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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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I met Montana Ray in 2009, when we both had just arrived in New York and were beginning the MFA program at Columbia. Montana was embarking on several new paths at once: motherhood, making a home in Brooklyn, translating Spanish-language authors and artists—and becoming a poet. Within a year, Montana would develop a striking new form of concrete poem that was entirely her own and yet found a way to speak to her diverse range of influences. These gun-shaped works of text art, which engage in difficult conversations about gender, race, and our cultural inheritances, and, along with cooking recipes, form, (guns & butter), released by Argos Books this past spring.
Montana and I sat down on the eve of the publication to discuss her work. Our chat picks up and leaves off, as many conversations between friends do. It is an excerpt, but it is also representative of her work as a writer, scholar, organizer, and mother: like the gunpoems, her words here put the polyvocal excitement of her intelligence on full display.
Jay Deshpande: Can we begin by talking about the origins of (guns & butter)? How did the book get started?
Montana Ray: This is my first book, and it’s a very appropriative book in part because I was a student soaking up other texts. I also appropriated aural experiences—things I’d hear in daily life or in movies. Visually, too, I was appropriating. I was seeing a lot of representations of guns: in movies, in visual art and design, as toys, as tattoos. So I wanted to see if a poem could represent a gun. Then once I found that it could, everything I was accumulating just poured into that mold. I kept a journal, too, but I didn’t mine my journal for lines. Didn’t need to!
JD: You were metabolizing experience that quickly.
MR: Yes. And I like your word metabolizing because it points toward how good this was for my health! Finding that form was such a miracle because it allowed me to flush a lot of poison from my body. Re-reading it now, there are poems I don’t agree with, poems I find politically problematic; but these poems hold someone in the midst of figuring out how to be a single mom, how to be the mom of a beautiful brown-skinned boy, how to negotiate the court system, and there’s a few poems I wrote reflecting on domestic violence after leaving a relationship that… –whatever, I don’t really want to get into the biographical details.
JD: You don’t want to correlate the biography too closely to the art.
MR: Right, exactly. On one level, I orchestrated the narrative: as an artist, I deliberately chose an overarching narrative about intra-familial abuse. I was also telling a narrative about intra-familial abuse in my real life—almost constantly it felt like—to lawyers and judges. In court, I felt scrutinized in what I was saying—felt, well, judged. So I think there’s a way in which I’m protective of the freedom I found in telling this story through art—a freedom which is based on not trying to convince anyone that it’s true. Art strips the truth-demand from the language.
JD: It makes me think of the poem “(customs, motherfuckers).” Because that’s a situation where the speaker is being questioned, and anything she says becomes suspect to this representative of a system.
MR: Right, exactly.
JD: And that also seems like a part of the book where the focus turns more directly to that questioning and to the court system. But the end of that poem—“(like… when / Aunt Mary told the cops) / (a flasher had flashed her) / (their first question) (well, / & what were u wearing?)”—is that point of interrogation. So you’re incorporating that in some way. But it stays separate: Someone else is doing the questioning. It’s positioned as autobiographical somehow, but it stays separate from the actual biography.
MR: The poem is inhabited by other voices. When you’re telling your story, you are asked to say “he said this” or “he did this” but you’re not really allowed to act that out, not allowed to be him. And I think there’s something very empowering about inhabiting the other, the one you are afraid of. You know what I mean? Or, in the example you gave, if that was something I really wish the police hadn’t said to my aunt, I can say it to my aunt in this poem, and have it be somehow a corrective to the experience. And it’s still appropriative of the language of the system. Appropriation is a brokering of power.
JD: I’m really curious about how the gun poem becomes a space that can push back against what society as a whole does to the individual. So let me go to another poem where I was thinking about this, “(a lot depends on naptime).” The end of that poem: “(que linda) (what / love & light) (he’s not screaming) / (in this country) (having a kid / doesn’t ghetto ur ass) (to mom / & baby yoga class) (so I check- / out our waiter’s ass) (que lindo).” It made me think about how the presence of some form of societal scrutiny is so thick and characterized throughout the entire book.
MR: Oh really? That’s great that that comes across.
JD: It feels like the speaker has to account for herself and defend herself against a society that’s constantly objectifying her, sexualizing her, questioning her decisions, and reading her in a complicated racial and identity politics too. But I’m really interested then in how your use of form (a weapon) creates a space that defends against those kinds of attack.
