As a new feature, MockingHeart Review will conduct interviews with contributors on a monthly basis. Look for other new content such as reviews of poetry collections, poet-to-poet dialogues, and craft essays.
Thank you for your interest in MockingHeart Review and enjoy our interview with poet/contributor, Tom Montag.
Interview with a Poet: Tom Montag
MHR: What was the impetus, the first inner suggestion, for you to embark on your legendary tour this summer?
TOM MONTAG: I turn 71 at the end of August this year. I had never seen the Grand Canyon. I had never seen Los Angeles. You don’t ever know how many days, weeks, or years you might have left. I thought: if I don’t do it now, will I ever have the opportunity?
About that point, I read an article that said some artists were hoping to save the community of Bombay Beach on the east side of the Salton Sea. I had never seen the Salton Sea, so I put that on my itinerary.
I had seen some of northern California with my wife in years past, but none of the rest of it. And if I was going to drive the length of California, I might as well visit Portland, Oregon, to see Powell’s Books in this lifetime and to meet some old blogger buddies too.
From Portland, I had hoped to drive up to the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana, along the Canadian border, but cut that out of my journey in favor of an overnight visit with my daughter in Colorado and poetry readings in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska.
I knew at the start that I wanted to visit poet-friends in southern Missouri. I wanted to meet the editor of MockingHeart Review in Louisiana. Then I’d drive across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to get to the Grand Canyon, the Salton Sea, and Los Angeles, then make my way north to Portland.
I put a note up on Facebook sketching an outline of the trip and suggestion people might set up house readings for me along the way. Charlotte Wolfe in Newton, Kansas, responded by asking “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and offered to host a reading at her quilt store. As a high school and college student in Milwaukee, Charlotte had worked as a typesetter for me in the 1970s when I published Margins, and she had been our older daughter’s babysitter. Yes, I could detour to Kansas.
The editor of MockingHeart Review told me she would not be at home during my Louisiana visit but would be in New Orleans for the weekend instead, along with her friend and fellow poet Bessie Senette; they’d be the featured readers at the Maple Leaf Bar on Sunday afternoon. I thought I could meet them there and read at the open mic afterward. No, they said, you can be a featured reader too. Not too long after that, I received a message that Bessie would be “cooking Cajun” on Saturday, and “could you make it here in time for supper?” Of course, I could!
Charles Alexander of Victoria, Texas, said that if I could make it to south Texas, he would set up a reading for me at the University of Houston-Victoria’s Design Center. My nephew Andrew Montag and his wife Allison would host a house reading in Austin, Texas. My high school classmate, Tim Schmaltz would do the same in Phoenix.
As I would be passing near Santa Fe, New Mexico, I asked poet Lauren Camp if we might have dinner together. Writer Fred Garber, who lives in the Calexico/Mexicali area, suggested that while I was at the Salton Sea, we might meet for a meal. I asked my second cousin, Fr. John Montag, SJ, if I might stay with him a couple days in Los Angeles. He said yes and offered to show me the town. Jessie Lillie Lemon, a former student of mine when I taught Creative Nonfiction at Lakeland College, offered to host a house reading in Seaside, California.
Since I’d be near Fresno, I asked poet and editor Michael Meyerhofer if we might be able to do lunch. Michael had made me a featured poet at Atticus Review a few years ago. He’s also originally from Iowa, as I am, so I figured we’d find plenty to talk about. Erica Goss, formerly the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, and now of Eugene, Oregon, has been a Facebook friend for some time, and I asked if we might meet for lunch as I passed through town. Haiku poet and artist Carolyn Winkler offered me a place to stay while I was in Portland.
And, of course, Greg Kosmicki and Rex Walton got readings arranged for me in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, and Fr. John’s sister, Mary Patrice, offered a place to stay in Omaha.
