Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Interview with Poet Frank Montesonti

It's almost as if I'm in a place not quite a place, heaven
almost. When you turn on a lamp, stars are silent.
Resting your head on the cold car window. Christmas
trees in living rooms. Smells of gasoline in the marina.
-from “Heaven's Undershirt,” by Frank Montesonti

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Frank Montesonti is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, Winner of the 2011 Barrow Street Book Prize chosen by D.A. Powell, and the book of erasure, Hope Tree (How To Prune Fruit Trees) by Black Lawrence Press. His poems have appeared in journals such as Tin House, AQR, Black Warrior Review, Poet Lore, and Poems and Plays, among many others. He holds a BA in English from Indiana University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, a longtime resident of Indiana, he now lives in Los Angeles and teaches at National University.

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(This interview was conducted via email in January 2014 and was first posted in Poetry Matters.)

I’m delighted that this month’s interview is with Frank Montesonti, a California-based poet whose roots are in the Midwest.

Despite the number of times it’s happened, I’m still surprised by reminders of how small the world can be—six degrees of separation and all of that. My introduction to Frank Montesonti is one such event. Last spring, I participated in the Pulitzer Remix Project, along with poets from across the U.S. and other countries. One of the poets, whom I’d met through the project’s social-media efforts, was talking about his teacher Frank Montesonti. Unfamiliar with Frank’s work, I made a mental note to check him out. It wasn’t more than a day or two later that Frank’s name came up again, this time in a different context—as a reader for a local reading series that I was coordinating here in Bloomington, home of Indiana University. It just so happens that Frank is a one-time Hoosier, who attended IU, who just so happened to be doing readings at that time for his book Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, and who just so happened to be planning a trip back to Bloomington during Poetry Month. Sometimes happenstance leads to such wonderful things. When I heard him read from the book, I knew I wanted to review it and do an interview. [You can read the review here.]

Before getting on with the interview, just a few words about Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, which is discussed in the interview. The title itself does an excellent job of preparing the way for the reader: It suggests that the book is made up of three parts blight for every ray of hope. The playful title hints that language will be the playground of the poems—language used in clever and fun ways, maybe with touches of irony, jest, wry wit, perhaps with an enthusiastic abundance of words. At the same time, with those three doses of blight in the title, it signals that the book is not all sunshine and moonbeams. This book is filled with poems that engage issues of sobriety, trust, love and not love, God, loneliness, loss, science, and culture. I find Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope to be a book that invites the mind as well as the heart. In that spirit, here’s the opening poem of the book. Before advancing to the interview, I hope you take time to read it. It’s one to linger over.

– Nancy Chen Long

The Incalculably Long Geometry of Sobriety by Frank Montesonti

November always starts out this way:

You feel like a box; then you feel trapped in a box.

A week since my last drink. The falling from the high blue I was, was
more crystalline in the memory than climbing spiral
apartment staircases in Chicago. 
   It’s called a flight of stairs
because you’re rising. You feel like a movie,
rapping on someone’s door;

then you’re in a movie;
you could swing the camera around and watch the brickwork of snow.

I’m going to miss the winter,
how it throws a white sheet over the lawns and caps
the trashcans. How it expects

us to wait like starved doves under a magician’s cape
for the disappearing. It will hurt the first time you look

at the winter and the winter in us.

Out there in the snow is a kid in a blue sweater with a head full of bronze gears
who is trying to grasp the incalculably long geometry
of loss and life. I’ll miss him too.

But not having the shakes so bad,
stumbling by bungalow-style houses spiked with ice,
it seemed the world would shatter.

Today, under the cold

and overcast sky I go to the laundry room to buy another soda.
O Loneliness.
I love the staged heartbeat of a Coke shouldered from the machine.

first published in Green Mountains Review
© Frank Montesonti, Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope (Barrow Street Press, 2012)

The title of your first full-length book, Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, is unforgettable. Could you tell us something about it? 

FM: I felt I didn't have a great title to my collection for a long time and then one night I was at a party talking to the fiction writer, Cheryl Klein, about how depressing NPR news stories are and she said, "Yeah, the formula is all blight, blight, blight, ray of hope." I instantly realized the title was perfect for my, bleak, self-conscious collection. Thanks, Cheryl. 