MR: I’ve never really thought of the gun as good self-defense… and this is a cop-out answer to avoid discussing how prevalent, constant as you say, that scrutiny is in the book and the ways in which the speaker has internalized that scrutiny so completely. But what your question made me think about is how we defend ourselves against the regimes of language. How form is used in that negotiation. And I think the impulse of the concrete poets was a similar one, and I am talking here about Brazil in the 1960s and 70s, poets like Augusto and Haroldo de Campos. Their impulse was to put Brazilian literature on the map. And this demanded, for them, a visual focus; their poetry was designed to be easily exported, anyone with eyes could access it, but that focus threw literature and the form of the book into tumult.
JD: So you were thinking of form, also, in terms of the form of the book?
MR: Yes, to the point where I had a conversation with Liz [Clark-Wessel of Argos Books] when we were about to go to print, worrying over the fact that this book can be a conventional poetry book. In some ways that was not a success story for me. [Laughs.] But what makes me a good fit with Argos, in addition to friendship, is that their editors and designers understand that there are conventions that this work is not rupturing but is capitalizing on to say something about and to literature.
JD: That’s very interesting. So when you say “defending ourselves against the regimes of language,” are you talking about the irrational, what is perceived as not sense-making, and how can we find a way for that in language?
MR: I was trying to respond to your question regarding how I use the institutions of form and genre to do that. But maybe I should ask how to avoid making sense: Can the form of the gun make language pure force or pure materiality? Why do I have to make you understand me? Because in making myself intelligible, what am I catering to and in the process breaking or losing of myself? I think once you’ve been in a system that feels really broken, and there’s no sane social contract here between us; and how we should act is–
JD: You’re talking about the judicial system?
MR: I think the judicial system and the system of language are related. I mean, the judge decides what is true based on words! You have to make yourself intelligible and in the process you necessarily bow some to the regime. I mean, I went to court to get custody of my child and several times to obtain protective orders. And obviously the value of bowing to that regime is just being able to live with my son and for him to be safe. But the entire time, I wondered: Should I just go live in the mountains, hide out on some beach? What is participating in this doing to me? Can I survive it intact? And, on some level, I still feel that way about my art.
JD: So, by participating in the societal system, going to court, etc., you’re able to have the protections that the society allows, but they’re also limitations. And then, on the side of language, you benefit from the conventions of language, so you know you’ll be understood; but that means bowing in some ways to the regime of it, for the sake of communicability.
MR: Yes, and then I think it really comes down to who you want to understand you. I.e. which set of confines you bow to has to do with who you are trying to communicate with. In the poem, “(what for)” for example, the speaker’s on the way to her Southern family’s Thanksgiving in Alabama, and she’s giving a blowjob to her partner as he’s driving and she’s thinking about her Southern forefathers and thinking about Stokely Carmichael and the freedom rides, and she asks: “(how / to standup for the Brother) / (who holds my head down).” And, although, of course, sexism runs deep in white, racist society, I would say this poem is more pointed at—in the very problematic way we get pitted against one another—the older men she’s imagining in the Black Arts Movement, whom she admires and considers forebears. Because they’re who she wants to talk to.
JD: This becomes an issue of the community that one participates in, then. If you’re trying to get out from under the sort of patriarchal system you describe, how do you balance all the really positive things that such a system does, in terms of creativity and art and revolutionary politics, with how it’s reifying a kind of fucked-up power dynamic? Especially a sexual power dynamic and a gender power dynamic. How do you think about creating a community that’s not trapped in those same systems?
MR: Well, now, as an organizer, it’s most important to me to hold space for individuals who feel committed to uplifting feminine energy. Curating requires attention to diversity of age, race, language, sexuality, gender presentation, in addition to a diversity of forms of expression. The Ladies’ Salon I started with Natalie Peart was one step toward that for me; and now Natalie and I are co-teaching a class at the Poetry Project, “Nomads in the Homespace,” based on the same principles. As a voting citizen, I also have started saying no to reading at events with all-white line-ups, which has meant saying no to more readings than you’d imagine.
