Books In Conversation
Daddies and Divas: MICHAEL MONTLACK with Soraya Shalforoosh
(NYQ Books, 2020)
Poet Michael Montlack and I met in 2014 in Tribeca at a fundraiser for Four Way Books. He read a poem about his father which inspired me to read one about my father. I approached him that night and we became fast friends. Soon we were sharing drafts, meeting at readings in NYC and even hanging out at AWP in Minneapolis. When my book This Version of Earth came out in 2014 from Barrow Street, Michael interviewed me here in The Brooklyn Rail. The interview was called "Who's Your Daddy?" since we connected via poems about our fathers. Fast forward to 2020 and Michael's second book is being released: titled, get this, Daddy. Now I get to interview him about his process and the excitement around Daddy's release. I say excitement because this book has already sold out on a couple outlets after receiving a starred review in Publishers Weekly this August.
I feel a little lucky I got to read Daddy in advance of its publication. It is a tonic to read such a book in this pre-election crazy time. My fear took a break when I immersed myself in these poems full of empowerment, acceptance, unconditional love, friendships, and family. What drew me into Michael's work when we met was the tenderness in the poem about his father. The same tenderness is in these poems. As David Trinidad writes of Daddy, "There are … many kinds of fathers and mothers—be they biological or adoptive, or a former therapist, or a sister, or a pop icon … I was struck by the guilelessness of Montlack's voice, and moved by the tenderness with which he renders intimate human moments. His poems not only earned my trust, they won my affection.” This is true of Montlack's voice. He reminds us of the powers of the other kinds of mothers and fathers. We read this intimacy in "Masculinity" when he says, "I learned its meaning from my mother. / Warm / like the compress / I steadied / against her stoma." As someone who also adores music, I appreciated "Stevie," a poem about one of Michael's pop icon muses: "What else can be said about the aftertaste of her alto? / 170-proof vodka upstaged by its wispy twist of tangerine peel. / Classical ballet performed in chunky platform boots...." The aftertaste of her alto … my goddess, what beauty. The beauty he experiences here helps bring me into that other worldly state he must have felt putting her records on a turntable and feeling that transcendence, those breaks from the mundane.
I remember when I first met Michael—that day in Tribeca I found his work contagious and his free spirit refreshing. His book has this same magnetic quality. It brings you into a wonderful world of muse, love, and physical and metaphorical exploration. This summer I had the chance to speak to him about his new book and the adventures around it.
Soraya Shalforoosh (Rail): Michael, as we discuss your new book, you are currently on the road. You left the epicenter of the pandemic (NYC) and are travelling thousands of miles across the country. So many of your poems are about physical and spiritual travel. Can you explain how this feels—to be in this moment?
Michael Montlack: Yes, it's been strange and incredible. After two months quarantining in my NYC apartment, I went upstate to my friend Will's place for a couple weeks. It was so good to be with friends, in a big yard, with places to go hiking. My last day there, it came to me. I’d rent a van, get an air mattress, stock a cooler and drive across the country and back. I had always wanted to do it. This was the time. I called it “Social Long-Distancing.” No hotels or restaurants. Just campsites, friends’ backyards, and the van. I saw national parks (Badlands, Bryce [Canyon], Zion, Arches, Yellowstone), Devil's Tower, Crazy Horse, Twin Falls, Garden of the Gods. Drove through deserts, up mountains, on cliffs. Place has always been one of my themes. I've been travelling the last 15 years and places become characters in my work. I love portraiture, in photography and poetry, and travel gives me my material, especially the people I meet along the way. They become subjects too—though this time I saw them from afar. It was healing to be driving, seeing the beauty of this country at a time when things are so scary, politically and pandemically. For four years it's felt like the US has been abducted. This was my way to get it back, to remind me to fight harder to return it to hands that will protect it.
Rail: Well, that is an incredible journey. As mentioned, your poems are full of people—both in your first book Cool Limbo (2011) and your new collection Daddy. Obviously, there are portraits of your mother and father but also some about friends, like Tamika (twisted sister). She just touches the soul. You have this brilliant way of bringing us into your world of growing up in visual detail and the complexity of emotions comes out in these snapshots. You are full of tributes.
Montlack: Thank you. Yes, I find poetry in people, especially in how they speak, in how my father, for example, spoke in quadruple negatives at his gas station: I don't have nothin’ for nobody never no how, know what I'm sayin’? Some poets love ideas. But I love people and I populate my poems with them. Tamika was my best friend growing up. She was an extraordinary spirit, and she protected me. She moved to our mostly white town in second grade—tall, enthusiastic, and bi-racial (her birth parents were African American and Puerto Rican). My twin sister and I were adopted too. Kids loved Tamika (she was so fun—for example, having disco dance parties in her room in fourth grade!) but she was constantly reminded by them that she was different, less than, an outsider. Older kids in the school halls and adults on the street would use racial slurs. It chipped away at her soul but made her bolder somehow too. She embraced her difference, becoming a rocker, then a punker (going on in her twenties to play CBGB's with her all-girl band Summer's Eve). And when I came out at 22, she wept and said she knew—her gay uncles had told her when we were in third grade that I might be like them and asked her to protect me without approaching the subject until I was ready. She did just that. I remember how she'd growl at anyone who looked at me funny. My guardian. One of my most romantic friendships—and yes, I consider some friendships romantic. My greatest regret is that I didn't have the ability (especially as a kid in the closet) to protect her from the bigotry she faced. I didn't know how to combat that hate, other than to love her and stand by her. She passed at 29. I think she knew even as a child she wouldn't live long. But she lived strong. And part of me will always be on her stoop at night looking up at the stars with her, promising that if we lost touch somehow, at 30 we'd reunite at the top of the Empire State Building. I never lost touch. But I lost her.