Some say that one of the primary difficulties a poet may have with a first manuscript is shaping it into a book, as opposed to of a collection of disparate poems. Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope comes together as a book in a number of satisfying ways—through the use of theme (I’m thinking of your poem “Salutatorian’s Speech as I write this :) , repetition, and tone just to name a few. Was that something that you set out to do—to write a series of related poems—or was it something that unfolded as you went along, or perhaps even a last minute epiphany? In other words, please share how you shaped the manuscript. 

FM: As poets we are always touching the same old wounds over and over again. So, if you work on a collection long enough it will find its thematic project because to a great extent we can't get away from our preoccupations. I think it would actually be harder to write a collection of random poems. Lately, I have realized that anything that I write is somehow related. What I often do to create a poem is to combine many different starts. The poem you mentioned, "Salutatorian Speech" came from about fifteen different starts of poems. 

Getting a first book of poetry published is difficult (getting a second published is even more so—congratulations on Hope Tree!) Regarding Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, please share something of your experience in getting it published. For example, how long did you work on the manuscript? How long did it take to get the manuscript accepted? Did you revised it at some point? Did you send only to contests? 

FM: About a fourth of the collection was straight from my MFA thesis. The rest was slowly revised and added to over the course of nearly a decade. I wasn't working on it constantly. I would write a new poem here and there and maybe subtract another. Over that time the book (in its various forms) was a finalist for contests about seven or eight times, a semifinalist many more. Like many poets, I started to feel like I was always the bridesmaid. The rejection, however, I think it really forced me to make a better collection. I improved the collection every season until I really had something solid. So, don't give up on a manuscript. Just keep listening to it and trying to make it better one poem at a time. My second manuscript was a breeze to publish. My wife suggested I send it to the press that did my chapbook and they loved it and the deal was done. So, sometimes you struggle for ten years, sometimes it takes a week. Go figure. 

Speaking of contests, what are your thoughts about them?

FM: Personally, I like contests. I think you tend to get a fair read. There are many first-book contests out there now, so it is a good option if you are trying to publish a first book. A nice added convenience is that many times even if a press doesn't want the book they will ask for an unpublished poem or two for their related journal. Also, you can start to tell when your manuscript is getting better by how often it makes semifinalist or finalist. It can, however, be expensive. But at least your money goes to publishing a new book of poems, which is probably more valuable to society than buying a new pair of shoes. One other thing is that if you win a contest they publish your book much more quickly than if you get one picked up through open submissions where the backlog can be several years. But do some research. There are some very good small presses that don't charge fees or run contests, like my friends down at Cooper Dillon in San Diego. 

Once your first full-length manuscript was published, were there things you thought would happen, yet didn’t? unexpected things that did happen?

FM: Being copy-edited was a humbling experience! But other than that, it was pretty much what I expected. I expected to be thrilled seeing my work in print, and I was. It was also very exciting to do a reading tour. The reception I received everywhere was wonderful, and I met a lot of new poets.

Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope has some beautifully lyrical prose poems. Some of them could be said to blend the boundary of genre, slipping into, say, the lyric essay. I was wondering if you’ve published some of your poems as lyric essay or if you also write what you personally consider prose (regardless of what someone else might consider it.) If so, are you working any prose right now? 

FM: They say that prose writers move up and down and that poets move laterally. I am certainly a lateral thinker, so I can't really sustain the story needed for good prose. For some poets the line is very important, and for others, the phrase or the sound of the words, but the sentence is the main formal and musical unit in my poems. If you combine that with the fact that my poems are often rhetorical in nature with a speaker who directs the attention of the audience or meditates on subjects, I can certainly see how they are a close cousin of lyric essay. 

Who are you reading now? Do you have a favorite poet or poets? What poets influence you? 

FM: Oh, my. That's a big question. The book of poetry I have probably picked up the most in my life is Walt Whitman's, Leaves of Grass. Read the original version, not the deathbed version. I don't know exactly what to say about it other than in it I find a sort of overwhelming compassion for the world that I wish I could emulate. There are many, many, many great younger writers as well, but I'd be sure to leave someone out and regret it, so, I'll leave it at Whitman for now and encourage you to dust him off if you haven't read Leaves of Grass in a while. 

