My Friend Monty

I have a poet friend in North Hollywood named Monty who says he’d kill a small domestic animal if that’s what it took to get the exact word in an exact line. He likes to make sweeping statements like that, though, when I visited him recently, his dog Rvr wasn’t around—yes, Rvr. When he’d rescued Rvr from the animal shelter, he told me, “I was trying out a day without vowels.”

I bring Monty green tea from time to time, but when he’s writing, he won’t take it. So I sit on his six-inch-wide balcony overlooking a half-collapsed black box theatre on Lankershim Boulevard and enjoy a few sips. Or cups, depending on how aesthetic-nutso Monty’s gotten that day. We’ll have something planned, a 2 pm movie at the Cinemark on Victory, which means we’ll catch the 4:30, because Monty’s cutting open his throat to refill his fountain pen. He sits at his ink-stained writing desk in the northeast corner of his two-bedroom, slashing a page to ribbons, mumbling like a humpback monk over a sacred text.

Most poets I know sweat blood over their lines, and keep editing a poem all the way to publication. My possibly-canicidal buddy edits his work after they’re published. If you see a guy at the poetry section of The Iliad Bookstore on Cahuenga taking a red pen to a book with his face on the back, that’s probably Monty, editing his latest collection.

And you might think that’s a little much. But, if you don’t, read on.

My friend is committed to poetry. Some say he should be committed. Monty believes—and he’s not alone in this—that, when it comes to a poem, the theme is secondary. Form is, well, for Monty, it’s a god. He swears on a stack of Elizabeth Bishop that he won’t allow what he wants to say to get in the way of how he says it.

This is counterintuitive to many; in fact, it might feel downright cruel. You set out to write a poem about your young father who recently died, who you dearly loved. My buddy might say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” then he’ll turn to your poem and gut it.

My father died. I’m all alone. The sadness burns inside.

Let’s say the person who wrote that line goes to a poetry gathering at the local library, and Monty’s wandering around in the stacks. She recognizes him, loves his verse, and asks him for his opinion. He takes it to a table and gets to work.

My father died. (which kind?) I’m all alone (vague, flat) The sadness (“ness” is weak; and what is “sad?” I can’t see it!) burns (okay, maybe) inside (inside what? It’s as vague as heaven)

Then he’ll pickaxe the line with possibilities:

My father died.          I’m all alone.              The sadness                           burns inside.

Dad                             abandoned                 trouble                                      here    

Daddy                         solitude                       gloom                                        gut (ted)

My old man                desolate                     reckoning                                skull

                                    widowed (Yes!)           melancholy (too Keats)          ribs

                                    orphaned                    coffin                                         tripe

                                    goddamned adjs!      flame ice                                    lung(s)

But it’s not a neat list; the page has become a Van Gogh painting of blood threads that arch from the margins to the line; a crisscross map of insane flight patterns; tracer-bullet trajectories. The young poet, standing to the side, is about to pass out. And Monty works on.

The adjectives for alone are really busting Monty’s balls. He’ll dig a canal into his cerebrum to find a solid image. And coffin, for sadness; and, gut(ted), skull, ribs, lungs—he’s flailing the paper, staring down the front end of the line, wondering if Daddy works better, especially with his love-fest with widowed, which he frets over because that rouses up an improper relationship that, yes, could be interesting, but, is it part of this poem, which is mournful, and not a reckoning with a predator father?

So now he’s thinking about theme, and he’ll allow for that—as though he really has a choice. Because, deep inside, Monty knows that it’s ludicrous to make a poem binary, to cleave it, with theme on one side, form on the other. This isn’t his poem, so he shouldn’t mess with the theme; but, if it were his, hell, he wouldn’t fret over his form changing the story a bit, or a lot, or completely. He recognizes that writing poetry is a certain kind of madness that only the mad can know.

He gets on a roll and slapdashes lines,

My old man thumps my ribcage from inside.

Daddy thumps my ribcage from inside

This reckoning, Old Man, is all on you.

Your coffin, my frostbite orphanage—

Then,

My old man thumps my ribcage from inside.

Daddy thumps my ribcage from inside

This reckoning, Old Man, is all on you.

Your coffin, my frostbite orphanage—

Another image comes to mind:

I press my ear against the chest of father’s grave—

He’ll kind of like that last one, then,

I press my ear against the chest of father’s grave—

And so on.

Monty’s done pretty well for himself, as well as a poet can do in this artless country. He gets jobs: a semester writer-in-residence gig at a small college in Oregon, a few weekend writers’ conferences across the country. He lives a simple life with Rvr, who finally made an appearance the day I came by; he shuffled out of the back closet and jumped onto my lap. Monty pays his bills. He volunteers at a homeless shelter, and knows all the poets who live in tents up and down Lankershim Boulevard. He likes the Cubs. You might even call him a nice guy.

But. . .Once, at a writing workshop cocktail party, I was talking with one of the students who nervously, and a little defensively, said, “I’ve got Monty for workshop. They say he’ll tear your poems apart!” Monty had seen me and was coming our way. He’d heard her. She was embarrassed, but he smiled and shook her hand. She got defensive; obviously she was worried about the fate of her verse in his hands. “But it’s true, isn’t it? That you can be. . .brutal.”

He said, “I’m not brutal. Poetry is. See you in workshop.”

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