Rail: She sounds like enough material for book three. But before we get there, tell me: What was different if anything in your writing process for Cool Limbo and Daddy? And, if you don't mind sharing with us, your process for ordering your manuscript. Did anything change in your method along the way?
Montlack: Sure, the process for Daddy was different from Cool Limbo, which I started in my MFA program at the New School. That manuscript evolved, the title changing, the structure changing, as poems were written and added and subtracted. Daddy emerged last year very fast. I was looking at a pile of poems I had written over years and saw it there. The three sections—Daddy, Mother, Father—were suddenly so apparent. I had 45 pages and knew I'd need to fill in gaps. I started with a proem to start the book: "How to Mother like a Man," about male seahorses giving birth to help exhausted females. It touched on my themes of nurturing parents, feminism, and queerness. Then I wrote more Daddy poems to work with the ones I had, more Mother poems (about my birth mother, Stevie Nicks as spiritual mother, and Medusa as mythic mother). The Father poems were mostly there, about losing the father who adopted and raised me. The book includes poems about my being an uncle, my twin sister being a mother, finding our birth parents, losing our adoptive parents, and aging as a gay man and being seen as a Daddy type. There was an immediacy to this book, which I experienced with My Diva (2009), the anthology I edited featuring essays by gay men about the women who inspire them. That book happened fast like I had no control over it. It's a great feeling when the book steers.
Rail: Michael, your responses remind me of what first made me respond to your poetry. It's full of honesty, empathy, and respect. You can be Michael-the-world-traveler who also writes of Long Island bedrooms and gas stations. As you said, you prefer writing about people and place rather than ideas. That makes your poems come to life—we see it; we feel it. How do you go about writing these poems?
Montlack: I don't know if I prepare to write about people and places consciously. Writers don't pick subjects. Subjects pick us, right? So I'm constantly observing and gathering people and places, dialogue and details. I can't help it. And that spills into my work. When lucky, there are inspired moments when a shutter goes off and I know that a poem happened, framed like a portrait, which can be developed in words sooner or later, like film in a dark room. When I was 15, doing homework in the kitchen, my mother watching (and agreeing with) Liz Taylor who scolded America for letting gay people die during the AIDS crisis, the shutter went off. I was in the closet and it would take decades for me to write it, but I wrote about that moment. Now, thanks to Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar, I learned to invite the muses to visit more often. We write together using simple prompts—a list with words we pick from books, a phrase from a song maybe, a kind of car, a number. We write in the same room for an hour, then read our poems and edit them some. I have become much more productive this way. And go places I wouldn't go without those random words. They make me more lyrical sometimes. They invoke people and places I haven't thought about for a long time, and a poem happens.
Rail: The poems in Daddy have many muses. For instance, there is "Do Our Parents Ever Really Die?" Can you talk more about that? The details are so vivid.
Montlack: My parents were vivid. So writing about them is easy, and keeps me connected, now that they've passed. I often have dreams where it seems like they're visiting. I was so lucky to have been adopted by them. I think they really wanted to be parents. They were generous and warm and down to earth. And funny! And very active in the Lions Club with my aunt and uncle. That was their social life: pancake breakfasts on weekends to raise money for charities like The Seeing Eye Foundation, my father converting an RV into a health screening van for Seniors, my mother hosting dances at the Home for the Blind. They never sought credit or bragged either. They enjoyed it, helping, being around people. That was one of the last poems I wrote for the book. Other poems remember them, mourn them, but this one resurrects them, recognizing they're still here, in myself—when I cut open an unripe avocado (like my mother) or blame someone else for eating the last ice cream sandwich which I ate (like my father). I use place too—to bring them back, their living room couch, the luncheonette where my mother learned to stack a BLT the way my father liked, even in their dog who somehow smells like them.
Rail: As a big fan of poets who write in many forms, I noticed you have a poem called “Haiku Triptych: Portland.” Can you talk more about the forms you use and which poems would you say are the stand-outs in this collection?
Montlack: I opened up to writing in forms during my MFA. Especially sonnets (after a weekend workshop with Molly Peacock). I have one in Daddy called “Sonnet for the Dowager Countess,” inspired, of course, by Maggie Smith and lines from Downton Abbey. I like villanelles too. And imitate Gertrude Stein’s portrait poems, if they can be considered a form. Sometimes I do what I encourage students to do: create a form or vary a classic one. I did that with “Haiku Triptych: Portland.” I liked the idea of writing a narrative of a breakup in so few words. Three haikus. The challenge motivated me. In my poem “In Her Voice,” I tried to describe Stevie Nicks’ voice using only images, one in each stanza. That was a form, sort-of.
In terms of stand-outs, “I’ve Been Told My Birth Mother Believed in Aliens” is special to me. I felt like I was in a trance when I wrote it, as if my birth mother, who I never met, was in the room. It uses a lot of repetition and gets me emotional whenever I read it. I’m excited it will be in Prairie Schooner this winter. Other poems that may stand out? I’d say, “How to Mother Like a Man,” “Daddy: Mythologies,” “Benjamin Un-Button-ed” and “Don’t listen to her. Listen through her.” But at readings people seem to respond to “One Sparrow” and “Toast.”