Sonder Speaks | A Conversation with Chrissy Montelli, Author of Heart Float
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, “Jeremy, why is Sonder, a magazine of fiction and nonfiction, posting about a chapbook of poetry?” Well, I counter with this: Heart Float is impossible not to post about. Chrissy Montelli hails from the same Creative Writing program that produced Elena and me. I have been reading her poetry for several years now, and I can honestly say that hers is some of the most impactful and resonant that I’ve ever come across.
This collection traces a narrative of pain and rebirth, with mythological and scientific symbolism entwining until we get a muscle mass of raw emotion and linebreaks. Chrissy is a master of the emotional pause, infusing every ounce of white space in each poem with the gravitas of all that isn’t said between two humans. Anguish drips from each line, building under immense pressure until “The Phoenix Summer”, the shortest poem of the collection but I would argue the most important. You can feel the searing heat of rebirth as the poet comes apart and back together again after a vilely toxic relationship. With nods to other great artists (Frida Kahlo, Marty McConnell, etc) and a command of language that is both rare and infinitely understandable, I believe Heart Float signifies the first of a long and vibrant poetic career from Ms. Montelli.
I encourage you, even if you are intensely poetry-phobic, to pick up a copy of this collection and take this journey with her. Who knows, you too might just fall in love with linebreaks.
Jeremy: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Chrissy: There are a couple of different ways I can answer this, because I think there is a subtle and nuanced difference between wanting to write and wanting to be a capital-W “Writer.” I was always making up songs and stories when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until fourth grade that I realized I had a passion for it (thanks for all those weekly creative writing assignments, Ms. Montreuil!). So it was in fourth grade that I decided I wanted to write a book someday, and writing became one of my favorite things to do. But at the same time, I wanted to be and do so many different things that I never considered being a writer as a possible career, beyond publishing a book or series of books. Fast forward to college. I liked English and didn’t really feel like I was very good at anything else, and I’ve never been the type of person to put up with studying something I wasn’t interested in for the sake of money or reputation. I became an English major, and went in thinking that I might become an English teacher, mostly because I didn’t think I had any other career options. It didn’t take long before I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a high school, so I started to think about what I really wanted out of college, and ultimately, life. That’s when it dawned on me: of all the dream futures I conjured and left behind growing up--sociologist, politician, scientist, doctor, magician--the only constant was my love of writing and my desire to share my writing with the world. And it all just sort of clicked. So that was the turning point where I knew I didn’t just want to write, I wanted to be a writer.
J: What was your favorite childhood story?
C: This is a tough question because I read so much as a child that I’m not sure I can pick just one story. Like pretty much everyone, I loved Harry Potter. Matilda was also a favorite. In third grade I read this story called How My Parents Learned to Eat, about a young girl’s Japanese mother and American father learning how each other’s cultures eat food, and it has always stuck with me, mostly because it forever altered the way I eat mashed potatoes. When I was around ten I was super into Gordon Korman’s novels, especially the Island trilogy. Also, I was secretly a sucker for pretty much any version of Cinderella. That still applies.
J: Which writer(s) have you been most influenced by/admire the most?
C: I learned how to write poetry from Cori Winrock, so it would be a lie to say that anyone has been more influential on my work than she has. Marty McConnell’s writing, especially her poem “Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell,” has had a profound effect on me, and a number of poems in “Heart Float” are meant to be in conversation with her work. I find myself going back to Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen whenever I am trying to write about something particularly heavy. My last two poetry workshops at UMass Amherst were with Camille Rankine and Lynn Xu, and while most of what I wrote in those workshops hasn’t been shared with the world yet, both of them challenged the way I view poetry and the limits of my own writing in a way that has permanently changed what I think poetry can do. Lately, Heather Christle has become my go-to for inspiration; I think it’s a sign of a great writer if reading their work makes me want to write myself, and I always feel that with hers. I read Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely a couple of months ago and it was a transformative experience. I have also become a huge fan of Emily O’Neill’s poetry recently--I actually sent her fan mail once, after reading her book and chapbooks. I don’t totally remember what the letter said, but it was probably embarrassing.
J: What do you think it is that makes writing such a necessity form of art?
C: Language is vital in communicating ideas, and writing is what brings language into a tangible, permanent form. Writing is necessary because it is a way of establishing permanency, whether that’s of an idea, an emotion, or even just the existence of a person. When our Paleolithic ancestors first wrote on cave walls, they were informing us of their existence and the way that they experienced life, whether they realized it at the time or not. And suddenly those people’s lives became illuminated, however little, to the people who came after them. They became permanent where they otherwise would have been lost. For me, writing has always been partially about leaving a mark of some kind, something to show that I existed in this world for a short period of time. That I was real, and that my thoughts and ideas and emotions and experiences were real, and that those things can still be relatable or enjoyable or worthwhile to people years and years on. A way of becoming “permanent,” in the figurative sense. Writing is just one piece of evidence of a person or thing’s existence, but it is evidence that can communicate across time. We need writing in order to remember what we may have otherwise forgotten.
J: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned when it comes to your own writing?
C: I think past tense “learned” is a weird way of thinking about it, because I am always, always learning, and I am by no means an expert on anything (except maybe eating pasta). But something I have found to be consistently useful, especially in poetry, is just to be emotionally honest in my work. I write from experience fairly often, but I’ve found that you don’t necessarily need to be coming from a place of literal truth to speak the truth in writing. It’s hard to balance emotional honesty with craft because it requires tapping into empathy and making oneself vulnerable, sometimes painfully so. And that makes it more challenging to write past clichés and melodrama in an attempt to create a unique and interesting way of presenting an authentic experience. This is something I struggle with, especially in writing about mental illness, which I have been pushing myself to explore more. But generally, if a poem or essay or whatever I am writing that day isn’t emotionally honest, I don’t feel that it is doing anything particularly interesting.
J: What do you feel your greatest accomplishment is, as a writer?
C: It’s honestly hard for me not to respond with “LOL,” because asking me about my greatest writerly accomplishment is like asking a three-year-old which piece of refrigerator artwork they like best. I’ll say this, though: I’m really proud of “Heart Float”. Oh, and one time I wrote a blog post for Gandy Dancer (SUNY Geneseo’s literary magazine) about how poetry can’t ever die so long as we keep talking about it, which the Washington Post linked to, in an attempt to refute my argument by...talking about it more. Which launched Poet Twitter into a frenzy for a good fifteen minutes or so. That was wild.
J: What image or line in your work would you say you are most proud of, and why?
C: I have always been proud of the line “you are an eye, culled from the socket of a tornado” from “How to: Get Over It,” a poem in “Heart Float”. Most people who have read my work haven’t really talked to me very much about that line, but I’ve always been proud of the word choice, as well as the image and emotion it evokes.
J: If you could only leave us with one word, what would it be?
Chrissy Montelli is the author of “Heart Float” (Bottlecap Press, 2017). A SUNY Geneseo alumna, she was the 2015 recipient of the Mary Thomas Award in Poetry. Her writing can be found in Noble / Gas Qtrly, The Adirondack Review, Atrocity Exhibition, Gandy Dancer, & elsewhere. Originally from Long Island, NY, she currently attends UMass Amherst, pursuing an MFA in poetry while working in Student Affairs. She was once bullied by The Washington Post for blogging about poetry not being dead.
You can pre-order her chapbook here.
“Heart Float” will be released on Monday, April 10th, 2017