When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you? How did you decide pursue poetry academically? 

FM: I started writing as a teenager. Back then my poems were just strings of abstractions that probably only made sense to me, but I felt very close to them. Going into college I started out studying business, of all things. Luckily I had some wonderful instructors at IU (Abner Bartequez, Brian Teare, Cathy Bowman, Jonathan Ames) who encouraged me to change my major to English. I was hooked since then. 

You teach creative writing. There are those who would argue that creative writing can’t be taught. And there are those who say that MFA programs squash creativity and result in cookie-cutter writing. What are your thoughts on these issues? 

FM: I don't really agree with the idea that creative writing can't be taught. How do you know what creative writing really is until you have read extensively, until you know the artistic conversations about the subject that have proceeded you, until you actively try to join that conversation? These are the main ways creative writing is taught. The term "craft" is a sort of a mystic interpretation of "discourse," which can also be taught to an extent. At first that might produce cookie-cutter writing, but then most writers, if they have the dedication, move beyond that. I believe there are many unique brains and experiences out there to listen to, so I don't really trust words like "talent" or "creativity" because someone has to be the judge of what constitutes those terms, and I feel that is a limiting way of thinking for an artist. 

When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader? 

FM: Before I write, I often imagine that I'm in an empty room with a stage and there is no one in the audience, and I tell myself that my job is to try to say the most heartbreaking thing I possibly could to no one at all, just darkness. I may be disturbed. 

Generally speaking, how do you approach revision? Do you use a checklist or have any tried-and-true practices? 

FM: At first, I would approach it like most beginning poets. I would write a draft and then change a few lines around and call it done. Now I can never see where one poem ends and another begins. I combine language from any number of given drafts of poems with little regard for my original intentions. I let the language discover the intentions now. 

The sestina “Every 1930s French Novel” is a delightful poem. How did that poem came to be? E.g., When did you first draft it? How did it start? Was it heavily revised, or was it one of those born fully formed? 

FM: That one was born fully-formed. It's hard to write a sestina that isn't. The poem came from a summer when I was reading a lot of Sartre and Henry Miller. I couldn't stop laughing at how silly and dramatic all the characters acted. I think I wrote the first stanza and then realized it was six lines long. I then thought a sestina would be good form to poke fun at the repetitive themes. It is hard to write a good sestina. I think a poet may only get one or two good sestinas in a lifetime. 

Place appears in a good number of the poems, whether geographic (such as Indiana or the Midwest) or nongeographic (such a situating the speaker in a cafĂ©, hotel, on an airplane or a boat). What is your approach to (and/or your thoughts about the importance or impact of) place or setting in your poems? 

FM: The Midwest is part of who I am. Bloomington aside, it can be pretty dreary. I felt like my imagination was formed drifting between corn field and abandoned corporate space, always in winter. Place never leaves some poets. It's what haunts them. It's where they find their poems. The various locations I think come from a sort of cinematic thread that runs through the poems. I suppose they are connected in that one grows up watching a lot of movies in the Midwest. 

If you were a place, where or what type of a place would you be? :) 

FM: An empty, snow-covered parking lot. 

Grappling with the spiritual, considering the transcendent when mired in the mundane, and/or finding the transcendent in the mundane, seems to be pivotal in your poetry. There are a number of biblical, religious, and spiritual references. For me, it’s a subject of prime importance, which needs to shared and explored in community, but it’s also so very intimate and personal. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of your work? 

FM: I believe the mundane is all we have. Ever since I was a kid I had problems with religion, but instead of doubting the magical aspects of God like most people, I really had a problem with the afterlife. "Who would want to live forever?" I once asked my confused Sunday school teacher. Now that I think about it, that is probably the central question that runs through a lot of Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope. When one believes that this world is all there is, you have to construct some personal hope in it, some meaning. 

What are you working on now? 

FM: The new collection I'm sending out is titled, For Oh, Yvonne, I Am. It is a book-length series of exuberant love poems mixed with overlapping scenes and characters. It's hard to describe, but I'm quite excited about it. 

Finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer? 

FM: The best advice I have ever heard is "Don't make excuses for why you don't have time to write; use writing as an excuse to avoid other obligations."