Of Montana Ray’s debut book of poems, (guns & butter), Cathy Park Hong says, “Each magnetic phrase is locked and loaded as Ray burns holes into subjects ranging from interracial love, single motherhood, to America’s unrelenting addiction to gun violence.” Ray’s debut collection consists of 32 concrete poems in the shape of guns juxtaposed with ten delicious recipes (try the mango soup!), which, Ray points out, look like upside-down guns.
Ray is a feminist poet, translator, and scholar working on her PhD in Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She’s also mom to budding zoologist Amadeus and author of five chapbooks and artist books. I had the pleasure of talking with Montana over an order of Pão de Queijo about the process and thinking behind (guns & butter).
Emily Brandt: I love this book so much, Montana. I’m curious about the first time you made a concrete poem in the shape of a gun, and I’m curious about whether these poems were written in lines and then transformed into guns, or written in the gun shape.
Montana Ray: A lot of the language is sourced, so in the first poem I wrote for the book, the lines just cohered together in the shape of the gun. I’ve said this elsewhere, but the first poem I wrote in that shape is the first poem in the book. I’d received a text from my babysitter that said, “I might be late. A gun war is on.” Or a slightly less poetic version of that sentence. And I walked out to do my laundry with Ami; and some guy on the street was like, “You can touch it,” and then when I came home—I used to live in front of a tattoo parlor, I still live in the same place but the tattoo parlor has moved, and it’s now a fancy restaurant—one of the tattoo guys there, who I had a little crush on, he’d just gotten a new tattoo on his leg that was Billy the Kid’s gun. I was like, “Do you like guns?” And he said, “I like Billy the Kid.” So basically half of the language in the poem is sourced from one day’s interactions. I was also thinking about art, how you see guns on necklaces and on bags. The appropriation of that shape is done by designers of all sorts, and I wanted to do that for poetry.
EB: How did you pick your guns?
MR: I did look online to find a gun shape, a print of a hand gun, that seemed replicable. I worked it into a shape I liked, and then I followed the form of the first poem. I do feel like it was the birth of a form, but I followed its rules visually. It has visual rules.
EB: There’s a juxtaposition between the gun poems and the recipes. Guns start out as such a hyper-masculine trope and the recipes are hyper-feminine historically, but by the end of the book, that’s conflated.
MR: The posture is assuming a male form to tell a story, a narrative, in a woman’s voice. One thing that I think is interesting about the recipes, someone pointed out to me, is they’re kind of like an upside-down gun. The handle would be in the ingredients…
EB: Oh, totally!
MR: It’s a fully formed ownership on the woman’s part of the male form. But it’s a merger of the two, so by the end you get a sense of wholeness.
EB: Did you envision your readers reading the recipes in full?
MR: Yeah. While cooking from them. But on a linguistic level the etymologies of food terms, especially ingredients, are interesting to me, and all of the violent, weird language. Like “beating.”
EB: Also there’s a lot of repetition in the recipes.
MR: And that was poetic. What I liked about the recipes was the disruption of where you might put the book in your life. Maybe you’re like, “I actually kind of want to bake banana bread.”
EB: The book felt very nourishing, like a meal, in part because of the visual elements. There’s also so much narrative and so much rich language. As a writer, you’re creating this form and moving through it so beautifully and challenging so many of our ideas of what a mother is, what a child is, what violence is, what nonviolence is, what a book of poems can do. I had a student who was wearing to school yesterday this t-shirt that had a blonde woman in her underwear pointing a gun at whoever. I said to him, “I’m kind of offended” and he said, “It’s about power though. This is about power.” So I said, “Yeah well, her mouth is open, she’s naked,” and he was like, “But she’s got some power.” So then I showed him your book and he flipped through it and read a little of it and handed it back to me and said, “Miss, it’s the same thing.” So how is this book not the same thing as his shirt? Or is it?
MR: That’s the best question I think I’ve ever been asked. I think there is probably some sort of relationship there because I feel like the book does glamorize violence. It doesn’t show you how fucking fucked up it actually is, and it can’t because it’s a representation. It’s about a play therapy kind of world. But the book isn’t really selling anything. Because it’s outside of the pop culture market, maybe it gets away with some stuff that otherwise it would be more accountable for. But I think the whole book is about that, about film. There is a poem in there about a woman—”(una pistola) (bajo el vestido)”—in front of a camera with her shirt undone holding a machine gun on an album cover, and the complexities of that situation. Because she also has a gun below her slip for at night when she’s in bed for her pinché lover, uncle, guardian. So there is this duality of a glamorous vision of a woman with a gun during the daytime on an album cover, versus the threat of actual violence and a woman using a gun as self-projection against male sexual aggression.
MR: And the sexualization of violence in general. I was obsessed with that during this book. I still feel like it’s incredibly disturbing and a huge part of my psyche, and culturally rampant. The way we intertwine violence and sexuality is inescapable.
EB: Is there anywhere in your life, or your thinking, where you can escape that?
MR: I try because I think it’s important to try, but actually to be honest, not in the zone of sexuality, not completely anyway. I have to think of myself as nonsexual in some ways to envision a world where sexuality and violence are not in some way intertwined. Within a sexual frame, there’s always an element of violence that is either on the periphery or fully there.
EB: Do you think that whenever there’s violence, there’s an element of sexuality there?
