Lately, I’ve been rereading a great anthology called Japanese Death Poems. Despite the initial, grim impression that a Westerner might get upon hearing the title, this compilation (the final poems of Zen monks and haiku poets) is anything but morbid or melodramatic. In fact, most of the poems are simple and sardonically funny, mocking not only the ego, but the Zen tradition of writing death-poems itself.
I bring this up because halfway through the book, I switched gears back to our submissions queue and came across the poetry of Tom Montag. Immediately, I was drawn to his economy of language, his knack for whittling away all but the most essential aspects of a poem’s scene. A few modern references notwithstanding, if someone handed me these poems and told me they were newly discovered, freshly translated pieces by Basho or Li Po, I’d believe it.
I’ve always loved “eastern” poetry because I think it gives you twice the bang for your buck. The poems are entertaining and (dare I say it?) enlightening on their own, but they’re also fantastic teaching tools for “western” writers looking to crystallize their imagery a bit more. Especially nowadays, with “broets” basically confirming all the SNL stereotypes of self-absorbed, pointlessly bombastic writers, we need poets like Montag—not just to read, but to remind us that a scalpel is more accurate than a chainsaw.
Michael Meyerhofer: Thanks for letting us publish your work! Even before I saw your bio, I sensed a certain Zen-like quality in your poems. For those who aren’t very familiar with this approach, can you take a moment to describe your aesthetic, as far as poetry goes?
Tom Montag: To be honest, I am more middlewestern farm-boy than Zen monk, but I think monk and farmer have a lot in common. One, they both tend to see things as they are. Two, neither of them will waste a lot of words. Over the years I played with the haiku until I broke it; that is, I stood in the haiku instant of realization and saw many possibilities for the short poem. One first wants to allow the thing which presents itself to be itself, not some version of your imagining it. You want to render it accurately and concisely, in our ordinary language. And the frog has to jump — every good poem has that moment where something turns or moves or leaps. Some experiences don’t fit the haiku, just as not all experiences fit the sonnet. You want to let the thing you’ve experienced shape the form of the poem, not the other way around.
I’m speaking here for myself, of course. You will find other poets saying other things in an anthology I was part of, America Zen: A Gathering of Poets. A poet like Jane Hirschfield would give you a better answer than I can, both in her poetry and in her book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.
And, really, when I am writing, I am not thinking about aesthetics. I am trying to see the thing and get it right in that moment.
MM: Do you think it’s possible for a poem to be a bad subversion of Zen? Put another way, what does a bad “Zen” poem look like?
TM: I suppose it’s possible for a poem to subvert Zen. I suppose, too, it’s possible for Zen to subvert the poem. The only wrongness that worries me is insincerity. Is the poem true to the thing itself or am I using it for my own purpose? This is the case for all kinds of poetry — Is it a real poem, is it an honest effort?
MM: On a different note, what got you into poetry?
TM: I wrote Curlew: Home, a memoir about growing up on an Iowa farm during the 1950s, in an attempt to answer that question: Why did I become a poet and none of those around me did? As near as I can tell, it has to do with loneliness and with seeing the far horizon at sunset. My first “poem,” written when I was fourteen or fifteen, is mercifully lost, but the images are not — the sense of aloneness, a sea gull, the ocean shore, sunset, the end of the world. I think I’m a poet because I need to fill some emptiness. Others don’t have that need. That sense of aloneness and emptiness still runs through my work. The other thing is, if I don’t speak of those Iowa farm families I knew, who will? The world is not all as it is portrayed on TV. Someone has to tell our truth.
MM: This might be related to the last question but who are some of your favorite poets?
