Montana Ray is the author of (guns&butter), published this year by Argos Books. Intrigued by the poem she sent me for TheThe’s Infoxicated Corner (also appearing here today), I asked whether she’d be interested in doing a Q&A on the blog as well. Here’s the deeply enjoyable conversation that ensued:
Fox Frazier-Foley: Tell me a little bit more about the project of (guns & butter). Did you know from the start that you wanted to write a book of gun-shaped poems? How did that come together? What is your overall vision for the book? And, other than the beautiful sonic resonance between the two words — what’s butter got to do with it? (I mean, I guess butter has to do with everything for some of us. My family is mostly from the American South, and we cook with lots of butter, ha.)
Montana Ray: Thanks for your questions, Fox! I did not know I wanted to write a book of poems in any shape; I knew I wanted to work with ‘the breath.’ I took a workshop with Dara Wier in Western Mass, & someone brought in a bit of Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette, I like how ‘dissent’ is in there, too, sonically; and how quotes or speech marks, the punctuation Notley uses to create a unique breath in that book, create a collage of reports. And I asked, would it be redundant to write something in that style, using quotations to create the breath? Dara said, No way, and basically gave me the assignment to write a piece using quote marks as the principal punctuation. So, I thought, aha, and instead I used Dara’s parenthesis from Reverse Rapture.
Then the gun came together one day because of a series of appropriated texts & comments: a sitter’s text message saying, I’m going to be late a gunwar is on. A man in the street telling me, I could touch it. A boy who worked at the tattoo shop next door, and who I had a little feeling for, showing me his gun tattoo, and I was like, You like guns? And he said, I like Billy the Kid. So all of those textual and aural snipets became “lines” of the poem, but more like bullets, when I sewed them together into the shape of a gun.
I should also say that while I wasn’t searching for a shape, I wasn’t resistant to the idea of shape being something you could write a poem with. That was thanks to Mónica de la Torre, who introduced me to the Brazilian concrete poets and, by so doing, changed the way I think about language. Ask Mónica about concrete poetry or Joaquín Barriendos, and they will be able to tell you why my poems are not concrete, they are visual. But all poems are visual. And here’s what I took from the concrete poets, who also left us manifestos and essays on the global politics of language and on translation, things I’m interested in: these poems are mechanical. They appropriate the form of a machine to shoot back popular language.
I’m in the mountains right now at my sister’s place in Oaxaca, under like 15 wool blankets staring at these gorgeous mountains and being totally snobby and skeezed out by my sister’s living standards; you know sublime + expired Lala yogurt dumped into the garden and bed bugs meet tarantulas. And anyway last night my son, sister, and I were telling stories around her fireplace. And taking turns, and Ami was like I’m not really into telling stories, I more like to tell facts. So we pulled the story of Cupid and Psyche out of him, fact by fact. And I think that there’s a way that the poems in this book seek out language as fact. I’m interested in language as something concrete in the fact of its materiality.
“Guns & butter” is an economics term I learned in high school. But my family is, like your family, from the US South. And butter is a fact in my family narrative. There’s a lot more to say about the recipes, but I think it goes back to using language as fact to construct a narrative.
F3: I think a lot of writers and artists have certain preoccupations that they come back to again and again in their writing, directly or indirectly. I have a friend, for example, whom I used to tease about having a window show up somewhere in half his poems. I wonder if guns (or butter) are some kind of longer-standing preoccupation you have, as a person or writer? Is writing about guns (or, given their shape, just writing guns) a political choice for you?
MR: Yes, I think all the time about violence and about food.
F3: Do you have any writing rituals — places you like to go to write, things you like to do before getting into the focused-frenzied zone where writing comes from? Any music you like to listen to, meditations you do, things you try to eat or drink (or not eat or drink), etc.? This is something I’ve been thinking about, myself, lately. I used to go to Grand Central Station to write, back when I lived in New York, or write while on the train. There was an anonymous quality to the noise — a place you could experience a certain kind of immersion — that helped me get into the right part of my psyche. In Los Angeles, I now try to wake up really early or stay up really late — the noise is so different out here — so a certain kind of quiet happens that helps me. Since I’m becoming more aware of my rituals and their (d)evolutions lately, I’m interested in hearing what others use (or don’t use) to help them approach their work.
MR: Right now, I get it when I can! That doesn’t feel particularly comfortable, because when I was writing that book, I was writing all the time. Metabolizing my little joys and traumas so quickly, they didn’t accumulate because all went into my poems very therapeutically. I was also in an MFA program, and able to justify so many expenditures (mainly babysitters to write and not working to write) to myself and others, because I was a student at a great school. The struggle to write post-school is….. Hahaha and on that note my son is now awake and singing so if his Tía weren’t awake, too (and I hear her, she is) I’d need to go inside and stop writing this! Which is the kind of writing I’m getting this AM!! Gracias a Tía Amelie! You know Mónica and I were laughing about self-promotional writing and how if you do that during your peak hours and are really passionate about that kind of writing that makes you a special type of person, by which I was implying that I’m not that type of person… but really I’ll take almost anything where I get to play with language right now. So, thank you, to you too¡¡
F3: You’re surely most welcome! It sounds like you’re pretty busy, but are there any new projects you’re working on right now? What’s next on the horizon for you?
MR: I’m wrapping up an academic (ie meta) project “about” “the archive.” It’s a lot less annoying than that sounds! This winter, I archived my treasured documents, correspondence with my sisters and documents from my mom who passed away when I was five, etc., and then I burned this archive. This summer, I worked with the papermakers at Dieu Donné (http://www.dieudonne.org) to mix the archive’s ashes with cotton pulp to make new pages. Now, I’m working on getting those papers housed at an institution of cultural power, a university or museum library, and want to work with a library’s archivist to create a finding aid for what are now essentially blank pages. The idea is for the archive to be reconstituted, again, in the leap the researcher makes between the finding aid and the actual papers.
Also, I’d like to return to translating the non-fiction of Pedro Lemebel, and I think I can do that now without crying! Crying because this spring I broke up with my partner, who is Chilean and was my Spanish teacher, and basically I couldn’t read Spanish for a time, let alone Chilanese, without crying… making translation hard. Additionally, Pedro passed away early this year, the videos a friend sent me of the funeral party were incredible: a Latin American style second-line with people from all walks of life; he meant so much to that country by living freely and making art during an era of complete oppression. Loco Afán, the book I was translating is a series of chronicles about las locas, we might say transvestites or queens, but las locas, members of Lemebel’s community during Pinochet’s regime as well as the AIDs crisis. The book was published in the early ’90s, and the two crises are conflated: AIDs in that book becomes an over-arching metaphor for US neoimperialism, or vice versa. Working on the project helped me to grow as a translator especially via thinking through the intersection of translation, which occura across space & time, and queer culture: specifically, its (plural) nomenclatures. I really want to get back with that book. Not with the boyfriend but def with the book¡¡¡¡