I'm Not Interested in Mastery: An Interview with Lara Mimosa Montes

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

With her second book, the Bronx-born Lara Mimosa Montes reinvents, again, the book-length poem. THRESHOLES is mostly a cascade of distinct, one-line stanzas that navigate the present moment, the fallibility of narrative, the violence of living, and the mystery of the body and the Other. Occasionally, a line will break and Montes will offer a paragraph or two describing a work of visual art, or a facet of the Bronx’s history, or a meditation on her experience with bodywork.

I know that sounds like a lot for a 100-page book to tackle. It is.

But as I read (and even as I re-read) THRESHOLES, I began to understand that overwhelming the reader was essential, a necessary mind-state for engaging within the tangled space of the lyric. To be clear: the book evoked much else in me, such as delight over the concision and clarity, wonder over the intangible concepts she makes felt, fascination at the references and artworks detailed in her research, and constant surprise at the turns the lines take. But I felt all these things while also feeling overwhelmed. I was in good hands but also lost in them, slipping through, being caught again. It’s not a reading experience I often find, and it’s something I wanted to better understand, so I asked Lara to talk with me over email this summer to see if I could learn how a work this resistant to form and genre and (as you can by now tell) description is created.

TQ: In THRESHOLES, you write, “to force someone to speak in a manner that does not honor improvisation, or the unconscious, is to do violence to that person.” I hope that in interviewing you piecemeal over email, you feel comfortable to respond improvisationally, with intuition over analysis. Where did your interest in the unpredictable / formless / unknowable originate? 

LMM: Around four years ago, after I had graduated from a PhD program, I became frustrated by the grammars I had become fluent in; I think I am talking about English, but I am also talking about something else... a structure of feeling, or the manner in which a person understands their own subjectivity, and speaks of it to others. When I started to experience language and body anew, and hone my interest in formlessness, my sense of narrative also began to change. It is not always easy or convenient to welcome shifts in perception, or practice, especially if one’s source material is drawn from what is unconscious. I’m still interested in these shifts as the mode of address always changes.

TQ: Can you talk about any practices, processes, or even influences you moved toward when you began this shift in understanding narrative and exploring formlessness? I’m interested in the tangible (the ways in which you drafted new work), but also the abstract (the thoughts and feelings you had toward the work). 

LMM: I started doing more automatic writing, making room for what is unconscious. Early on in the drafting process, I was under the influence of Melissa’s Buzzeo’s work in this profound way, particularly The Devastation. I could never have written THRESHOLES had it not been for The Devastation. In some ways, I relied on Melissa’s writing to teach me about formlessness. I was very isolated when I was working on the book. I wasn’t teaching, and I didn’t have many routines. I felt purposeless apart from the task of being present enough to write. I needed help feeling my way forward. Does this sound vague? The work is always kind of abstract, as is the process. I often consulted with bodyworkers—they appear in the book. There were so many parts of myself that felt inaccessible to myself, and that inaccessibility was causing me problems (it still causes me problems). These problems show up in my writing life, but they are not entirely separate or unique from the problems I experience in other aspects of my life. In this way, THRESHOLES is a book about touch, and the experience of the Other’s presence.

TQ: How did you approach your research in this project? It seems as though you did a lot of literal research on the Bronx and its history of art, but there’s also copious references to other literature which seems to be its own deep research. How did you decide what belonged on the surface (on the page), and what belonged below (off the page)?

LMM I enjoy editing, whereas generating “raw” or new material is very difficult for me. I hesitate to call it painful, because I don’t think it’s the mark of brilliance to say “I suffered.” I hate cliches, but to write that book, I did suffer. And every time I return to writing, something in me suffers. I can barely tolerate it, so I write only when I must. Writing is seldom joyful for me, and yet I feel compelled by the process to know why, so I have to find ways to either make it less painful, or more procedural in order to continue on. Research is part of the procedural, as is editing, but I don’t know that I experience those modes as “writing,” even as I acknowledge they are necessary to this process of deciding what becomes the surface, the book that you hold, the final word. I am as seduced by silence, oblivion, and the threat of the blank page, as I am incensed by it. In one world, I would prefer to say nothing; in another, I find myself overwhelmed with everything I would have to say and feel in response to or in refusal of the nothing. What appears on the surface is the result of a lot of editing, but it’s also a reflection of the hard now that is the deadline. Maybe not every book is written this way, but THRESHOLES was: it was due, and I wrote towards that date, knowing that some process, at least as it was articulated in that form, had to come to a conclusion. Whatever took place in the interim was beyond my control. Maybe this is the challenge of writing the present.

TQ: Do you feel that you’re in the present when you write? What things do you do outside of writing to more fully enter / understand the present? Is that where Bodywork comes in? 

LMM: It depends on what I am writing. If I am writing fiction, fables, and parables, then those are different means of accessing the present. However, I don’t think of writing the present as some kind of pure distillation of experience, or sequestered moment in time. When I am writing fiction, or in some other voice that I do not understand as “my own,” what I am experiencing in the present may be the possibility of my own displacement. But in bodywork, or performance, the presence of the Other can be very affecting and disorienting. What the Other calls forth in us is so unpredictable. When I experience the touch of another person, I feel the fact of that touch forever. It alters me, and my sense of what is possible. Writing the present is a way to explore that alteration. It’s also the means by which I calibrate a response, a writing, that is as mind-effacing as that first point of contact. Maybe another way to speak about this activity of writing the present is to say: when I am writing, I am in pursuit of the moment of writing. I try not to write towards any specific narrative or formal end; I am writing in service of a process that is continually unfolding and making itself known through the act of writing.  

TQ: Am I right that THRESHOLES began as a series of blog posts for Coffee House Press, specifically essays about the Bronx? Or did this book more or less grow out of that project?

LMM: The book was written in tandem with the research posts for Coffee House Press. There were two parallel tracks of thought happening at the same time. I was researching this bracketed time and place, the Bronx in the 1970s and 80s, while also seeking other research modes beside the historical and the archival. I didn’t want to be locked in a time and place (“the past”) just because I was researching a particular moment in history. I wanted to build into the work a timeline that felt dynamic, entangled, and co-emergent.

TQ: To turn now to editing, revising, selecting, and arranging the book: you say you enjoy this process much more than pure drafting. Can you talk about how you made decisions on a line-by-line level? I find that the way the threads of the book—the Bronx, the body, nothingness, visual art, violence—weave in an asymmetrical and intuitional pattern, which creates so much surprise, delight, and reward as I read on, never expecting what comes next. Is it simply: this feels right here, this sounds best there? 

LMM: Yes, the order is guided by intuition, desire, feeling, chance. I hope that doesn’t make the decision process sound completely random—it isn’t. I always imagine there are readers who dismiss this kind of writing on the basis that it lacks rigor because it does not resemble or revise upon sonnets, sestinas, etc. But to be frank, I studied those traditions, and at present, I have nothing to say to them. What have they to do with me? I already have a PhD. I am not interested in mastery. At the same time, I wouldn’t describe THRESHOLES as free verse. There are other forms I am pursuing, and the activation of those forms are not dependent on iambs, stresses, rhythm, or syllable counts. There are philosophical propositions and conceptual frameworks that provide the foundation for the work. What is happening on a line-by-line level is much harder to describe. In the book, I write, “is it sex—the voice—is it violence.” Elsewhere in the text, the question reappears, “in the moments between moments . . . I ask myself . . . Is this narrative? Is this writing? . . . Is this love.” The associations might be more revealing than the answers.