TM: On the American side, anyone on the Robert Creeley/Larry Eigner/Robert Lax continuum. William Carlos Williams. Lorine Niedecker. Cid Corman. Among middlewesterners in particular, James Hearst, Lucien Stryk, Ted Kooser, Bill Kloefkorn, Mark Vinz, Phil Hey. On the Asian side, Basho, Buson, Issa, and the others you read in the anthologies. In recent years I have been reading and appreciating the work of Jonathan Greene, JD Whitney, John Haines, Roger Mitchell, Linda Pasten, Sharon Olds, and Linda Gregg. Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems just kills me; I’m not over it yet. I have a soft spot of Mary Oliver. Lynda Hull. Naomi Shihab Nye. Linda Hogan. Kay Ryan. This is not a good question to ask, because the answer can go on forever.
MM: Do you have a certain methodology, as far as revising goes?
TM: It turns out, when I think about it, I can see a very specific working pattern. I first draft a poem on an 8.5 x 11 piece of scratch paper folded in half – so I don’t have to face the big blank sheet. The rough draft then goes into a box that serves as my compost heap. Periodically I’ll sort through those pieces to see if there’s anything in there that can be beat into shape. I try to make corrections to the draft, and then type it up. The typewritten pages get corrected several times. Making a good poem is a very incremental process for me. When I’m satisfied with a poem, I send it out. When I’m not satisfied, the poem goes back into the compost pile: repeat indefinitely. When poems get rejected, if an editor has made comments, I try to take them to heart. Otherwise, by the time the poems return, I might have gained some perspective and revise them anyway. What is it that poets say? A poem is never finished, merely abandoned.
MM: You released a volume of Selected Poems back in 2013. Where can we find it, and how did you go about selecting the poems in that book?
TM: In This Place, my selected poems 1982-2013, was released in June 2014. You can order it from MWPH Books, Fairwater, WI 53931. The cover price is $25, but if you’re a student or a poet, just send what you’re able in the way of payment.
In selecting the poems for In This Place, I included poems that had appeared in previous chapbooks: Between Zen and Midwestern, His Hat and Art, The Sweet Bite of Morning, and That Woman. Then I sorted a fourteen-inch pile of manuscript into themes, e.g. poems about trees, poems about hawks, etc. This wasn’t one poem to a page, this was as many as would fit. Since mid-2008, I have put up at least five little poems a week on my blog, The Middlewesterner. That gave me a lot of poems to choose from. First, I judged whether the poem was good enough. Then I tried to arrange the order of the poems within their themes — and excluded what didn’t seem to fit the arrangement. Then I determined the order of the themes, and after that I gave the resulting six-inch stack to my wife, who is my best reader and editor, and she suggested cuts. She did that three times during the process, bless her. At one point fairly far along, I made myself remove two poems out of every ten. This finally got the book to the 372 pages of poetry I ended up with. The whole process took more than a year and left some good poems on the cutting room floor. That’s the way it has to be.
MM: Where do you see poetry going in the next ten years or so?
TM: I will be 68 years old in August, so it might be presumptuous of me to look ahead ten years. That said, if we follow the arc of poetry as it’s going now, we’ll likely see even more poets coming out of MFA programs. I’m okay with that, if these poets don’t forget where they came from. Indeed, good schooling can help young poets learn things that took me a lot longer on my own. And I still have gaps in my knowledge because I am self-taught. Yet, even with the schooling, we still need poets who are farmers and factory workers and waitresses and longshoremen as much as we need poets who are professors. In terms of my own poetry in coming years, I will say that since In This Place was published, I have taken to writing another kind of poem — a little longer, with longer lines and bigger stanzas, and different themes from what I had been doing. The poem “Departure” that you are publishing was one of the first of these “new” poems, and it gave me goosebumps when it came. I’d like to see how far I can go in this new direction.
MM: Thanks again for joining us! Any new projects you want to plug?
TM: The project I’m working on? Trying to put The Old Poet Says in order. I have a five-inch pile of manuscript that needs to be worked down to book size and put into some kind of flow. Many of these also appeared at The Middlewesterner in recent years. I’m starting out with perhaps a thousand poems or pieces. Which are worth preserving? That is the question. It’ll take a while to answer it.
Photo By: TumblingRun