Tom Montag on being a poet

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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!)

Back of beyond

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Adirondack is a modern coinage, applied by a state geologist in 1836 to a previously unnamed blank space on the map. But Ebenezer Emmons didn’t make it up out of whole cloth: it is a word of Iroquioan ancestry, meaning something like half-breed or resident alien. As the poet Roger Mitchell puts it, Adirondacks resembles the “Mohawk for Frenchman, Huron for Rock Clan, Iroquois for French Indian, Mohawk for Huron, all of them speakers of slightly different languages.”

Our five-day sojourn last week had an odd symmetry to it. Both coming and going we had to pilot the small Honda through torrential rains in northern Pennsylvania that at times obscured the view and required intense focus on the road ahead. On the way back, in particular, flash flooding slowed our progress to a crawl as we forded streams and rocky outwash deltas covering one or both lanes of U.S. Route 220. Finally, we were forced to abandon the highway altogether and take an alternate route because of a stream that would’ve swamped the car had we attempted to push our way through.

As a consequence, in my mind’s eye I am unable to stitch together the landscape of central Pennsylvania, where I live, and the Adirondacks, some nine hours away. It’s like trying to watch a movie with one missing reel of film.

I’ve always had a hard time adjusting to the physical and cultural geography of upstate New York as it is. Although the northeast and northwest quadrants of Pennsylvania were glaciated, the northern border roughly approximates the southern limit of the Wisconsin ice sheet. The spectacular gorges and waterfalls of the Finger Lakes region are almost without parallel in Pennsylvania, to say nothing of the granitic peaks of the Adirondacks, which predate and stand apart from the Appalachians altogether. They are mountains of the classic type, in stark contrast to the nearly endless, low ridges of the folded Appalachians that I call home. And whereas in the Adirondacks one has to climb many thousands of feet to see bare rock and twisted trees, here one can find open boulder fields and wind- and ice-shaped vegetation at the crest of nearly every ridge, no matter how puny.

Pennsylvanians tend to think of the northern portion of our state as the far north, home of the severest weather. In fact, on portions of the High Allegheny Plateau, the weather is more severe than one would encounter in much of upstate New York, outside Buffalo and the Adirondacks. At any rate, I was amused to discover that our Northern Tier Counties border what New Yorkers evidently call their Southern Tier Counties!

The socio-cultural landscape of upstate New York can also take a bit of getting used to. As many times as I have visited it, I still have a hard time with the idea that some place so close to home could be so different – in accent, in politics, even in architecture. New England-style connected houses alternate with flat-roofed Italianate dwellings; yellow is a popular color for both. Very few of the barns have forebays and earthen banks leading to a second-storey threshing floor – the classic Pennsylvania barn look. Cupolas are less common on barns and more common on houses. Farms appear, in general, a lot poorer, and the countryside shows much less evidence of suburban and exurban sprawl than most parts of Pennsylvania, where greater political fragmentation, proximity to major population centers and an aversion to zoning have enabled building booms even in counties with stagnant or declining population growth rates.

The huge Adirondack State Park and Forest Preserve, with its “forever wild” status written into the state constitution, is without parallel in the East. Restrictions on construction and various other activities extend to private lands within the designated boundaries of the region. Thus, one encounters the very un-American prospect of a heavily touristed landscape where commercial sprawl and ticky-tacky are kept to a bare minimum. If there’s an equivalent to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I haven’t seen it.

All of this is a long way around saying that, for me, the Adirondacks remain exotic and disconnected from everything I know or have grown to expect from the familiar East. Like one of those vast mirages glimpsed by polar explorers, they hang suspended in the air, defying the ordinary warp of my mental horizon. I am already planning my next visit.

Climbing Algonquin Peak

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This is Via Negativa’s 400th post. I think I’ll also make it my submission for Ecotone Wiki’s bi-weekly topic, Weather and Place. I feel very fortunate that the day we picked (last Thursday) to climb Algonquin – the 2nd-highest peak in the Adirondacks – featured a mix of sun and low-hanging clouds. Views are best when not everything is revealed at once.

The approach passes through alder swamp, sugar bush, hemlock stand. Here and there the rotting hulks of beeches, killed by the blight. A couple of rumbles usher in a brief rain shower. Afterwards, the scent of balsam seems even stronger than before. Sometimes you see it first, sometimes you just smell it.


From the base of the mountain all the way to the timberline, the one constant theme is paper birch. All else seems mere punctuation. Yet the guidebook claims this is a modern aberration, the legacy of fires that followed the clearcuts a hundred years ago. The short-lived birches rot as readily as they burn. Someday soon the conifers will reclaim all the upper slopes, and lightning won’t be able to take any more than it can touch.


The trail maintenance workers have placed stepping stones through a slough of mud. I hop along awkwardly in my heavy boots. My daypack flaps against my back, canteen flops against my belly. I wouldn’t remember any of this were it not for the soundtrack provided by a winter wren, its long and liquid air. I stop, taking in whole lungfuls at time.


Higher, climbing into the blossoming of plants in berry down below. Water trickles from the mountain’s every pore.


Generations of hikers’ boots have cut this mountain to the bone. We scramble up a bare granite trough through the ever-more-compressed forest of birch and balsam and spruce. The rocks are scored with shallow scratches, too brief and random for a glacier. Very large dogs with unclipped toenails, I wonder? Just then two hikers round the bend wielding alpine hiking poles – imagine ski poles without the horizontal projections for grabbing the surface of the snow. I envy their superior footing, even as I wince at the metallic racket. On either side of the trail the moss and humus lie thick as a mattress under the tangle of krummholz.


The trees start to shrink at a most convenient elevation. Every pause for breath takes my breath away. I peer out over the tortured crowns at the grand sweep of lakes and mountains stretching off into the haze. My hiking companion gathers spruce needles for our noontime tea. Clouds and the shadows of clouds. The shimmering lakes. The dark mountains.


