GRIEVANCES: A PREVIEW
Video by Emily Raw
Roberto Montes is a poet of many things. The experience of reading his work in Grievances is singular—the lines let white space in like a panicked gulp of air, but the text itself is a sober ballast against that anxiety. Acute in its telling, Roberto is in thrall to nobody as he enlists his political doctrine through personal grievances. One hears in that last sentence, The personal is political, but it is more that language is a violence that should, to borrow from Hannah Arendt, reveal rather than conceal its larger function. And Grievances certainly reveals. From the eponymous poem that starts off the entire chapbook, where Roberto very memorably first utters, “My name is Roberto Montes / I am BACK” to the final poem “Against Eternity,” which closes the chapbook with a fantastic counterweight to the opener, “We do as the gods will not / We die,” the poems push against the invisible frameworks that command and compromise self. Roberto avows himself of a voice fit to dismantle power structures as it is also fit to protect those for whom Poetry does not historically served. There is also a bonus piece after “Against Eternity,” an Acknowledgments page like you’ve never seen before, which acts as a kind of po’biz soliloquy. Designed to read apart from the book, the acknowledgments performs more like the original etymology of acknowledgment: a token of due recognition. In this case, it is a token of due witness, and this level of witness and recognition (for better or for worse) permeates the collection. Roberto is a very capable poet and his form is full of brilliant intention and cognition. Grievances is an important chapbook, not just in how it sees the Poetry Community, but in how it also addresses mental health, family, and the institutions that have only recently been articulated. Roberto is like no other poetic mind out there—exasperation and the ineffable clash and merge in equal, poignant measure. Above, you’ll find a small chapbook trailer conceived of and created by Emily Raw, with Roberto Montes on audio, reading from “Shame Is Revolutionary Feeling.” Below you’ll find a poem from his chapbook, “CAN YOU GIVE EVEN ONE EXAMPLE” (originally published in Sixth Finch), as well as a great interview with Roberto, conducted by Natalie Eilbert, publisher and founder of TAR, who may or may not be author of this very copy. Be sure to buy Grievances immediately.
CAN YOU GIVE EVEN ONE EXAMPLE
This morning on the train someone
Wanted to know my problem
I am a soft surrealist I said crying
The moment you realize it is not
Your reflection in the window
But a borough that could be walked to
Resettling the deserters of your body
Gerrymandering the lines of your face
So that a history becomes laughter
The way laughter becomes an excuse
To get closer to you
It’s too easy to be beautiful on this planet
And the struggle against
Is the most beautiful of all
So when the pointing gatekeepers
Left love completely
Unguarded I took it
I left them more
Than they leave themselves
—Originally published in Sixth Finch
AN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERTO MONTES
Natalie Eilbert: Grievances has such a distinct voice. Perhaps this is a bias assertion as the editor, but I am confident I could always identify your poems in a random pool by their shape, weight, and scope alone. I have seen how you’ve accrued lines using the format of Facebook comments—and while I don’t in any way want to suggest this process is akin to the kind of work for the Grievances poems, there are obvious parallels, especially in diligence and delivery. I bring up Facebook only because I think you are a poet concerned with audience and the poems perform simultaneously for and against such an idea. Was audience or a public eye on your mind when you wrote these poems?
Roberto Montes: The original “Grievances” (that is, the title poem) was created for a very specific audience. I was invited to a reading (which, in the end, never materialized) that I knew would be predominantly composed of the kind of audience ubiquitous in the NYC lit scene (straight, white, cis men). I was in a mood. I was angry at yet another story of a prominent poet taking advantage of someone. As these events often go, once one story breaks, there follows the community’s acknowledgment and reiteration of the signs they saw but did not act on. People heard stories…People knew something was up…People had been told to watch out…My problem was that it seemed to me the larger poetry and literature community had developed, completely independent of intention, a mechanism that shielded those who would use their power—their name, their influence, their connections—to take advantage of others. Lots of very intelligent people cultivating a purposeful ignorance. Those who value Name, Influence, and Connection support this structure. Individually, a person is willing to look the other way, or forget what they’ve learned, or purposefully not delve too deep if it stands to gain them something. The horror is this: it does gain them something.
I was very angry at these people I imagined would be at this particular reading gaining something while something else was lost. I was very angry and I wanted to take it from them. I began to write “Grievances,” specifically with this audience in mind, to antagonize them. I was hoping I could drain the value of what they’ve gained so that there was nothing left but the knowledge of what they’ve sacrificed to get “it.” I am a very sensitive and sometimes superlatively narcissistic person in this way. That specific reading was canceled, but eventually I was invited to another one. I read the poem and I remember how self-satisfied I felt reading it. That I had finally found a hostile audience.
