May 3, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsCraft NotesEnthusiamsInterviewLiteraturePoetry

“It’s sexy, filthy, viscous, vicious. It’s religious. It’s archaic”–an interview with Montreux Rotholtz

A mélange of language by turns surreal and objective, with narrative poems intertwined with those more driven by sonics and music, Unmark is Montreux Rotholtz’s first book, and it’s a good one. Chosen by Mary Szybist as the winner of the 2015 Burnside Review Press Book Award, Unmark was published in 2017 and since that date has received numerous lauds and accolades (a recent review of the book appears here at the Poetry Northwest website). As stated below, I read the entirety of Unmark out loud to my friend and fellow poet Trey Moody during a long drive from Omaha to Chicago and both of us were lowkey awed by the volume’s mixture of sounds and styles. Along with specific questions about her work in Unmark, I asked Rotholtz about what she both learned and unlearned during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, what it means to achieve one’s voice in a (singular) poem and (collective) manuscript, and how important authorial promotion is with regards to small press publishing.

Hi Montreux! I just read your enlightening interview with Kallie Falandays over at Entropy and I wanted to take a slightly different tack. I read the majority of Unmark while on a roadtrip from Omaha to Chicago and back again, reading the poems out loud to my friend Trey. In your interview with Falandays you state: “One of my particular quirks is that I read poetry out loud. It kind of takes me forever to a read a poetry book for this reason, I’ll be honest.” This is true for me as well; how the poem sounds is often more important that how or what it says. I’m thus curious how music (or anti-music) has evolved in your work. As you’ve grown as a poet, have lines/stanzas that sound great but don’t make explicit on-the-page sense shown up more in your work or less? And are there particular sound-based poets that you go to for inspiration, ones that purposefully sound far better than they sense?

First, let me say that I’m entirely thrilled that you also read poems out loud. I know it’s a slower way to go, but it seems to me to be A) the only way I can give the poem what it “deserves,” and B) the only way I can feel the poem—be literally moved by it, be made into its speaker. So thank you–my poems and I are indebted to your careful read, and I’m happy that you took the time to speak them.

I don’t think how the poem sounds is more important than what it says, but the sound of it is often how it comes into the world and is thus its foundation, its origin. I frequently get at poems in the beginning with only their sound—poems are songs and songs are dances, after all, so I start with the hook. As my work has developed, I think I’ve gotten better at moving the body via the ear, but I also think doing so has gotten more difficult. I used to fall into sound—now I work at it.

I’m not sure that I agree with the distinction between sound and sense that’s been made in the current discourse—sense is made from sound if the body is willing, sometimes even when it’s not. Sound and sense are an inseparable pair. That being said, some of my current favorite geniuses use sound to great effect but aren’t always concerned with being transparent or available in meaning: Rae Armantrout, francine j. harris, Susan Howe, Xandria Phillips, Shane McCrae, so many others. But I think poetry loses its reader when sense is thrown aside for sound, and vice versa. Both are vital organs.

Again touching on your Entropy interview, in it you state: “But I don’t feel the same about any of these poems [in Unmark] as I once did. It’s so odd the way poems age. I love them all so passionately at the outset, then we are companions, and finally we merely share a room.”

Indirectly this sentiment reminded me of the now largely-forgotten poet Emanuel Carnevali’s poem “Dead Books and Their Authors” wherein Carnevali writes:

All these authors are dead:

Death arises out of their books

Like a weary old woman

that goes to work in the morning…

Oh that words should become microbes—

Words that were flowers before.

As you’ve become adept at writing publishable poetry, poetry that does the thing and things you want, I’m wondering if you can identify what, if anything, has been lost. In your opinion does proficiency, even excellence, always come with some familiarity-based downside(s)?  

Yes. That’s the short answer. But also I think it comes with the knowledge that you can do better, and that’s what makes the familiar work seem tedious. I get bored with myself, and that boredom leads to improvement. If I wrote a poem and then thought it was great forever, I would never need to write another poem. I start to distrust poems after a bit. I know they aren’t as good as they could be.

At the beginning of my publishing career, especially right out of grad school, I was writing very adept, clean, almost unobservable imitations. The poems were mine, I thought of them and made them, but I was writing with someone else’s voice. I had been trained to do so. Many of my (excellent!) professors taught me to write like other people—and it was invaluable experience, but it meant that I didn’t know who I was. I had to shake that. So a lot of the changes in my work over time have been as a result of trying to undo my education in some ways and re-learn my own writing style. I think I’m finally writing with my real voice, and that’s exciting for me, because people seem to be responding to it, it seems to have some valuable resonance.

What’s your favorite season? Least favorite? And do you find yourself writing more in certain seasons as compared to others? Does weather impact how often or when you write?