What’s this, a black-capped chickadee singing in a foreign language? No, a separate species: the boreal chickadee. I had forgotten such a thing existed, if I had ever known. Strange to think they’ve been here all the time, with the equally unfamiliar Bicknell’s thrushes and pine martens. And how must we appear to them, popping up out of the elfin forest in our brightly-colored gear? Like chickadees everywhere they can’t resist coming in for a closer look.


For the last mile, a series of signs has warned sternly against the folly of proceeding any higher without the proper gear, and has exhorted us to protect the vegetation by staying on the trail. Now on the summit, we encounter an actual plant cop, on duty here all summer. “Hi, my name’s Kristen, and I’m the summit steward today!” I resist the urge to ask for fresh ground pepper in my soup. The truth is, I’m envious of her job.


When the clouds roll in, one thinks: this could be the coast of Labrador. Those waxy, pointy leaves wearing thick coats of down on the side away from the sun – that’s Labrador tea. Those yellow flowers like a child’s crayon sun: alpine goldenrod. We spot three-toed cinquefoil, mountain sandwort, various branched and crustose lichens. Something very small that darts behind a pebble. Two bold juncos.


We find a shelf of rock facing east where we can sit and watch the clouds swirl past, ogling the iconic, landslide-scarred face of Mt. Colden whenever they clear. The lunch is as luxurious as I can manage; my only regret is the absence of a white linen tablecloth. After tea – Earl Grey steeped with spruce – I sit with my back against the stone. My companion lies supine for a while, and finally says, I can feel the whole mountain underneath me.


I do not need to be alone in the wilderness, though I do share King Cormac’s view that one should speak quietly in it, if at all. I like watching the tiny figures of hikers moving around slowly on other, nearby summits, and imagining all the folks congregating on Mt. Marcy, still shrouded in clouds. And I’m impressed by how many people have carried stones to the summit. This smacks a bit of carrying coal to Newcastle, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s needed, but it is a neat way to get people involved in “healing the wounds.” The summit stewards are restoring the fragile vegetation one square foot at a time. Each rescued patch must be edged in stones to ward off careless boots. People who come here want to do right, most of them. The summit steward has a kind word for each hiker who eagerly tells her they’ve carried up a rock.


The way back down is slow, each step studied carefully in advance. The farther we descend, the more the massed mountain above us weighs down our feet and makes our legs tremble.


The return along the approach trail seems endless and unfamiliar. How could we have missed it on the way in, all this sameness?


After supper and a brief walk to the lake, I crawl into my tent and collapse. I lie sleepless on my back for hours, feeling the mountain in every bone and muscle. I don’t remember my dreams.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

from The Instructions of King Cormac (early 9th century)

‘O Cormac, grandson of Conn,’ said Carberry,
‘What were your habits when you were a lad?’
‘Not hard to tell,’ said Cormac.
‘I was a listener in woods,
I was a gazer at stars,
I was blind where secrets were concerned,
I was silent in a wilderness . . . ‘

translated by Kuno Meyer. Included in The Book of Irish Verse, edited by John Montague (Macmillan, 1974)


How it Starts
by Roger Mitchell

It starts with wanting to know something,
with wanting to stop being the baffled drifter,
with being the baffled drifter, of course,
in the first place, but then wanting to stop.

It’s not that I’m angry. It’s not that.
In fact, it’s a nice role, the baffled drifter.
There is so much to be baffled about,
if one chooses. And who wouldn’t, or doesn’t.

It starts with knowing enough already.
One can know enough already, and not
know it. One can go on knowing and know,
at the end of it, not how to chop wood.

Or to stand still. Sometimes I think
of standing still. For a year. Don’t worry,
it’s just a thought. But I think it anyway,
standing there thinking of standing there stone still.

from AdiRonDack (Bk Mk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 1988)


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I can’t seem to figure out what to do with my head. It is too small to carry the right sort of luggage and dangerously prone to spills and injuries. I was thinking I might rent it out for microidea transmission, but I’m not sure how well I’d like sitting on top of a metal tower during thunderstorms. Then there’s the whole issue of bird droppings. Perhaps I could put it in a breadbox to keep it fresh. But lately it has this alarming tendency to weep, which could promote spoilage.

It is a jealous head with only a vestigial sense of humor at best. But it has eyes only for me. I rap on it with the knuckles of my right hand, never my left. I take it on road trips as well as for short walks around the farm. It never went to obedience school, but in its middle age I find it has developed very regular habits. Loyalty is the only coin it trades in.

My head has led a tragic existence – kind of like the Ugly Duckling in reverse, I sometimes say. Imagine growing up expecting to turn into a swan, only to discover that – alas – you’re really just another puddle duck.

I do keep it fairly well groomed now. Just the other day, it occurred to me that some of the people I used to be friends with back when I let my head grow dreadlocks probably wouldn’t want to hang out with me now. Some people I hang out with now definitely wouldn’t want to be seen with me if my head still wore dreads. Then I started thinking: all my friends are really my head’s friends. Could that be where this loneliness comes from?

I never went to a shrink, because I figured s/he would try to convince me it’s all in my head. I refuse to stoop to that kind of sophistry: it’s not just wrong, it’s idolatrous. For the Freudians, especially, one wonders if a head can ever be anything more than a misdirected phallus, the body’s grotesque bolete.

Right now my head is tired and a little overwhelmed. I am feeding it a rare, late-morning beer as I write. It has been short on sleep in recent days and rather short-tempered as a result. I’m thinking that a little alcohol might short a few, over-sensitive circuits. And though my forehead remains an open book for those with the proper training, a slight flush always helps to hide the marks of abuse from that beast, my body.