative circles without necessarily giving it the deference or analysis it deserves. When people talk about sincerity they often mean it to refer to the idea of “saying what you mean and meaning what you say.”
That is a lot like saying that “faith” means “believing in something you don't know to be true”—something that sounds true but, as Kierkegaard (another major influence on my thinking) has argued, is wildly inaccurate not just in degree but in kind.
The idea of Sincerity has kind of been tethered to the idea of irony in a way that misleads people into thinking they’re antithetical or responses to one another (i.e. if someone doesn’t employ irony then they might be considered a sincere poet or vice versa.)
An example I use to show how misguided that idea is involves a child who has a crush on someone and yet, when asked if they have a crush, responds “No!” while blushing. There’s that saying: you always tell the truth especially when you lie. The child is not insincerely claiming that they do not have a crush but sincerely expressing that they have a crush to such an extent that they are unable to bring themselves to say they have a crush. We comprehend this affectively; we read body language and experience a feeling that becomes a structure of understanding.
I’ve veered off track a little here but Sincerity is the majority shareholder of my fascination and has been for several years.
I don’t think Spicer’s poetics of dictation conflicts with it because Sincerity can be understood as a truth claim comprehended affectively at the expense of (or often because of the failure of) intent. When I say I am trying to get out of the way of my poems, I mean I am trying not to influence them with intent in any way.
I like the word Sincerity because no one can take it seriously for the aforementioned reasons. It’s illustrative of its power. Like how inserting :-) into an argument you’re making often dooms your argument regardless of its content.
At The New School I worked on an essay that was going to concern itself with sincerity and similes in particular. It eventually grew into the Workshop.
Rail: I want to ask about your reading habits. Do you read mostly or exclusively poetry? If no, what else? Do you like to read poetry in large chunks or in more deliberate portions?
Montes: Poetry is necessary for me to be able to write and survive. Everything else I read to keep from totally breaking down varies depending on what chunk of the world I’m gorging on at the time. I went through consecutive periods where I predominantly read biographies of mathematicians and logicians, books on various web design and programming languages, French and Spanish fiction, various mathematics textbooks, biology books, and books on affect theory. I tend to read in large chunks to satisfy whatever curiosity I have about a particular slice of a particular field and then promptly forget what I’ve learned after a few weeks when I’ve moved on to something else. It is a very efficient way to outwardly involve yourself intellectually while inwardly maintaining the stupidity that drives everything I do. Basically it’s the best of both worlds.
Poetry I’ve read recently that has saved me includes the Angels of the Americlypse anthology, If I Should Say I Have Hope by Lynn Melnick, Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen, and They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins.
Rail: How has your experience as a reader for Sixth Finch influenced you as a writer? I sort of furtively believe that reading blind submissions for a nationally-recognized poetry journal (in my case, LIT) was a better education than an MFA in that I got to witness, first hand, almost every possible way a poem can go wrong. Have you had a similar experience?
Montes: I agree with you 100% that reading blind submissions is an indispensable education in itself. Working with Rob MacDonald on Sixth Finch has been one of the most influential experiences on my thinking both as a poet and as a reader. After reading the slush pile for a few years I think you get a sense of the overuse of certain mechanisms, tropes, and affectations of voice that sometimes proliferate in literary communities. I’m also put in a strange situation where I begin to almost fanatically appreciate when these kinds of familiar moments are subverted; perhaps more so than someone who doesn’t encounter them over and over again in the slush.
Rail: Ok, this is my final question. What advice would you give to a writer embroiled in a lit-world controversy? Should they keep quiet or defend themselves?
Montes: It depends on the controversy. Sometimes a writer finds themselves the center of attention because they are a particularly horrible person and it has little to do with their work. There are a lot of moving parts involved but I have a general rule that goes like this: the more interesting and powerful a poet’s work is, the more bullshit I’m willing to put up with. In general, I’ve found that the poets who create truly incredible work are also very nice, genuine people. Those who are In It to Win It, on the other hand, generally don’t have very good work to back their attitudes up.
It might relate to the question of being a good person and how it intersects or provides the catalyst for good poetry. Being an asshole generally suggests an inability to empathize or reduce yourself to account for others so I can see the two things being very much mapped as an inverse relation.
It is the fact that a community can either stifle or propagate particular stances and/or biases (in work, publications, awards, and elsewhere) that I believe these controversies can be useful. No one makes it in poetry without the implicit approval of the majority (silent or not).
There is an idea or appeal that sometimes gets floated around that negativity has no place in the community. I think that’s a pretty weird thing to say. Critique and argumentation are vital to the health of any community, especially one of the arts. People should be free to call shit out when it exists so others don’t accidentally step in it. It’s only polite. The intention, I think, of the appeal against negativity is that there is already too much passive-aggressive/social and political negativity going on in the community. That I agree with, though I believe it’s of a different nature. Many of the career tracks in poetry pretty much throttle the chances of substantive critique (whether of aesthetics, politics or the ignorance thereof, legitimacy of those who win prizes or fellowships, etc.) that can occur out in the open in a measured way. You hold your tongue on the open nepotism/prejudice of a particular institution because that institution might just hold the one fellowship you feel you need to ensure a tenure track position and some kind of stability for you and your family. Forcing critiques underground is what cultivates an advantageous atmosphere for assholes. If something ugly is brought into the light it becomes a moment where the community can learn about it and deal with it.
If you find yourself in the middle of controversy in the lit world you’re either doing something worthwhile that damages those with power or something horrific that damages those without. My advice is to take a moment to reflect on which direction you’re currently facing. Throw yourself accordingly.
ContributorAndrew James Weatherhead
ANDREW JAMES WEATHERHEAD holds a degree in Neuroscience from NYU, an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and is an Eagle Scout. His first book, Cats and Dogs, is forthcoming from Scrambler Books. He is the poetry editor for LIT Magazine. He was born in Illinois.