JD: The recipes have been a part of this book for a while, even in its earlier chapbook form. That interplay is also really interesting, to move back and forth between the guns and the recipes. How did you first come up with that?
MR: I was really into reading recipes during our MFA. Most nights I was just by myself, breastfeeding, reading cooking recipes. So there’s a pleasure and softness and unwinding in the recipes that people see as complementary to the guns, although the language of the recipes can get quite vicious: beat, mash, boil. But for me, one answer to the annoying question: What is poetry?—is the grocery list. I really believe in the words salt, butter, orange—how concrete! But they are just words, beautiful inventions. They are not salt, butter, oranges. They are stories. And, look, I’m a huge nerd, I looked up etymologies of the word mango for hours one day on the advice of Lisa Jarnot. The recipes reflect the traveling in the narrative of the book but so do the etymologies of individual ingredients—and so then the roots of language take on this vital and botanical quality, which complicates their relationship to physical objects. I liked that. The lushness. The buttery, social quality—I liked the way in which they kind of make people hungry when they’re reading the book. That was my thesis professor Josh Bell’s response, “I got hungry reading your book.” And I think that is great. I want you to feel hungry. And yeah, I hope people will keep it in the kitchen sometimes. I want them to use the recipes and get them messy until the books fall apart.
JD: The book is also dedicated to Ami, your son. So, how do you see the book in relation to him? I’m just always interested in how artists who are mothers think about their work in relation to their children. How do you want Ami to receive that someday, or not at all, or…?
MR: Women always get asked this question.
JD: And men don’t.
MR: Men never get asked the question!
JD: That’s fucked.
MR: Maybe that can be my response?
JD: That sounds great. Moving on. Now that the book is a complete thing, it seems like you’re not writing gun poems anymore. I’m interested in your ideas about a project being complete, especially because of what you did with your archives this winter. Maybe you can describe a little bit about that work with archives, and what it means to complete something?
MR: Sure. I think a language project is complete when you’re just not excited about reading those poems or showing them to other people anymore. When they don’t feel like a risk. And that’s why I feel like it’s fine for this work to be in book form. That’s when I knew it was supposed to be in book form, you know what I mean?
JD: It had already had its power in another form.
MR: Yeah. It had the art. It did the thing, it was the metabolizing force. It was the poetry. And after that, it can go into a book. Which is a great place for poetry to die, you know? [Laughs.]
JD: So the book is an archive, right? A book of poems is an archive.
MR: Yes! You connected them. Look, you did all the work for me.
JD: No, no, you’re doing all the work! Go on, go on.
MR: So, I was thinking about accessibility and archives and whose work gets collected. I archived my correspondence with my sisters, along with other treasured documents, writing by my mom, who passed away when I was five. I categorized it and organized it, and then I burned it all while artist Maria Stabio photographed me. Then I took the archive’s ashes to Dieu Donné and the papermakers there helped me to mix the ashes with cotton pulp to make paper. So now I have these new papers, which I still consider the original archive, just reconstituted; and the next step is to try to get the archive acquired by a university or museum library. At first, I was thinking Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library, but now I’m thinking the MoMA Library. Where can it go? To the top! Like, where could I never sell the original “Montana Ray Papers”—because I’m not Amiri Baraka—but I could get it archived in this form?
JD: As a piece of art, or performance?
MR: Right, well, through their destruction. By pointing out that it is through your destruction that you become sanctioned. To participate, you have to kind of destroy yourself. And it’s important work for us all to do: to be aware of when being sanctioned is actually really hurting us, because that will show us ways we can disengage to protect ourselves as a form of self-care.
JD: But it’s interesting too, how that act of self-care regarding your archives is an act of self-immolation. Whenever you talk about this, I find it really moving and terrifying.
MR: Well, those are just documents. That’s not me. Or my house, or… But, yes, it’s interesting because, originally, I didn’t expect the act of destruction to be also an act of self-care. I intended it to be sacrificial. But it was cathartic. I felt better afterwards. That’s one thing about humans in the face of materiality. Doesn’t it sometimes just feel good to put your stuff on the street? It’s just like: Oh my god, materiality, what do I do with you? You’re heavy in comparison to my life. But the reconstituting of the archive, I think is key: a way of keeping myself intact and sanctioned by, simultaneously, limiting your access to me or whatever of me was in those original documents.