MR: No, I don’t actually think that’s true, but that’s another preoccupation of the book. While I was pregnant with Amadeus, I became very acutely aware of the threat of violence to my son—the threats I imagined awaited him—institutional violence, racism, male-on-male violence, war… which can certainly have elements of sexualization, of course. I mean think about Kenneth Goldsmith’s speech at Brown. They say even sexual violence is about power, is that true? My protective instincts for Ami in the face of power are also up in this book.
EB: And you dedicate the book to Ami.
MR: There’s a very clear distinction, I hope, between the kind of worrying I did in the book and the actuality of that violence. So, in both of those cases, it’s a space to have a fantasy—to work through the intertwined relationship between sexuality and violence or the threat of violence toward my son. But neither of those things is actually occurring in the book. It’s highly self-aware and wants to make you aware that it’s only an artistic process. That’s why the form is so there. It’s not like a journal entry.
EB: Because of the gun shape and the use of parentheses and the vernacular that you use, the book simultaneously feels very authentic but also very crafted and performative. What was the revision process like?
MR: I wrote tons and tons of gun poems. There’s probably three times as many gun poems in the world. I think that the revision process was mainly about what fits into this narrative. When it was not quite working, I would just wait a little bit and then go back in and tweak a few parts of it, and sometimes it would work. And if that wasn’t happening, then those poems were not in the book. So it was very fast and furious. The first poem came out in one day, in one sitting, and it was there and it was done. That actually happened for most of the poems in the book.
EB: The poem “(customs, motherfuckers)” pulled together a lot of the different threads in the book. There’s the narrative, the violence, the gender issues, the sexual violence, the intergenerational aspects. For me, this poem sums up where you’ve been and then allows things to move on to somewhere else. Maybe “(give back this milktruck of memory)” is the climax of the book. The part that was really shocking was “the little nipple slasher.” There’s this moment where the child, the little innocent being, totally beloved, is an aggressor also. That’s a game changer. It’s haunting.
MR: I feel how much the anger towards the father’s absence and violence and general inability to be a father is displaced upon the child in that moment. It’s really haunting. I agree. I’m haunted by that poem.
EB: Tell me about “(he gives good text).”
MR: This is about a man who I was texting with, obviously. He writes romantic, sexy novels. So we were having a lot of fun with text, and the text in that poem is sourced. Most of my dialogue is sourced directly from conversations with my friends. This poem was about how in the middle of what I felt was a very oppressive period of my life, fighting in court to maintain my protective order against my ex and protect Ami and myself, I’d receive these sexy texts throughout the day. There’s also a lot of mentions of the police in the book, increasingly towards the end, because they’re obviously the ones that are carrying guns around in this country, all the time. I was feeling threatened by that, in a paranoid and a kind of healthy way. My friend had told me about this guy who wanted to eat women, a true story. He was a police officer who had been collecting all these names and addresses of women and schedules of women who he wanted to eat. And his wife found it.
EB: Had he ever eaten a woman?
MR: I don’t think he got that far in his plan, but his wife discovered this list and was like, “This guy is nuts.” And turned him in. So the poem started as the text guy saying, “Your stretchmarks are like a lion’s mistimed leap in the past,” and then writing about how eating women is fucked up and then ending with, “You know, lionesses are the ones who actually do the hunting and provide for the children, by the way.”
EB: This book captures the conundrum that a lot of us move through in the world: the recognition that there is misogyny and that violence is tied up into sex and that men are so damaged also, and yet there is this desire to engage with that and to be sexual. In “(United States) (of Montana),” you say men are kind of ugly. I think ugly there can mean many different things. Are you intentionally exploring that kind of repulsion and attraction?
MR: In that particular poem, a lot of the language is appropriated from a poem about the state of Montana, called “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana.” So it was about my name, Montana the state. There was an element of ownership because of my name that allowed me to appropriate a text that was actually a man describing a landscape. But when I do, it becomes a highly sexualized encounter with men all over the country. When I am added to it, it becomes sex. When I was writing these and thinking about these, I was coming to terms with how limiting and potentially crazy-making sexism is. I don’t think I’d actually confronted that till I was a mom in a custody case. When I actually was, I thought, “Whoa, no one ever told me that it’s this bad.” I feel lucky to have not felt that way before or since, but I feel more attuned to it now. I feel much more quick to call it out. When you go through something incredibly destructive like that, it’s empowering in terms of all the work that you do to get yourself out of it and convince yourself that you’re sane and that you’re safe and that the world is not a terrible place. It makes you very capable of calling out anything that seems off.
EB: Were you writing only gun poems during this time?
MR: No, I made an artist book with Maria Stabio. It was longer poems in the shape of “At Night the States,” the poem by Alice Notley, and I would just write that poem every day, using her form. I think I read one of those poems at the reading when I first met you, actually. Then I wrote poems in the shape of vaginas for a while.
EB: Are you writing any other concrete shapes?
MR: No just those right now. I would like to write more vagina poems. I feel like I probably have a book there. I also feel more and more called to doing things in the arts world, like more artist books, or translation work. Or maybe I’ll write a novel.
EB: Where did the cover image for (guns & butter) come from?
MR: My friend Felicia went to a gallery in Maryland. She took a picture of a photograph she saw there and sent it to me. The photograph was this image on the cover. It’s actually a real gun and it’s painted. It’s this series Dawn Whitmore was doing about women with guns. She took pictures of real guns that women decorated, or women with their guns. This is some woman’s gun, in the real world.
EB: Do you have a gun?