“Poetry is everything to me,” says Joe Montaño III. “When I’m writing, I’m wiser.”
“Poetry is everything to me,” says Joe Montaño III. “When I’m writing, I’m wiser.”
Jim Louvau

Joe Montaño III’s Ire at Phoenix’s Lousy Poetry Scene Doesn’t Rhyme with Anything

It’s Friday evening, and Joe Montaño III is screaming his head off. Again.

“Fuck this event!” Montaño bellows. “Fuck these fake poets, fuck all of you!”

Someone hustles Montaño to the door of this open-mic poetry reading at the Firehouse. The 43-year-old poet, who’s just finished his set, stands outside the venue, yelling himself hoarse at the crappy writers who’ve dared to get up and read something that’s just not as good as Montaño’s stuff is.

“You are a bunch of shitty poets, you are not as great as me!’” the evening’s host recalls Montaño shrieking.

Montaño is doing what he is best known for these days: causing a scene. Saying the word “fuck.” Scaring the daylights out of a bunch of Friday nighters who probably dropped in expecting to hear about the moon in June.

Two years ago, Montaño was a shining light in the local poetry scene; his name on a flyer meant an evening of erudite, anger-fueled free verse. Today, it’s a promise of a public tantrum. Montaño’s artistic anger went south, some say. As a result, he’s been poetry-slammed with an official boycott by pretty much every open-mic venue in town, thanks to a bitter feud that spilled over onto social media, resulting in death threats and a promise to set fire to the poetry department at Arizona State University.

There are those who claim Montaño is misunderstood. He is, they’ll tell you, a guy who wants to make the poetry scene better. Others say he’s just a punk with a big opinion of himself. A bully.

No shit, says Montaño himself.

“I am a bully. A bully who’s angry about all the mediocrity out there, all the crap poetry, all the cronyism and no-talent fucks, and the amateur-hour stuff that’s ruining poetry in Phoenix.”

Montaño only wants to right the wrongs of local poetry, to see his colleagues grow and improve and prosper as poets. “People resent me because I’m critical,” he contends. “They call me a drug addict because I use medical marijuana. I feel degraded, and I come back with a lot of venom.”

On the night he throws his latest public fit, that venom is notably absent over on Grand Avenue. There, local poetry notables have gathered at {9} The Gallery for Caffeine Corridor, a monthly poetry event founded by wordsmith Jack Evans. The smallish audience — mostly white, middle-aged, and bespectacled — settles into folding chairs facing a makeshift podium. The familiar banter suggests everyone knows pretty much everyone else here. Over there is Shawnte Orion, renowned in the poetry scene and one of the hosts tonight. Another of the hosts, Bill Campana, is talking to someone about Bernard Schober’s new book of shark poetry. The artist Rembrandt Quiballo ducks in late, taking a seat near the window; several people spot him and wave.

Campana introduces the first reader, someone named Carol who begins by telling everyone, “I love you all. I really mean that.” The crowd murmurs its approval of Carol’s profound feelings for them, after which she reads a poem about how she’s boiling in the stew of life. Everyone applauds.

Next up is Campana, who offers a pair of haikus. A man named Ted, who is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and once served in the military, reads a poem about Veteran’s Day. His poem rhymes, causing two people in the front row to roll their eyes. Ted asks for topics from the audience, and then makes up a verse about feeling disenfranchised and eating fried eggs.

Most everyone in the audience has come to share a poem. Someone reads a couple of stanzas about buying a record album for his father. A redheaded guy in a baseball cap does a rap piece in iambic pentameter that condemns kids who bully. Several others brave the podium, many offering poems about Leonard Cohen, who has died a few nights before.

Joe Montaño isn’t here to scream at any of these people tonight, although it’s not difficult to imagine what he might say if he were. Stage presence is at a minimum. The performers tend to look down at crumpled bits of paper, rather than out at the audience.

Things pick up when Orion reads an amusing piece that compares life to a piñata shop, and the audience seems pleased when a woman named BacPac pastes a photo of a lawn chair on an easel, then reads a poem about the chair. The first of the headliners, Jeff Sirkin, reads from his new collection, which, he explains, is about sitting around doing nothing. While he reads several of these, Matt Hart, who’s up next, sits rocking back and forth, clutching his hands and staring at the floor. When Hart takes the stage, he reads lackluster verses about his 9-year-old daughter and several others that reference Walt Whitman or sneer at Donald Trump. He winds up the evening with a punk-rock screed about how hard life is because everything really sucks.

This community of meter-conscious misfits doesn’t want Joe Montaño hurling invective at them. They don’t miss his mean-spirited criticisms, his reminders that they don’t write as well as he does. But if they don’t miss his awful screaming, they appear also to have missed his point.