I plotted out the route, logged addresses and phone numbers, and knew where I had to be by when and how to get hold of people if I needed to. All that remained was to calculate other places along the way I might have to overnight: one night in Louisiana on the way to New Orleans; another night in Amarillo, Texas, on the way to Santa Fe; in Winslow, Arizona, on the way to the Grand Canyon; in southern Oregon on the way to Portland; and in Utah, on the way to my daughter’s in Loveland, Colorado.
Truly, once I put it out to the universe that I was going to do this trip, things just fell into place as if it were meant to be. The impetus was: see the Grand Canyon, the Salton Sea, and Los Angeles before I die, and the trip turned out to be so much more than that.
MHR: Please tell us the cities you visited.
TOM MONTAG: Most of the cities I visited are indicated in the narrative above.
MHR: Landscape inspires the poet mind. Did you find that seeing the running landscape from the driver’s seat and in your walking about give you keen insight into the areas you visited, and perhaps the people, too? Were you intrigued and given intimations of history as well as life in the present?
TOM MONTAG: Landscape and people, and the mysteries surrounding them, are at the heart of my poetry, I suppose. My most productive time as a poet seems to be when I am traveling. Something about the motion and movement of travel gets my juices flowing. In a court of law, I’d probably have to testify: “No, your honor, I wouldn’t say that I was writing while I was driving; I would say I was driving while I was writing. There’s a difference. No, your honor, I would not recommend this method for any other poet. Yes, your honor, you can only write very short poems in this fashion, and you can’t revise them.” The world going past me on this 6500-mile trek was an intense and ever-present stimulus for the poet in me, and it resulted in 579 poems (or notes for poems) over the 31 days I was traveling.
I’m often called a “nature poet” because I write so much of the world around us; and some people remark on the “mystical” or “spiritual” nature of my work, because the world is a place of wonder, and some of that wonder ends up in my poetry. I think the poet’s first task is to pay attention, and I’ve trained myself to do that, even at 70 m.p.h. What am I seeing and what is it trying to say?
I probably learned the most about the people of an area when we talked before and after my readings. For instance, my half hour reading at Jessie Lillie Lemon’s house in Seaside, California, was followed by one of the most intense two and a half hours of conversation I think I’ve ever had, exchanging ideas with songwriters and composers and artists and even a mathematician, about poetry and art and the architecture of form and so on. It was wonderful. In New Orleans, as you know, we started out talking at 4:30 in the afternoon and didn’t stop until someone noticed, “Oh, it’s ten-thirty.” My lunches and suppers with poets along the way were like that, too, almost as if we are brothers and sisters who were getting back together after some time apart as if we had known each other a long while and were just continuing an old conversation. Partly that might be because they were Facebook friends already, but more importantly, I think it is because the arts tend to create community, and sharing my poetry was like a moment of communion with those I met on this journey.
In terms of “intimations of history as well as life in the present,” I think there were cues everywhere along the way. For instance, there is a big story/history tied up in these few lines I wrote in southern California:
the water goes.
At that moment, someone was adjusting the water. Always there were the people and that canvas of water and plains and mountains and desert unrolling before me, much of it new to me. And I didn’t realize how much I love our trees and the rolling fields of Wisconsin until I got back home from this sojourn into other landscapes.
and drizzling in Wisconsin,
as if to say: Welcome home
from that other country,
the hot, dry one.
MHR: What would you suggest to other poets wanting to cultivate a community beyond their immediate locale?
TOM MONTAG: On this trip, in terms of creating community, the first thing to notice is that I reached out to people I already had some connection with, usually on Facebook. So, in a way I was a “known quantity,” and so were they.
The second thing: in most cases, I was asking for “house readings,” meaning small, intimate gatherings along my route. I was not asking to be paid, though, in Victoria, Texas, Charles Alexander put out the basket “to help with gas money,” which garnered enough for three or four tanks. In some cases, I did end up in larger poetry venues, including Crescent Moon Coffee in Lincoln, where the audience must have numbered about 45-50. I am happy to read to three people, to thirteen people, to twenty-three people, or fifty.