I love fall so much. I do most of my writing in fall and winter—it feels like the busier I am with life the easier it is for me to write, and those are usually the busiest seasons. But I live in Seattle, and the weather is boring here. The stories are true—it rains a lot. I used to write more and with more ease when I lived in the Midwest, where weather was exciting. I love thunderstorms. Tornadoes. Straight-line winds that move the whole house along, extremes of temperature, snow three feet deep, rain so sudden and heavy that it overflows drains and rivers. Seattle has none of that. We have moderation. Gloomy calmness. That’s not the best environment in which to write, but I’m here and I’m learning to make the best of it again. I do dream of the desert often, though. I’m not really made for winter.

You mention graduate school, and I’m writing from Iowa City right now, where I’m attending the Mission Creek Festival. Finding your “real voice” only after you moved on from your MFA program here, I wonder if you could speak more to the nature of reading vs. writing, learning vs. being taught to learn. I’ve interviewed a few people who went to the Writers’ Workshop and not a single one has had a bad thing to say about it; I’m certainly not fishing for you to be the first. That said, can you possibly elaborate on these following postulations a bit: “The poems were mine, I thought of them and made them, but I was writing with someone else’s voice. I had been trained to do so. Many of my (excellent!) professors taught me to write like other people—and it was invaluable experience, but it meant that I didn’t know who I was.” Further, do you think your “nature vs. nurture” circumstances are common or uncommon with regards to MFA students?    

I’m jealous that you’re in Iowa City—that’s one of my favorite places (though I certainly don’t miss Mission Creek craziness). I’ll be there to read at Prairie Lights in early May—I can’t wait.

I’ll try to crack open your question into a few different pieces so I can answer it clearly. First, to respond to your question about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—the Workshop is many things to many people. It doesn’t surprise me that no one has anything bad to say about it in an interview—I don’t either, because I owe it (and the incredible people I met there) for my career and for my continued belief in poetry as a pursuit, as a life. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I wouldn’t say anything bad about the Workshop, but I will say some things that are realistic.

When I started at the Workshop I was nineteen. I had just finished my undergraduate thesis and I thought I was hot shit. One of the things I got from the Workshop was the realization that I was A) not hot shit, and B) there were a lot of writers who were much better than I was. That is an absolutely invaluable realization. Another thing I got was a place where I could fall apart and put myself back together again. The Workshop is a place of high emotions (at least in poetry, I can’t speak for those sober and solid fiction writers). We were all falling apart all the time, and I assume that the exact same thing is still going on there now. It’s a place that allows for extreme vulnerability. This is also very valuable.

But being in that state of vulnerability while you’re learning to write means that some of the practical considerations aren’t there. I didn’t think about the long-term repercussions of internalizing the work I loved and reproducing its spirit. I didn’t consider my voice, even as I was being pressed to discover it, because I was very sure that the way to greatness was just to become the next Louise Glück, or whoever. My professors, most of them actual geniuses, were kind and welcoming and sometimes exactly the right amount of harsh. They could help with the poems, but the poetry was up to us, if you know what I mean.

I can’t speak for other writing programs and the experiences of students within them—because the Workshop really is different from all the other programs and prides itself on being so. I do think that the problem of nature vs. nurture—when a writer is identifying their voice—is easier to solve when the pool of “nurture” is larger. What I mean in that more representation is needed. I read a lot of great poets while I was in school—and engaged with their work at both undergrad and grad levels—but the truth is that most of the writers I was asked to read and respond to and work from were dead, straight, cisgender, white, male, from middle-class European or American upbringings. These were the poets who had endured (obviously, not for lack of other people having been poets). If you don’t want all your students to sound the same—don’t show them by example that sameness is the way to survival. So when I say it took me a while to find who I was as poet, I mean that I needed that time to read more and hear more voices. I think more and more programs and professors are aware of this issue—I could feel it starting to shift when I was in school and I think today’s students are encountering a far broader spectrum of “good poetry.” I’m so glad to be a part of the conversation at a time when our community’s understanding of who makes lasting work is shifting. But we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves—we still have a lot of distance to travel.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is the title poem; it occurs midway through the volume’s third section and clocks in at seven taut lines:

UNMARK

The serpent. There is, distilled

in the dirt-trap, cranberry

scale, slick separated crust.

Repent, sweet participle.

The snake approaches sharp-lipped,

slip the mock on, the hornet

pent in it. Protein the shot. 

 

I love it, don’t get me wrong, but I’m curious what “Unmark” offered you in terms of a collection title, one that encapsulates the volume as a whole. And some of the other titles and sequences in the book are worth noting also— “Frost Fair,” “Feast Day Fair,” “Axiom of Distance,” Axiom of Government,” “Hiding the Unacceptable Materiality of Construction,” and the (unassailable) opening poem to the volume “The Bay of Butter.” Is the title of a poem as important (or near as important) to you as the poem’s actual contents? What are your feelings on titles generally and especially vis-à-vis the work in Unmark

There are a lot of reasons I liked that title for the collection—and most of them were gut-level. But let me try to clarify my choice. At its most basic, “unmark” is a part of word—not really a word itself. But like all language in partiality, you know what it means, and people are using it. A Twitter search will turn up hundreds of results of people reporting “unmark cars.” People on software forums ask expert users how to “unmark a file.” To unmark is to un-stain, to un-see, to undo damage, to undo recognition. You know what it means, even though you don’t have a sharp definition. The sense is there. That poem is the same way, and to be honest, the project of the book—such as it has one—is to investigate this partiality. You can use the word, the poem, the book—even though it appears to be flawed and incomplete. To me, this is language, too.