Preferring to read poems about
the lives of rats … these love
letters that smell of wine and forest, these
failures somehow cannot be resisted.

—from “These Love Letters”
by Joe Montaño III

Poets are gentle souls, we are told. They feel things more deeply; see the beauty in pain; crave loneliness. Most are shy; some, perhaps, drink a little.

But post-Language School poetry, which continued Modernist traditions of the early 20th century, shook up poetry’s prissy, Victorian status. The traditions of Beat poetry evolved into poetry slam in the early 1980s, when Chicago writer Marc Smith upended spoken-word events by turning them into audience-judged poetry pageants with cash prizes. Humorous, topical, and provocative, slam had a leg up on open-mic poetry readings, because writers had to polish their work for competition. Slam became the training ground for a new generation of personality poets.

“Poet” isn’t a job typically linked in anyone’s mind with fame or fortune. For every Catherine Ann Rogers or Alberto Rios, there are thousands of weekend poets, whose verses won’t be read anywhere beyond a café podium. A successful American poet today can count on the occasional book contract with a university press, or maybe a self-funded reading tour. Most wind up teaching Poetry 101. The career of a flourishing slam poet might peak with an appearance at an annual national competition. Open mic-ers tend to stay put, trying out their new work on an audience made up mostly of other amateur poets. Those who don’t perform are called page poets; they turn up in journals like the Phoenix-based Four Chambers Press or self-published collections of their verse.

In Phoenix, slam is on the decline, according to Schober, who goes by the name the Klute in poetry circles. Novices and local favorites opposed to slam’s competition angle continue to favor open-mic nights at local cafes and galleries, where they can audition a poem or two.

There is, according to Four Chambers founder Jake Friedman, at least one literary event each week in Phoenix. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people participate in the literary scene here, he says. Poetry events are a staple in the Valley’s spoken-word circles. Lawn Gnome Publishing hosts a weekly slam; Homebase Poetry, one of the Valley’s longest-running open mic events, takes place every Sunday at the Renaissance Hotel. Phoenix Center for the Arts is home to a monthly reading called Infuse, and Burton Barr Public Library offers Phonetic Spit, an open mic for youth.

Local poetry scenes favor earnestness, and ours is no different. There’s a certain pride in amateur presentation, and a metered longing for social justice. There isn’t a lot of diversity, either in the audience or on the microphone. A newcomer to the scene might wonder if there’s a separate evening set aside for poets of color.

That was the first thing Montaño noticed when he stepped into the local poetry scene about a decade ago. “Everyone was fucking white,” says Montaño, whose father is Mexican-American. “There was all this talk about diversity, and I would just look at people and say, ‘You’re kidding me.’”

Montaño would eventually host a monthly spoken-word salon in his home, as well as an annual intercultural poetry event called Rise! Both featured artists from diverse backgrounds. But first, he became a poet.

He knew he had the chops, and he figured he’d suffered enough anguish in his young life. Montaño grew up a military brat, shuttled to and fro. He didn’t make friends easily. “When I was 11 years old, I discovered Walt Whitman. I discovered Emily Dickinson. I didn’t know what the fuck they were saying. But they wrote like my mind worked.”

As a teenager, he became enamored of punk rock, and he began writing poems. “Really bad, rhyming poems,” Montaño admits, “ripping off Yeats and Wordsworth and Dorothy Parker, stuff I despise now.” He gave some of his poems to high school girls he wanted to impress. Every once in a while, it worked.

Montaño studied writing at the University of Southern Colorado, then followed his folks to Phoenix in 1999, working crap jobs and writing more crummy poetry. “I delivered papers in the morning, pizza at night. I did construction work, sold fast food.” In 2007, he’d had enough.

“I decided I wanted to be a poet and stop working these blue-collar shit jobs,” he says. “I wanted to stop drinking like a fucking fish, I wanted to stop fucking around with idiot women I picked up in bars, I wanted to get away from doing stupid shit that wasted my time.”

He read every poet he came across, studied their craft, and read up on their lives. He wrote every day. One year, he wrote 250 poems. “A lot of them were crap,” he says today. “I wrote them during a bout of alcoholism and abstinence. All I wanted to do was drink Jack Daniels and write poetry. I got to the point where I thought that gave me a lot to say. I was wrong.”

In 2009, he gathered up his courage and read one of his poems at a Glendale open-mic event called Words in the Alley. “I listened to everyone read and I thought, ‘Wow, these people are really bad!’ I didn’t hear a single person I thought had any talent. I figured, ‘This should be a breeze.’ I got up and read and everyone had their eyes on me.”

Montaño made friends in the poetry community, among them Campana and Schober, who hosted the better-known poetry events. He was asked back to read at open-mic and slam events, and eventually became a featured performer.