They ended up liking it.
In a way, the rest of Grievances can be read as an attempt to understand and engage with their “liking” of it. And the shame and pride that brought me.
NE: Certain scared people (me) turn to your sense of the world to transcend its failings. Maybe it’s the braveness apparent in your line-work in Grievances (and beyond!), that to utter the thing is to already have killed it, or said another, better way by Celan, “In every word we speak we owe to its destruction.” I’m curious how you use fear and other terrified emotions in these poems.
RM: There are multiple fears present in the chapbook. One is the fear of death. One is the fear of wanting to die. One is the fear of being deranged by success. One is the fear of not being successful. The fear of hurting the wrong people. The fear that there are no “wrong” people. We (and when I say we I mean poets in general) often carry a complex set of these kinds of fears and revulsions. That is not to say we all share the same fears, but that working within the value system of poetry forces us towards a kind of shared prioritization of our fear.
I like that you suggest “to utter the thing is to already have killed it.” There’s definitely power in naming something or “hailing” someone in the Althusserian sense. Something that helped shape the chapbook was my fascination with what poets are taught (sometimes by institutions and sometimes self-taught) to include in their acknowledgments. We often acknowledge those who are close to us or our work; those who have provided us strength as poets or people. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this tradition; however, I’ve found (and I believe it’s something others share) that those people and institutions who have hurt me or my friends have had just as great an influence on my work as those who have helped. Maybe greater, in the case of Grievances. And there is something not insignificant about the way many poets are willing to express their grievances with ideologies that are, in many ways, abstracted from them while simultaneously participating in cultures or institutional relationships that cause harm even though the latter often has more actionable potential for redress.
Of this, we are all guilty. With those who believe they are not guilty as the guiltiest of all. And guilt is an especially persistent mode of fear that Grievances works with.
NE: Every poem in this chapbook is quite personal, but it is also scored by a pervading “they,” part of your signature observational commentary that rubs against the personal. “When I don’t understand / Something I say / It is a dialectic,” you write in “Shame Is Revolutionary Feeling,” and I believe you while also feeling that this book is one hundred percent a dialectic of the personal and this meta force. I think the “they” is very important, especially against the “Roberto Montes.” Can you talk more about this?
RM: I’ve thought a lot about representation, which could be described as an attempt to synthesize an Us with a Them (a true dialectic!). I don’t necessarily think it is an unreasonable heuristic; however, it comes at a serious cost that I believe is ignored. It calls for marginalized poets to catalog their marginalization for the study of non-marginalized people. There are shared and recognizable experiences between those of a community but the logic behind representation often precludes certain dimensions of our understanding, our reaction, to these experiences. Put simply: the kind of reactions or understanding of a queer person’s pain that gets published is often the kind of understanding most appreciated by non-queer people in the literary world. Marginalized poets are pressured through MFAs or Poetry Competitions to prepare their experiences as if it were a representative food of their culture: ready to be consumed by a central audience. This shouldn’t be that surprising in the United States. I have spoken to more than one person whose idea of engaging with a culture was quite literally only about eating a representative dish. However, there are many things that Americans do not like. Certain combinations of flavors. Certain textures. The result is an Americanization of “ethnic” food that is nonetheless marketed as authentic. The publishing world similarly corrals experience into one that is easily digestible by the centered public under a guise of authenticity. This is something Grievances plays with. The push and pull between the “I” and the “They” each re-contextualizing each other.
By the way, that quote about the dialectic is something I once heard attributed to Marx in a letter to Engels but I could not find verification of that (so I just made the speaker of the poem say it).
NE: This is possibly a counter question to the above, but since the Oscars is fresh in my mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about who we make art for. I am especially thinking of Moonlight playwright/writer Tarell Alvin McCraney who, in his speech for Best Adapted Screenplay, said, “This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves, we’re trying to show you you, and us.” Who is Grievances for?
RM: Grievances is for those who believe that poetry, like marginalized communities, can exist far from the center and still flourish.
NE: In your mind, who is doing good work? Who currently moves you?
RM: Carrie Lorig, Wendy Xu, Ana Božičević, Jenny Zhang, Nikki Wallschlaeger, and Morgan Parker destroy and rebuild poetry with each new work.