Mistake House: Here at Mistake House Magazine, we see home as multidimensional, not always confined to one location. A number of the poems in The Pink Box such as “Magnetic” and “Sappho in New York” place the reader in very specific locations within New York City. In “Raise” you write that “home and homeland are not the same.” You explain in an interview with Luis Lopez-Maldonado that your “relationship with fruit and root or home and homeland has always been problematic.” How do home and homeland operate simultaneously within your poetry? Are these two concepts more often in conflict or harmony with each other?
Yesenia Montilla: This is a really incredible question. I definitely do reside in a space between home and homeland because both concepts are estranged to me in a lot of ways, but definitely home is a conflicting concept. I live in a country that at its best doesn’t see me and my folks as worthy of its “promise” and at its worst is constantly killing us. I also recognize that my grandparents fled oppressive regimes to give their kids better. I have to honor their migration story and my own birth story; I wouldn’t be here if my grandparents had not wanted “better.” So home to me is a forever shifting idea.
That said, my relationship with homeland is also complex and oftentimes I feel it’s very voyeuristic in nature. I wasn’t a kid that was sent to the Dominican Republic each summer (I’ve only been there a few times); I know what I know from my time spent with my grandparents, my aunt Iris who as a child spent a lot of time in D.R., and my own personal studying of where I am from. I didn’t want to lose the knowing. Equally with Cuba, which is where my mom comes from and where I just visited for the first time in 2019. I found my relationship to Cuba very idealistic because my mom came to the U.S. when she was 12 and constantly romanticized Cuba for me as a place she was plucked from without her say. The minute I landed there, I wept and wept and wept because for my family who left Cuba in the sixties there was no traveling back and forth (like my Dominican relatives). My Cuban family left Cuba one day and never returned. I hope that both the fruit and the root can live in harmony within me, but for now, I am just happy to be able to honor both through my poetry.
MH: Poems in The Pink Box like “Raise” and “The Patron Saint of Grandmothers” speak unapologetically of race in the context of an immigrant family. There is often an expectation for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to over-explain their experiences to accommodate for white readers but your poetry carries the expectation that the readers already recognize these experiences as common. Can you discuss how you developed this creative stance?
YM: Part of my poetic voice is to allow the reader to research what they want and leave what they don’t on the page as is. I don’t want to force people to care about my history and also it is not my responsibility. Of course, I also want everyone to be engaged and for BIPOC history to be in the forefront of what we are taught in schools, that is the only thing that will bring about systemic change. We have to unlearn a lot of things and learn a lot more. Since I am a poet and not a historian in the sense of “academia” or “career,” I also want my poems to just be poems. In poetry, you want to show not tell, and so I try not to tell the things that someone can look up if they are so inclined.
MH: In an interview with Latino Stories’ José B. González, you talked about identity and poetry explaining that “If you don’t explore you and who you come from then your writing is not complete. If you can’t write honestly about your world then your readers will not be able to connect to your work in an authentic way.” In The Pink Box, you explore your relationship with a variety of people both personal and historical, from family members to celebrities like The Notorious B.I.G. and Michael Jackson. How does your poetry draw inspiration from other artists’ explorations of identity and heritage?
YM: If I am breathing then I am living and if I am living then everything I am exposed to leaves its mark. I can’t write about myself without writing about how important my relationship to Biggie’s work and hip hop in general was to my growing up. Michael Jackson as well, god how awful, he is a trigger truly; but I go visit my mom on birthdays and holidays and if you play “ABC” by the Jackson 5 she becomes 14 again, dancing and laughing. That is part of my DNA, and so the music is in me and anything in me is a poem.
MH: In a 2018 interview with Jasminne Mendez, you mention that you always knew, “writing was the way I would express myself this lifetime.” You reveal that your interest in poetry was “an accident” inspired by a class with the poet Tina Chang, taken instead of a fiction writing class because it fit better with your schedule while you were attending school and working full-time. What about Tina Chang’s class grabbed your attention and inspired you to focus on poetry? How has this class and Tina Chang’s work remained influential?