Third: I took to calling this my “Johnny Appleseed Tour,” because one goal was to plant my books all along the way, and I did that, giving them to poets and interested attendees wherever I read. I wasn’t trying to sell books, but to share them. In turn, many poets gave me copies of their books and I came home with quite a boxful.
Fourth: I was not asking to couch-surf or find a place to stay in people’s houses. Mostly I stayed in motels, except for Austin, where I stayed with my nephew and his wife; Los Angeles, where I stayed with Fr. John; Portland, where I stayed with fellow poet Carolyn Winkler; Loveland, where I stayed with my daughter; and Omaha, where I stayed with another second cousin, Mary Patrice.
Fifth: allowing time for conversation before and after the readings, over meals, and so on, created the time and place for community to flourish. If I were to do something similar again in the future, I might spend less time focused on the poetry readings and more time on creating the space for conversation. Those conversations were the most invigorating parts of the trip.
MHR: Was New Orleans your favorite stop, when you met me and my friends? Why or why not? (Trick question)
TOM MONTAG: Certainly, there is no better Cajun food than what I had in New Orleans, and the conversation we shared was the equal of any I’ve enjoyed. In fact, when people ask me what was my most favorite part of the trip, I say: “the home-cooked Cajun food in New Orleans.”
MHR: How full was your heart when you arrived home? Does communion with readers and other writers give you sustenance?
TOM MONTAG: By the time I arrived home, I was ready to be home. I was “full,” as I like to say, or maybe even on overload. When I travel, I travel with silence — no radio, no CDs playing, just me and the words bumping around in my head. One can only do that for so long.
In terms of being lifted by those who heard me read and who talked with me along the way, yes, sustenance is the perfect word. I was flying. Generally, I find poetry to be a lonely business, but I was far from lonely on this trip. I felt loved and appreciated at every turn. That’s going to keep me juiced for quite a while.
MHR: You produced over 500 new ideas and/or poems inspired on the road. I’m sure you have work before you for some time. I’m guessing that this out of ordinary adventure kept your mind free to write. What did this trip as opposed to your home-writing discipline do to open your mind and give you those poetic inklings and fully-formed pieces?
TOM MONTAG: Sometimes, when I travel, I fear I might be setting myself up for disappointment — going out on the road expecting that a poem will appear before me every 11.2 miles or so is a pretty big promise to make. Yet this method has worked for many years and is still working, with poems conjured up out of the world rolling past. I know there are no guarantees, but one must keep on keeping on.
When I am at home, I tend to write somewhat longer and more nuanced poems, I suppose. I wouldn’t say I’m disciplined. These poems occur irregularly, perhaps when I have been reading for a while, and something in what I’ve read gets syllables flying around in my head; or I might hear the train come through town, or a thunderstorm comes rolling in. At home, the stimuli are often less direct and less intense than when I am on the road.
There are always “real” things in my poems, whether written on the road or at home, but those written at home might have a little bit more of quantum mechanics and particle physics in them than those written on the road, where you find it harder to think the big thoughts.
My editorial process with the poems written while on the road is something like this: (1) get the poems/notes typed up; (2) identify which poems are good to go as is and start sending them out; (3) work on those which need more attention. This third step may take a while. I am still at work on poems I wrote during my visit to New Mexico in January 2016. In some cases, I admit, I struggle to recapture what it was I was trying to record, and those attempts fall by the wayside. But by and large, travel always produces poems for me. This trip was my “west of the Mississippi” tour; I wonder if I will live long enough to do a similar “east of the Mississippi” tour. And what kind of poems would that produce?
Tom Montag is the author of In This Place: Selected Poems 1982-2013, This Wrecked World, and The Miles No One Wants. He has been a featured poet at Atticus Review, Contemporary American Voices, Houseboat, Basil O’Flaherty Review, and Blue Heron Review. With David Graham, he is editing an anthology of poetry about small-town America.