A conversation with poet and mom Montana Ray about sexism in the poetry scene

New Inquiry editor Tiana Reid recently held a conversation with poet Montana Ray over mezcal. Montana is a scholar, poet, and translator, and the author of (guns & butter), which was published by Argos Books in 2015. She’s also a mom.

This conversation began as a “fake” interview about being a mom-poet. But the more we faked it, the more we became real.

What follows is a mix of fact and fiction.

TIANA REID. Last month, I was at a conference that was also a dinner party. It took me a while to realize this is how most conferences go. There was a man of renown there, I mean, he is renowned for being a poet, not for being a man. But I prefer to remember him as a man. He started spouting something pseudo-Afrocentric about how a call for “balance” in gender relations is not sexist—women do one thing, men do another, etc. Different but equal, maybe? It sounded sexy enough but then all the women were the ones to wash the dishes. Tiger Williamson, do you know him? Does sexism in the poetry scene feel like a boring topic?
MONTANA RAY. No, I don't know Tiger. But I wish his renown stemmed from his towing the line of piggery that produces good writing in his mentees as opposed to claustrophobia. It’s the kind of wish I make aloud nine times a day to comfort my child: I wish we had the raw cheddar cheese you like or I wish time were construed differently and we weren't twenty minutes late; but as it is could you please get your root chakra on the bike seat?

Or, if I am honest, my real wish: if I could just act more professional, he'd behave himself (not my child but the poet.)

Tell me more about the dinner party. Did you feel complicit? How did you feel constrained in or by the moment?
TIANA REID. The dinner party lasted two weeks. It was like camp. I stopped going to bed early, and went to sleep about the time that I would wake up on my precocious days in New York, i.e. 4 a.m., when Toni Morrison wakes up. I became less professional, which I thought was connected to the poetry scene itself, the way it thinks itself (at least in New York) a little bit “left.” In this sense, the Poetry Scene both has no sense of and no inhibitions around its own misogyny. So when you say “if I could just act more professional, he’d behave himself,” I feel you. I’m interested in a different kind of order where the professional melts into air, but why must I be the one to call things into that order? In that sense, I feel complicit, wanting to act for something or act out and then being constrained by some momentous feeling I have no name for. Is this just true of the poetry scene, though? What about academia?
MONTANA RAY. I've cried semi-publicly in grad school twice and neither time was related to a man touching my knee or talking with me too intimately in front of colleagues, although that sometimes happens to me and, depending on the someone, I know what you mean by sexism being sexy. Although I should say I was once very worried doing research at a famous contemporary art museum's library when a male librarian gave me a book cart of love poetry instead of my reserved materials, so I do think this, your momentous feeling, crosses genres and disciplines; But the times I cried, losing my composure, adulthood, and professionalism in academia were all related to being a mom-poet.

Remember that horrific panel on work/life balance we were required to attend? A literal dad, a single mom, and an older grad student couple with children all had the audacity to tell us to wait until after our orals to have children! Five years too late in my case. So I cried about that.  

If there isn’t such a being as a mom-poet, there is such a thing as the mom-poet network; the first person I wrote to about that panel was Cate Marvin. And we have supporters outside of the club, too. Rachel Levitsky was like, “You could sue 'em.”
TIANA REID. I’m assuming you didn’t. Tell me more about the trope of mom-poet-dom. What is it? Where did you first hear the term? Did you always see it as something you saw in yourself?  
MONTANA RAY. Tiana, now I am kind of thinking I should be a dad-poet for this interview, that non-entity? I mean I've been mom-poet from 13 when I bled and dreamed the same night I was the Virgin Mary and woke up thinking I need to make up a story to explain my pregnant state to my family in Indiana...

As a straight cis-male poet, I've gotten some pushback within my community for calling myself a queer poet. My wife and I have an open relationship, which allows me to date graduate students who at readings gently poke my belly and call me "this guy" when people ask them who they're working with and, when my partner's in Albania, we have a tacit understanding re: any given visiting artist who happens to be passing through our spare room, though I endure for years after my partner’s quips re: said artist's charming accent and their mediocre performance art projects. Does this make me queer?