YM: Tina Chang changed my life. I never read poetry, it wasn’t accessible to me. The poetry taught in school was archaic, white, and devoid of anything that was familiar to me. I did read a ton of fiction. I would cut class in High School (probably why I dropped out and got my GED) and go to the library to read the writing that I wasn’t allowed to in school: Allende, Alvarez, Garcia, Baldwin, Morrison. When I was a teenager, schools were just starting to recognize the importance of diversifying literature, but I didn’t want to just read Beloved, I wanted to read all of Morrison’s work and I was a voracious reader and so I did that. Poetry was harder for me to enter or know who to read; it is an anomaly even for some English teachers, so other than some Frost, Bishop, and the occasional Hughes for good measure, I wasn’t as exposed to it as fiction. Then came Tina; first class she read a Terrance Hayes poem and that was it. I remember thinking, “wait he just wrote what felt like a whole short story in ½ a page, is that poetry? Then I want in.”
MH: Continuing with your discovery of a passion for poetry by “accident,” is there anything during the writing process that you find happens by accident? In your creative process, how do you balance the accidental and the deliberate, the planned and the unexpected?
YM: There are no accidents, but I will tell you some poems are surprises. “a brief meditation on breath” for instance, came out in one sitting and I remember as if it were yesterday looking at it and thinking, “who wrote that?” The answer: me, but also my ancestors through me. I deeply believe that part of my work is not just to write but to write with the intention of honoring my ancestors; they went through so much, it is a miracle I am even here. How can I not honor them every time I sit down with the blank page? So of course, they visit sometimes and when they do it’s an astonishment. Of course, most of my poems are deliberate and take many days, weeks, months of thinking and feeling; but the ones that stay with me are not the ones I do extensive research for or revise a million times. The ones that stay with me are the ones that are gifted to me by those who came before.
MH: In the same interview with Jasminne Mendez, you said that you hoped, “to write plays, and short stories and movies, but at this moment survival is pretty much my full-time job.” Have you been able to start on any of your goals or have your dreams changed since then? Artistically speaking, what do you see as the main difference between plays, short stories, movies, and poetry?
YM: The pandemic eliminated my commute to work each day, and instead of having lunch with coworkers, I have that hour for myself too. So I’ve been teaching myself how to write screenplays and have started one that I hope to have completed by the end of this year. I do want to write everything, but I also often feel guilty, like I am cheating on poetry. That’s crazy, I know. Whether I publish in other genres, I don’t know if I’ll ever say I am a “writer.” I am a poet who happens to write in other forms.
I mentioned the ancestors visiting. I wonder if I decided to write a novel, would they visit as readily? Poetry captured me because it made me feel with each poem I read or wrote as though I was becoming more and more who I was supposed to be. That becoming is a gift. I love that I am exposed to this deepening of self through the work. I love that I am growing every day, with every poem, with every interaction. If I ever write a novel, I’ll let you know if the feeling is the same.
MH: One of Mistake House Magazine‘s goals is to cherish dedicated play and the journey that writers and artists openly engage in. In your 2017 WMFA interview, you discuss how you think breaking lines on breath is boring and how you try to instead surprise readers with line breaks. How do you use imaginative play when coming up with new processes? How else do you intentionally incorporate experimental processes into your writing?
YM: I just want to emphasize that a lot of poets I love break on breath and those poems are gorgeous and important and are what they are supposed to be. But I read Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa—particularly the poem “Work”—and I never ever was able to just break on breath after that, without attempting surprise. Komunyakaa is a master at the line break. I should also say that not all my line breaks are a surprise, some do break on the breath because I always try to do what the poem asks of me. But damn, it’s fun to break a line and give the reader a special moment! Other ways I play is through spacing, through different forms. Right now I am in love with the Haibun because, even though it’s structured, it is also limitless.
