Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Tom Montag

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Tom Montag

is the author of several books of poetry, including In This Place: Selected Poems 1982-2013, Imagination’s Place: The Old Poet Poems, The Miles No One Wants, The Big Book of Ben Zen, and Middle Ground, as well as several books of prose, including Curlew: Home, Kissing Poetry’s Sister, and The Idea of the Local. He teaches both creative nonfiction and poetry for The Mill: A Place for Writers in Appleton, Wisconsin. During the 1970s, he edited Margins: A Review of Little Magazines and Small Press Books and was a Founding Contributing Editor for The Pushcart Prize. He has been a featured poet at Atticus Review and Contemporary American Voices, with other poems published in a variety of literary magazines, including Blue Heron Review, Hamilton Stone Review, The Homestead Review, Little Patuxent Review, Mud Season Review, Poetry Quarterly, Provo Canyon Review, and Third Wednesday. With David Graham he is editing an anthology of poetry about small towns. His poem “Lecturing My Daughter in Her First Fall Rain” has been incorporated into the permanent design of Milwaukee’s Convention Center, along with the work of Lorine Niedecker and other Wisconsin writers.

Here is the link for my blog, The Middlewesterner: http://www.middlewesterner.com/

The Interview

1. What inspired you  to write poetry?

I think we have essential moments in our lives which shape us forever. I grew up on an Iowa farm. We had hog chores west of the grove, and towards evening I’d walk through the long shadows out to those hogs and see the sun at the edge of the western horizon. There was longing and loneliness in that moment, seeing the far horizon. I suppose wanting to touch that far horizon is what inspired me, and still inspires me, and wanting to get beyond longing and loneliness. I say this even as I had the best parents and family imaginable. I was strangely bent to feel a kind of loneliness in a home filled with love, I know, but that is how poets are formed, or at least how this poet was formed.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I was a poet before anyone introduced me to poetry, I think. I am self-taught. When I was in sixth grade, I suppose it was, one of my Christmas presents from my parents was a leather-bound notebook. I hadn’t really written anything yet. How did they know I needed something like that? We were studying Whittier’s “Snow-Bound” in school that winter. Then we had a terrible blizzard. I wrote a 27 page “Snow-Bound” of my own in that notebook: I have a clear memory of being up in the bedroom I shared with my brother working on the poem, the white light coming in off the snowstorm nearly blinding me. Fortunately, that poem has been lost. Yet the need to write continued. The next poem I remember, another one of those special moments which changes us, came when I was thirteen or fourteen. There was longing and loneliness, an imagined cliff, the edge of the sea below, a lone seagull, waves rolling in, the end of the world. Teen anguish, I suppose. By the time I finished high school, the people around me knew that I was a poet. My senior high school English teacher, Colin Kahl, was always supportive of the strange farm kid who thought he might be a poet and he was, perhaps,  the first to steer me along the path. The poet Sister Therese Lentfoehr helped me further along when I was in college. John Judson showed me how to be true to myself as a poet. Chris Halla put the fire back in me when I was ready to give up.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I was a sophomore or junior when Robert Bly came to read at the small college I attended, in 1968 or so. His presence was overpowering. That reading convinced me that I couldn’t read Robert Bly: if I did, I would never become my own poet, I would be a mere Bly imitator. So it wasn’t until I was in my 60s that I started to read him. Rather than overpowering me, at this point, he is more like an old Norwegian bachelor farmer you tolerate because he’s family.
The poets I took as my models were probably William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley (and with him, a little influence from the open field poetics of Charles Olson), and Nebraska poet William Kloefkorn. I learned from all of them. I didn’t study poetry formally, but let them show me what a poem should look like. Apparently, William Carlos Williams is still an influence: not long ago I received a rejection from an editor who said he had “seen enough of little WC Williams’ poems” and didn’t need to see any more. I have to say these poets taught me that clarity and mystery can cohabit, as did Chinese and Japanese poetry when I discovered it. Ah, clarity. I also had an editor reject my poems because “we like to see more layers than this.”

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Routine? Routine? Hey, I’m a poet. What is this routine of which you speak?
I know I should be telling people they need to make time and space to write every day. Yet, now that I am retired, what I do make time and space for every day, actually, is reading poetry. Reading poetry allows me to compose myself. Sometimes, as a result, poems will come to me as I sit there, having put the book down and lifted my eyes. However, you cannot ask for grace; if it comes, it comes. You can’t force it. This is where I would disagree with William Stafford, who insisted on writing every day and lowering your standards if you had to.
And, to be truthful, my most productive time for poetry is when I am traveling. Something about movement and the motion of the car and the endless scroll of world before me allows the poems to come loose. If taken to court, I would have to say, “No, your honor, I was not writing while I was driving. I was driving while I was writing.” In May and June this past year, I spent a month on the road, heading south to New Orleans, west to Los Angeles, north to Portland, and home from there. About 6500 miles. I call it my Gypsy Poet Tour. It resulted in 579 poems, or little notes for poems. In January, 2016, I spent a couple weeks traveling in New Mexico, and that resulted in about 350 little poems. Again, you can’t force it. You can’t go out expecting a poem every 11.2 miles. You just have to let go, and they will come.
The other thing to note, perhaps, is that I might not be a good writer, but I am a terrific reviser. Many of my poems start as “notes for poems.” Many others go into my “compost heap,” to be brought out and re-worked later. And some of them, yes, never make it out of the compost heap. That’s part of the process — not being afraid to fail.