In fact, to confront this dilemma head on, I began my current project video interviewing friends about the ways in which they identify as normative and the ways in which they identify as radical. Sometimes little Zaza wanders into the frame, sometimes he bangs on furniture rhythmically with a spoon, and it's an ongoing debate between my partner and I about editing him out. But beyond documenting my parenting, you might ask how this project is helpful for inquiring into how I myself am a radical? I can tell you it's been very validating. My working title is: “Deal with the fact I'm flawed and join the human race, already!”

Jk, I care. I simply mean to point out it's an obsession I share with many of my contemporaries. Take Maggie Nelson, in that book everybody loves, she seems to constantly take stock of how she is radical and how she is normative. She lands, I think, on defiance, necessarily, to get down to the business of living—and I'm with it, awomen. But I do think there are dads who care, who add the appropriate books to the syllabus or show up re: picking up a latte for their partner on the way home from campus.

TIANA REID. I’ve read Nelson’s Argonauts several times, and in different contexts. I was down with much of it, especially its form, but there was an insistent and insistently denied preoccupation with what it means to be radical. I can’t say I think about any brand of radicality all that much.

Equality, equity, and reciprocity are three concepts—perhaps liberal ones—that come to mind with what you just said. What’s the role of labor and social reproduction in the role of mom vs. dad? Does that make a difference for what or who gets stamped as radical?
MONTANA RAY. For some people just breathing seems radical, although I'm not sure even a rad dad poet is allowed to admit that. As a feminist dad, I was annoyed, on behalf of women, with what Gloria Steinem said about Michelle Obama: that she's a feminist because she holds her man accountable to his share of the parenting duties. Maybe I am wrong to imagine that this kind of work is performed through one's wiles, wiles I don't have as a dad—I have feelings—but either way it seems tremendously difficult to make anyone do anything they don't want to do…I think Obama is a feminist irrespective of her partner. Sure the self is social, but if we ever have a daughter, I won't teach her that.
And I know what you mean about a brand: Isn't it odd that, in that book, Nelson's predominantly if not entirely white world doesn't enter into her assessment of the ways in which she's normative? This is a two-part question. One: how does one live in such a white world? And two: how can someone obsessed with radicality not consider that unusual? Formally, her text is radical: non-normative citations are radical. But I'm distrustful of any disjunction between content and form, like when the heart and the mind aren't speaking.

TIANA REID. There is something in what you're saying that reminds me of the gap between the fight for radicality as image and the freedom struggle behind it, the fight for the substance of it. At what point does that vision of radicality (often improperly associated with the already-impossible-to-define sphere of the avant-garde or the experimental) ignore well-worn sagas of violence? Some male-poets talk a lot about feeling good—and I like to feel good, too—but when feeling good has no understanding of the twin aspects of desire and violence, everyone will be fucking miserable.
MONTANA RAY. I’m sorry to disrupt the protocol, but I wonder how violence and desire are twins or twin aspects for you?
TIANA REID. I mean that I understand sex and violence to be mutually constitutive. Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman have talked about how the unbearable encounters that sex produces always come with a level of violence, and it takes something to acknowledge that, but sometimes the smart poets who say they acknowledge that coupling actually reproduce that sexual violence, kind of like what Laurence Rickels called “violence control” with regards to cute culture. How can we recognize the violence that is all around us without saying we have nothing to do with it? Without disavowing it? Saying that you’re a man and a feminist doesn’t mean shit to me in terms of how I experience everyday life, in fact it might make it more difficult to confront the paradoxes at play.
MONTANA RAY. Okay, okay. As a man and a feminist, can I contend that Nelson's book does seem radical in its pro-sobriety stance? I'm not breaking my dad-poet voice when I tell you I was breastfeeding in grad school, and as such my poetry was much better than my peers' poetry only because I wasn't drinking as much as they were. I think now, as a sanctioned career poet, my writing has gone somewhat downhill, but I wouldn't give up on alcohol. I think liquor is compatible with parenthood re: the long haul. Also, frankly, in the short haul. In this interview, I find myself returning to when I was pregnant, channeling Audre Lorde in Ethiopia and writing my first poems; strangers in Addis Ababa offered me glasses of wine as I entered their establishments, to celebrate my belly. We might define temperance, alternatively, as following one’s bliss?

