The on-line book review site Slow Reads this month features an interview with Tom Montag, familiar to readers of the comments here as well as to fans of his wonderful blog The Middlewesterner. The interview complements a review of one of Tom’s poetry books, The Big Book of Ben Zen, but you don’t have to have read the book to enjoy the interview.
There was a time, back in my early 20s, when I used to read Paris Review interviews with something approaching obsession. However, I can’t remember any of those famous poets ever capturing the essence of the poet’s vocation as well as Tom does here.
Unfortunately, being a poet, I think of everything as possible “material” for a poem or essay. It means sometimes, maybe, that I appropriate chunks of life that are not entirely mine to do with as I choose – they belong to someone else, too, wife or daughter or a woman who doesn’t want her family’s story told in public or a girl in a far village on Reindeer Lake who believes that a writer should talk to people in town if he is going to write about the town. It means I always have a notebook in my pocket. It means I am never un-self-conscious, for I am always reflecting on my experience. I evaluate it even as I’m living it. This is a curse. It means I am continually sorting and weighing, tossing and saving.
Being a poet means I am never satisfied. Excellence is almost enough, which means I am often disappointed and essentially sad.
Being a poet means I am often alone even in a roomful of people. It means I don’t want to be like other people, and couldn’t be if I wanted to.
Being a poet means that no piece of work is ever finished, that I set a poem or essay aside so I can go onto other things, but it’s not “done,” it’s only as good as it’s going to get in the time available. It means that all my works are only one work, a single piece of cloth I’m weaving, whatever the title of the book, whether it is a poem or an essay.
Being a poet means I wake up at 4:10 a.m. with my mind working already, and I have to get up and get going to keep up.
Being a poet means sometimes I am observing when I should be acting, that I am writing it when I should be living it. It means I cannot be as direct and simple as the farmer and the monk, that I cannot plug straight into the universe, that I have to process everything.
And, yes, sometimes being a poet means I’m tough to live with, though that’s a question you should take up with my patient wife if you’ve got time for the long answer on just how tough it is. She’s a wonderful woman, to put up with me these many years. She is the blessing I’ve been given, my solace in this world.
(Forgive me, Peter, for the extended quote!)