5. What motivates you to write?

Longing. Love. Loss. A need to chew the language. A need to express what the world is trying to say. This question is like asking: what motivates you to breathe. You do it if you want to live.

6. What is your work ethic?

I might be the laziest poet you’ll interview. I don’t have a work ethic. I just do what I do, and have been blessed that my lackadaisical approach works for me. I will say, however, if I go several days without writing, you’ll see me get in the car and go for a drive. There will be a red-tail hawk somewhere waiting to break loose a poem for me.
If I haven’t been writing, I tend to get a little cranky, as if the lack of poems is an irritant. Then, as I say, I go for a drive to unblock whatever is stuck in me.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Because I am self-taught, the poets I chose as “models” influence that shape of how I think a poem should look. I tend to write shorter poems, rather than longer ones. I tend to write shorter lines rather than longer ones. I tend to leave in a lot of air in my poetry, a lot of light. I tend to use the “American idiom” of Williams and Creeley. I heard a nationally-recognized poet read in Milwaukee fifteen years ago, and afterwards noted to a friend that I’ve never used in my poems any of the nouns and verbs he used in his. It was such a stark contrast, and a revealing moment for me; I was not that kind of poet, and I did not want to be that kind of poet. For instance, I have never used the word “plastic” in a poem, since plastic and poetry so seldom overlap.
Basho’s poem about the frog jumping into the water has become for me a metaphor for what a poem should do: in every poem, the frog has to jump. There should be a leap. Of course, I can say that because I write lyric poetry, rather than narrative poetry, philosophical poetry, or didactic poetry.
I might use a big word like “beauty” in a poem, but it will still have its roots attached, and dirt on it. WC Williams said, “No ideas but in things,” and the Oriental poets I’ve read taught me to let the things of this world shine from within.
Some might say they write to express their feelings. I write to express not what I have to say, but what the world has to say. Some say you have to think of the reader when you write; I do not think of the reader, I think of what the poem wants.
Jack Spicer suggested that poets are radios, picking up whatever is coming across on the ether. There’s some truth in that.
I also like to tell people that if I couldn’t read upside-down, if I didn’t eavesdrop shamelessly, and if I didn’t hear voices, I would have very little to write about.
I heard Robert Creeley tell a story about a poet who gave a reading at a middlewestern college some years ago and afterwards was asked “Was that a real poem, or did you just make it up?” I write real poems; I don’t make them up. With my poem about trees marching across the hillside, I could show you those trees. My poems with Mile Markers in the titles were written at those locations. Go there, and you can see the world of which the poem speaks.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Jane Kenyon, Sharon Olds, Linda Pastan, Linda Gregg, Linda Gregerson, Jane Hirshfield, and Joan Kane, for starters. Why? Because they tell the truth.

9. Why do you write?

It should be obvious by now that I write for the same reason I breathe; it is something beyond my control.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I would say you learn to write poetry by reading poetry and writing poetry. Read ten thousand poems. Write two hundred poems. You are now ready to begin.
I would say keep putting one word after another.
I would say don’t give up.
I would say don’t let the bastards get you down.
The best predictor of which young poet will stay at it is not who is the most ambitious, nor who has the most talent. The best predictor is who is the most stubborn. There’s no money in this, and you’d be a fool to think there is, so you’re doing it because you can’t do otherwise.

How do you become a writer?

You become a writer by writing. Just do it.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I have a collection together for publication sometime in the next year entitled Seventy at Seventy, seventy poems written at age seventy.
I am co-editing an anthology of poetry about small towns.
I have a boxful of poems in the voice of a gnarly “Old Poet” which needs to be sorted out.
I have to ask myself what I’m going to do with the 350 poems in my Notebook: New Mexico and the 579 poems in Gypsy Poet Tour. Some of these can be seen on my blog, The Middlewesterner and on my Facebook page. Some of the New Mexico poems are available as an e-book titled The Miles No One Wants.
These past years, I have been writing poems faster than I can type them up, and it is starting to be time to look at those boxes of neglected first drafts and see what I’ve got.
I have never had a writer’s residency/retreat before, and next week I will spend a week with several other writers on a ranch along the Keya Paha River in north central Nebraska. What will come of that? I don’t know.

What writing projects do I have on, you ask?

I don’t have time for writing projects. I’m busy being a poet.

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