Poet and editor Michael Montlack is interviewed by Gulf Stream’s Christine Morando. The two exchanged e-mails to discuss the way his edited collections came together, the writers who influence and inspire him, and the politics of silence that connect women and gay men.
Christine Morando: As an editor, you’ve created spaces for men to identify with and praise strong women. How did that become an important project for you? What prompted the jump from the short essays in My Diva to the poems of Divining Divas?
Michael Montlack: The Diva projects came organically, having had so many strong women in my life who guided me: from my loving and encouraging mother to my fiercely protective sisters, literary heroines like Elizabeth Bishop and Gertrude Stein to my writing mentor novelist Julia Markus, and of course Stevie Nicks whose music and fairy godmother persona had fascinated me since childhood and helped me get through those rough closeted teenage years when it was such a relief to open the door to her lyrics and just fall into them.
It really wasn’t a jump from the essays to the poems because I had collected them simultaneously, thinking it would be a book of both genres, but I saw they worked better separately. The essay anthology came out first and was so well received that the poetry ‘sister’ seemed the natural next step, especially since many of the poems had been gathered already.
CM: You included this year’s Inaugural Poet (and FIU alum), Richard Blanco, in both of the anthologies. How did he get involved in those projects?
MM: I met Richard at the AWP Conferences over the years. Our mutual friend Peter Covino had introduced us one night over drinks. When I was putting together My Diva, he was one of the first writers I invited to submit work. He was willing and quick to reserve his diva: Endora of Bewitched. His essay is quite moving, as is his poem in Divining Divas. I was, and am, thrilled to have him included in the projects.
CM: In the Acknowledgements for My Diva, you mention that you greatly admire Elizabeth Bishop, Frida Kahlo, and Gertrude Stein and wish they had ended up on the list of divas. Since Kahlo and Stein did later make it into Divining Divas, I thought I’d ask you about Bishop. Allusions in Cool Limbo (from riffs on Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” to your Pushcart nominated poem “Stein on Bishop”) suggest that Bishop looms large in your creative imagination. How did you discover Bishop’s work and how has it influenced your own work as a poet?
MM: Bishop is a huge influence for so many poets today, I know. And she certainly has influenced my work. I read “In the Waiting Room” in high school and it almost knocked me over. I instantly connected with her there because I’d had moments like those as a child, almost religious or transcendental experiences inspired by everyday things or happenings. I remember being four years old and playing with my twin sister in our backyard and having this strange epiphany that I was a part of her and the swaying tree branches around us and the sky above while knowing I was completely separate from it all too—and not understanding it but understanding at the same time—and being aware that what I realized or felt then was unique, that somehow I internalized things a little differently. It was as if I was a writer before I was literate, already trying to shape experience, already noticing and collecting details and voices and images and assigning more meaning to them than other people in my life seemed to be doing.
AND THEN I read “Filling Station” a couple years later and thought she might have written that poem for me. My father owned an Exxon station and repair shop, where I worked as a boy (from age 9 to 13) every summer. A greasy little shop with a couple loyal mechanics who were also “sons” to my father, a dingy office filled with wicker furniture discarded from our patio at home, and even needlepoint pictures of wrenches and cars my mother had made to cheer up the place. It was identical to the “family filling station” Bishop describes in her poem and seemed such an accurate depiction, I actually wondered if I had been one of those “saucy sons” who had pumped her gas. And the fact that she found beauty in that “oil-soaked, oil-permeated” world was especially moving because that had been my world, my father’s world. And there was beauty there. There WAS love there, as her poem promises, even in places one wouldn’t suspect it. I was bonded to Bishop for life after that. And so much of my work is about portraiture of people and places, relying heavily on description, so I’m sure her influence on my style is apparent as well. Or at least I hope that it is.
CM: What other writers (of any gender) have influenced your work?
MM: Well, all the contributors to the Diva projects (there’s over 100 of them) inspire my work, the established and the emerging writers equally. Edward Field is especially powerful for me as he is so bold and noble, sometimes outrageous but always poised. Dorianne Laux is my current favorite poet but D. A. Powell, David Trinidad, Joan Larkin, David Groff, Nickole Brown, Marilyn Nelson and Marie Ponsot also immediately come to mind. As far as fiction, I was greatly influenced by the short stories of Peter Cameron, especially the collection One Way or Another. I’m also a fan of Mike Albo’s fiction (or faction) and performances—he’s hilarious and really gets our generation.
