Roberto Montes is the author of I Don’t Know You, named one of the Best Books of 2014 by NPR and a finalist for the 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry from The Publishing Triangle. His poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Lambda Literary Spotlight, Guernica, Pen America Poetry Series, and elsewhere. A new chapbook, Grievances, is now available from the Atlas Review TAR chapbook series.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Roberto Montes
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
I imagine it is a familiar story to many poets: I have been writing before I realized that writing was an occupation. I appreciate the distinction of writing career though as a writing career has very little to do with actual writing. I think the moment I was contacted to publish my first book, I Don’t Know Do You, I realized that I had irreversibly set course. It is a wedding-like moment: some words are said (or in this case, emailed) and the nature of your relationship and community is somehow fundamentally altered. It is a strange but not altogether unpleasant sensation.
You’ve published several works– what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?
I was lucky enough to know Peter Jay Shippy in my time at Emerson College and he gave me supremely intelligent advice: look where your favorite poets are publishing, and read and submit to those journals. This way I was able to discover online journals like Sixth Finch, Jellyfish Magazine, and Nap. At the time, people still had a somewhat snotty attitude towards online publications (I heard from many MFA poets that they preferred to publish “in print”), which gave the communities that formed around these journals a kind of subversive feeling. Publication for a while was more about sharing work with a community you loved than getting anything “out there.” It felt personal and intimate even when journals began to get more and more traffic. Now, it feels less so only because the stigma of online journals has declined resulting in their proliferation. There are so many outlets publishing so many poems that it’s hard to recover that sense of community.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
I have been obsessed lately with what it means to be a poet. Writing poetry is bewildering and nonsensical. And here I would not conflate writing poetry with publishing poetry or “being a poet” which really, I’ve learned, has nothing to do with the writing of poetry. I know many poets who don’t write poetry and some who write poetry who would not be counted as poets. It is the dedication to writing poetry that excites me. There is a hope to the futility there that I find immensely galvanizing in a world that depresses me more and more each day.
What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
Jack Spicer taught me how to approach writing poetry. Bill Knott taught me how to be a poet.
What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, short story, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?
The most important thing is to not take yourself seriously. For this reason, I write most of my poems on my cellphone. There’s something about taking a pen to paper or typing on a laptop that just screams writer and messes up the works in my experience. The more you can do to embarrass yourself, to lower your expectation, the freer you are to pursue something that may be unexpectedly worthwhile.
In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with publishers.
If you’re interested in working with a particular press, first ask other poets published by them what their relationship with their editor was like. A good editor can make an incredible difference in your work. I published my last chapbook with Atlas Review because I knew that Natalie Eilbert would be such a caring and scrupulous editor. Nothing else matters in my opinion.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
The Internet has lessened the importance of opportunity somewhat. In the past, you would have to pay a lot of money to attend a workshop or program to talk to a particular poet. You are now able to reach out to those you admire in an instant and at little cost. If you’re willing to embarrass yourself there’s very little you can’t achieve. In all seriousness, though, reaching out to people just to say Hey, I really liked this poem is the best thing a poet could ever do. Established communities (with their own hierarchies and cost of admission) are often foisted on young poets but now we have the tools to forge our own.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Devote a lot of time, energy, and care crafting a poem that excites you and then, once it’s perfect, erase it from the Earth. If you can do that then you will live forever.
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
Oh my goodness, I wouldn’t say I’ve accomplished much yet. I hope I have the chance at accomplishing more. My goal is to have the strength to follow my work wherever it leads. Beyond that, there is little a person can control.
If you had to pick one writer to read for the rest of your life, who would it be?
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