MH: All the poems in the final section of The Pink Box, “The Otherworld,” are about love, sex, or both, except your final poem, “No More Love Poems,” that swears never to write a love poem again: “I am not going to write any more love poems / instead I’ll write political ones about my body / because my body is the most political / thing I own.” What role do you see intimacy playing in your work? How might this role have changed between 2015, when The Pink Box was published, and now, with your next book, Muse Found in a Colonized Body, on the horizon?
YM: Wow, this question. So I am a liar, I obviously have more love poems in me and dabble a bit in that realm with poems in Muse Found in a Colonized Body. However, there is no explicit section in the upcoming collection that screams “love.” I do emphasize pleasure a lot in the next book, because pleasure and the erotic is honestly one of the few ways I’ve learned to free myself from the sorrow of being BIPOC in this country. I can’t honor Martin, Castile, Floyd, Scott, Taylor, Bland—and it goes on and on this list—I can’t honor them and be the poet they need of me without also realizing that there are things we do with little resources that feel really good. I am a student of adrienne maree brown in this way; pleasure activism is at the forefront of my poetic work.
MH: The Pink Box is referred to in multiple poems throughout The Pink Box as the space in which you put your poems. However, each time it is referred to in an increasingly negative light: in “The Pink Box” it is a symbol of empowerment and safety, in “The Pink Box at the Bronx Zoo” it is eaten with weeping, “Pink Box in Love” is full of yearning and falsehoods, and in “Self-Portrait as The Pink Box” the box is frail and opened without permission. Since this book, how have you further reflected on The Pink Box in your work? Do you metaphorically keep your poems somewhere else now?
YM: When I started writing The Pink Box I was still in my MFA program and was working (and still am) in corporate America. I had this belief, maybe even a desire, that I could compartmentalize who I was by day (what I did to earn a living) and what I did at night, who I truly was: a poet, a believer of radical dreaming, all these things that are looked at in corporate settings as flawed. So I think subconsciously and with the help of a dream I had one night involving the late great Monica Hand who had worked at the Post Office for most of her life even though she was a poet and an incredible scholar. In the dream, she helped me conceive of the box to “carry my poems” in. Now I sort of know that there is no way to compartmentalize your very own reason for being. If anything gets compartmentalized now, it is the day job not the poet, not the poetry.
MH: In your interview with Mendez, you mention that editors look for “poverty porn” instead of intelligent writing after devastating events occur in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. This focus on devastation and tragedy, without intelligence and beauty, discourages the humanization of BIPOC subjects and perpetuates the colonizing gaze; as you say, “colonization never dies.” Based on your experiences, what do you believe is the most effective way for writers and readers to combat the colonizing gaze in literature?
YM: It is really easy to be a consumer of literature, an inactive participant. I believe that literature is transformative, I believe that the act of reading should be active participation; meaning you don’t just experience something and say “next.” You have a responsibility to sit with it and do something. That “something” can be as tiny as admitting your own part in a system of inequity and racial disparity. What you can’t do is walk away from something going, “poor them, how awful.” Yes, it’s awful, now you have knowledge, now what do you do?
As a writer, your responsibility is also as important because there is a very thin line between writing “poverty porn” and having an intent of transformation in your work. I myself struggle so much with that. I have written countless poems about Black folks being murdered in this country and I always ask myself is this serving me or something greater? The answer is usually I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have made a decision about my work, that it won’t be just about witnessing, it will also be about evidence—evidence that I lived in this time in which these atrocities happened, and I couldn’t look away, and I challenged others to not look away either.
MH: It’s a tradition at Mistake House Magazine to ask: Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
YM: I absolutely do play hooky. I believe in self-care so much and that is not something that America really subscribes to. We are a nation of workers who are guilted into believing that time off is in poor taste. When I do run away from my responsibilities, I go to the ocean—that is where I feel most at peace and closest to my ancestors. When I don’t have access to an ocean, I am lucky enough to live across the street from a wild and gorgeous city park and you can find me there often hugging trees, talking to them, wandering about, letting the sun hit my face. The sun hitting my face was a miracle the day we got out of lockdown, that first moment of warmth felt as though I had been reborn.