CM: “If Hello Kitty Had a Mouth” and “Botticelli Bombshell” (from Cool Limbo) both examine famous female images kept silent. How did these poems come about, and how do you see them in relationship to the other poems in the first half of the collection, which introduce the (often very vocal) real women that have populated your life?
MM: I suppose it is because I have had those very vocal women in my life that it bothers me when women or girls are not allowed to express themselves fully, or hesitate to do so. That’s undoubtedly connected to my being gay and having had to silence myself for so many years because of societal restraints or expectations. I have a niece to think about. I have a lot of young women as students at the college where I teach too. I want them to have voices. But to answer your question more specifically, one day I asked a young Japanese woman in my class a question, and when she responded, I could barely hear her. I asked her to repeat what she had said but louder so we could all hear. When she did, she was clearly struggling but couldn’t seem to muster any more volume no matter how hard she tried. I approached her desk so that I could hear her finally and saw there, scattered about her notebook, all the Hello Kitty paraphernalia: pencil case, erasers, key chain … “That’s the culprit!” I said. “Hello Kitty! She doesn’t have a mouth!” She laughed. Everyone did. “But it’s true!” I said. “Why doesn’t she?” That was the origin of the poem. I hated the idea of whole generations of girls being brought up on female icons that don’t have mouths. “Botticelli Bombshell” is sort of the same idea but looking at the fashion industry, which portrays all those beautiful but silent faces. I don’t want my niece or students or anyone to be cute and quiet, unless they choose to be. Those two poems may seem to contrast with the other louder female figures in the first half of Cool Limbo, but where the loud women are celebrated, these silenced girls are encouraged to speak up, so for me they are thematically connected, two sides of the same coin.
CM: Several moments and images in Cool Limbo depict the realities of coming into adulthood as a gay man just after the most deadly period of the AIDS crisis had passed. How has that generational position influenced your work?
MM: I feel a sense of responsibility to all those queer artists and writers who died fighting to be heard, fighting for more rights that I myself enjoy today, fighting for their own lives when our government and many of its citizens turned their backs on them. The last poem in my book is about turning 40. It was inspired by the sort-of photo gallery my friends have in their dining room of all the guys they lost over the years, only one of their original gang still alive. When I would have dinner there, I couldn’t help but hear the voices of those lost men. They told me, they still tell me, to speak for them. It’s like a responsibility, not only to them but also to the powerless and voiceless kids coming up and out, like the one I once was. Not all of my work is gay themed but a good deal of it is because that is my experience, part of my heritage and the future that was created by the men and women who came before me. Writers today have to keep telling their stories for those who can not. We have to keep the road that was paved for us from being obstructed.
CM: While the book deals with serious issues like heartbreak, mortality, and homophobia, it’s also very funny. Are there any specific lines that you particularly love or any poems that you had an exceptionally fun time writing?
MM: “Lounge-adelic” was a romp and totally unexpected. I was in NYC, where I live, waiting for a friend at a posh lounge in Hell’s Kitchen that he chose as our meeting place, a bar I normally wouldn’t go to, being more at home at an East Village dive myself. Anyway, as I was waiting and waiting (because he was late) I doodled on a cocktail napkin and started to describe the lounge, only using words that began with “L” just to make it fun. I thought I was playing a game to pass the time and to keep myself from being too annoyed at my late friend or this pretentious bar with way-overpriced drinks. When he arrived, I was nearly done and so excited that I told him I had to split because I wanted to get home to my dictionary to look up more “L” words that would finish the poem.
I also had fun writing “Bringing Straight Friends to a Gay Bar,” “The Hummus Sexual,” “A Golden Girls Prayer,” “Vanity Smurf” and the two Gertrude Stein imitations. Most often, my favorite lines are dialogue. I love capturing the voices of people: Like my father: “Ya got a set a balls, kid … Bigger than your sister’s even.” Or my twin sister: “Cuz, no offense, your bathroom’s a sty.”
More serious lines that come to mind would be one from “Triptych,” which tries to describe the experience of being in the closet as a child: “The quiet of this dog. Not its lack of language.” And one from “On Castro,” which portrays San Francisco’s famously funky Castro Street as “Just a little more American than America is willing to admit.”
CM: Are you planning to see Fleetwood Mac on their North American tour this year?
MM: Yes! I have tickets for their Madison Square Garden show in April. Excited, too, to be bringing a Fleetwood Mac virgin along for his first show.