TIANA REID. You mentioned before your mom poet crew backing you up for the feelings which have no room in progressive spaces. That is sometimes the most dangerous: the misogyny that thinks itself as anti-misogynist. There is a Cate Marvin poem I like, “A Brief Attachment,” that goes:

Your 40 ounces of malt liquor, your
shrink hate, your eyes dialing 911. The hearts
you draw with ballpoint on my cigarette packs
when I've left the room, penned in your girl's
cursive, look demented, misshapen approximations
of what I refuse to hand over.

In a romantic way, I find malt liquor reminiscent of where I grew up in Toronto. What that has to do with motherhood, I don't know, but perhaps that's the point. The “delusions of whiteness in the avant garde” as Cathy Park Hong put it with regards to race suggest some continuity between the later play of light between “dark park” and “white neck” in Marvin’s poem. Maybe this is a good time to ask about your father? 

MONTANA RAY. Well, yes, all of this is complicated by the fact that my dad is a famous poet and a famous alcoholic. Personally, I think there are two kinds of dad-poets: ones who aren't your Dad and ones who are. The ones who are I think are motherfuckers. In the sense, primarily, that they have fucked your mother or simulated such fuckery. Apropos of which, I've been reading Sun Ra, he said we really should be more respectful of our elders, even if they were born one minute before us.
TIANA REID. I want to ask you about performance: that majestic shift from mom-poet to dad-poet that is possible in poetry and performance, even as a way to point out the impossibility of that transgression. How does the mom-poet (assuming she will speak) think about her relation to performance? What does the poet's voice sound and look like?
MONTANA RAY. Looks like Jocasta, Medea, tastes like Wine and Mezcal. Like mothers who died. Mine. Sylvia Plath. I brought up Sylvia Plath in therapy the other day, and my therapist was like, are you OK? If you bring up Sylvia Plath, one has to ask. I responded that I believe her suicide to be both a natural response to circumstances (racist patriarchy) and, also, that I think a certain capacity to deal is revolutionary. This invocation is cruel and unfair and seems to suggest that by resistance one is either reduced to a bloody pulp or, alive, both perpetrator and victim. I don't know if that's true, but that's the mom-poet voice I try to engage in my writing.  

Your manner of questioning (assuming she will speak!) reminds me of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
TIANA REID. I am her daughter...I mean, student. 
MONTANA RAY. Do you remember Spivak's caution to white, feminist translators in the '90s to study the literary terrain of an original text, otherwise how to know, she writes, if you're performing resistance or conformism, both valueless terms lacking context. I think it’s important to recognize that our quotidian context is a racist patriarchy.  
I was on the train in Manhattan this weekend, and I was watching this family from Nevada, I know because I asked that dreaded question (to the woman): where are you from? Because it was obvious they were tourists, attending Broadway shows, eating at Junior's, but also because they were so rigidly performing this foreign but recognizable normalcy. The woman holding the hand of a mostly silent and occasionally all-knowing father in his plaid and khakis, his white-lipped tightness. I found him terrifying in his unchecked opinions re: Broadway shows, Junior's, etc.
TIANA REID. Is resistance something performed?
MONTANA RAY. Resistance to me seems more interesting in that it invites state violence by opposing a unilateral performance of knowledge. But do I think of the normative as something performed and the resistant as a reaching after something more true or real, beyond performance? No, I think resistance is performed.
TIANA REID. How does vision loop back to daily practice?
MONTANA RAY. I do personally believe the senses are like muscles, what we see and hear and feel engenders us to feel and hear and see. But that flattening of the person into a poster, Cara de Cavalo's body leveraged by Hélio Oiticica, Che Guevara on T-shirts. Mactivists, trustafarians, the language expands like water to fill its container, a portmanteau, too, I'm my own best frenemy: a mompoet. Marta Minujín said it was relaxing to be an archetype, the archetype of the Argentine Pop artist; but when it comes to the mom-poet, I feel there's so much to wrestle with re: denigration and salutation, I find it hard to flatten that into a persona, personally. Which is my great failure as an artist. Also, I should add, Minujín is a mom! Many people who are moms refuse to be mom-poets.