In particular, I chose that poem as the title poem because it was one I believed in, and one that to me held all the pieces of the book together. It’s sexy, filthy, viscous, vicious. It’s religious. It’s archaic. It engages with the ideas that I wanted to work on in the book—repentance, salvation, partiality and partialness, the syllabic and the rhythmic, the sentence that means but doesn’t say. The slipperiness of language, thought, hunger. So that was a natural choice for me.

As far as the other poems you brought up—it’s odd, when I read poems at events I often feel like the titles are somehow burdensome or obnoxious. As if they’re interrupting the flow that the poems fall into. But in a printed form I do think they are vital. Sometimes I worry that titles limit a poem in an unhelpful or unfortunate way—but that limiting also feels necessary.

I’ve asked this question to quite a few other poets before, but I’m always curious: do you have—or would you care to identify– favorite words you return to again and again in your work? Words that you like, for whatever reason. I asked Eileen Myles before and they hate and won’t use the word “shard”—too stereotypically poetic—and like and often employ “you” and “dog.” Michael Earl Craig stated that he’s not fond of “snack” or “moist” but goes wild with “little,” “tiny,” “violently,” “briskly” and “slowly.” And the poet/photographer Andrew Seguin, who I previously interviewed here on the KR blog, can’t work with “festoon” and “destiny,” but is partial to “dark, light, night, sun, shadow, wind, world.” Are there words, then, that you yourself come back to again and again? Any words that you revile and won’t deign to write or type down?

Oh dear, yes. Good question. I hate and won’t use “joy,” “heart,” “poem,” “rainbow,” and other words of that vein. I’m also very annoyed by conceptually and sonically goofy words like “silly,” “noodle,” or “burp.”

But now and again I do challenge myself to use one of my blacklisted words in a productive way. I recently tried to write a couple of poems that smacked up against the word “heart.” I think I was largely successful—and the poems are maybe better because you can feel my discomfort. In Unmark I intentionally forced the use of “über” even though I hate that word (both for its rhyme with “goober” and its recent theft by a certain ride-share service).

As far as words I like: I love color and texture words—so “gray,” “blue,” “white,” “pitted,” “greasy,” etc. I also particularly like “eye,” “hand,” “smoke,” “cream,” “ice,” “heavy,” and a lot of others. I try to start with sensation. Right now I’m working on a series of poems that uses the word “ruby”—those poems are getting harder and harder but it’s instructive to work with the repetition.

Finally, being that Unmark is your first collection I wanted to ask about promotion, self-promotion, and the ways a poet can get their work into the world. Although nationally well-known and respected, Burnside Review is a small press, one whose editors and publishers have day jobs and small children and a variety of other lives outside of the life of the press. (Full disclosure—my book THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST was also published by Burnside Review Press in 2014.) All of which is to say that, like many small presses, the job of promotion is ultimately up to the writer; the BR editors do what they can, to be sure, but they also rely on the author’s own initiative. I’m interested then in how you’ve been able to navigate these promotional waters and what some of the strategies have been for you to get Unmark in the world. Are there ways of spreading the word/getting your book read and reviewed that you think definitely do work? Ways that in your opinion definitely don’t work? From social media to doing readings to perhaps other means and methods, how has it been finding an audience for Unmark? Since the book’s publication is there anything you might do differently or more of? Less of? 

It’s been a learning experience for me. I had a really great time working with the Burnside Review staff. They’re a joy to work with and they build beautiful books. So I feel like I had an advantage because the book was solid before I had to start worrying about how to sell it.

I didn’t know much about book promotion at all when I first started this process, and so before the book came out I emailed pretty much everyone I knew who’d published a collection recently and asked them for advice. People were so kind and helpful. The most helpful suggestions were: don’t say no to events if possible, ask people for help, try to read as many places as you can, use social media shamelessly, and give your book to people who might be able to share it with others.

I’ve been doing all those things, and the main thing I’ve learned is that it’s really hard to sell a book. Particularly a book of poetry, particularly a first book of poetry, particularly if you’re working full time, particularly if you’re a little bit shy and introverted and didn’t work hard to build an audience first, particularly if you don’t have the funds to travel everywhere to read from that book of poetry.

But I’ve also learned that people can be wonderfully generous, that there’s a huge community of writers and readers out there waiting to hear what you have to say, and that it’s all completely worth it. If your work is valuable to even one person, it’s worth it. I am so thankful to have had the small success that I’ve had so far, and I feel like I’m much better prepared for getting the next book into the world.