“I wanted to do open mics and then move on,” he says of his interest in the poetry scene. “For a few years, I was reading every week. The deeper I got into the scene, I saw there was this push for what they call observational poetry, stuff that doesn’t go any deeper than the surface. It’s written mathematically. You have a strong introduction to grab attention, then blah blah blah, and then a focus point to drain the intellect and emotion out of the audience.”

All that blah blah blah began to bother Montaño.

“Around here, they love being marginalized, so they can write verse about how marginalized they are,” he complains. “It’s an illiterate trick. I’d heard this crap being read and the inner teacher came out in me. I’d be honest with them: ‘Dude, your poetry isn’t very good.’ My goal was to expose people to a lot of different types of poetry, inspire them to do something besides get up and rant about their daddy issues. They were there to practice a poem they’d written, then they’d go back and sit in the audience and tune out.”

In 2012, Montaño launched a poetry salon, Balboa Poet House, with his new girlfriend, poet Deborah Berman. The couple, who are now married, also hosted a pair of annual multicultural readings at a local theater featuring Chicano and Latino writers, African-American and indigenous poets. Both continued performing at open mics and featured readings. And Montaño continued to criticize other poets in the scene.

The way he remembers it, Montaño decided one night he’d had enough. At an open mic event, a poet named Jonathan Standifird read a piece featuring a chanted refrain that went, “Dead dead dead.” When he finished, Montaño took the mike and began a rant about the shitty poem he’d just heard.

“The guy was a hack. I said so. I criticized his poem. ‘Dead dead dead’? Really? That’s what you people want?’ He was this treasured, beloved poet, and a lot of people got angry.”

A mutual friend of Standifird and Montaño’s took offense at his public ridicule, and called him out on social media. “She wrote that I was an alcoholic and an asshole,” he boasts. “Then she took all the paintings and books I’d ever given her and put them in a trash bag and threw them on our front lawn. That really opened the gates for everyone to come after me.”

They did.

Read on for more about Montaño and Phoenix's poetry scene.

Bernard Schober writes poetry about sharks.
Bernard Schober writes poetry about sharks.
Jim Louvau

and a sorrowful beauty too burning for their lame feathers.
for they are not poets.

— from “All Poets’ Souls”
by Joe Montaño III

“I have a fair amount of cache to my name,” Bernard Schober says of his place in the local poetry scene. “After a couple years, I made it onto a National Poetry Slam team, and from 2005 to 2009, I was a rock star. Now, I’m an elder statesman.”

Schober has just published Chumming the Waters, a collection that creates, he explains, a synthesis of poetry and marine biology. He was recently a featured speaker at SharkCon in Tampa, Florida. He plans this year to travel the country reading from his book of shark poetry. He’s looking forward to being away, he confides, from the whole Joe Montaño mess.

“I was the first person in town to tell him publicly to go to hell,” Schober admits of Montaño. “He was claiming to be the only poet in town who does the work, that real poets don’t have day jobs. Better angels were not with me that day, and I went after him.”

Joe, you have the luxury of sitting home smoking pot all day while your wife supports you, Schober says he told Montaño in a Facebook post. That doesn’t make you a better poet.

Montaño responded by attempting to sabotage Schober’s public appearances. “I was going to speak at an H.P. Lovecraft event, and Joe pasted this stuff all over the internet about how I’m a racist, and people should not go hear me read.”

No one was taking the high road, least of all Montaño. “It’s one thing to say my work sucks,” Schober says, “or that it’s not good and here’s why. But Joe was posting things like, ‘I fucked the Klute’s mom to death’ and ‘Bill Campana’s dead father was a sissy’.”

Montaño went after other poets as well, posting that Lauren Perry is a stripper, that Jewel Blackfeather is a “fake Indian,” that Shawnte Orion is a closeted homosexual. “That’s not critical thinking, that’s bullying,” Schober says. “Joe is basically the Donald Trump of this community. He’s got an inflated sense of self-worth.”

“Joe and I were friends,” says Campana, who has published three collections of his own work. “He was grouchy, and had a very high opinion of his own work, which is really quite good. I really liked it. But he would go out of his way to insult friends in public and on Facebook, and then when he got a push back, he would explode.”

Campana was ripe for Montaño’s special brand of bullying. “I started out in slam, and he hates slam,” he says. “I live in a mobile home park; he complains about trailer trash. He hates academic poets, observational poets, comic poetry; I do a lot of that.”

Things really fell apart, Campana says, when the first collection published by Four Chambers Press didn’t include submissions from Montaño. “That just turned the faucet on full blast,” Campana remembers.

Montaño began referring to Campana as “Kuntpana” in his posts; the Klute became “The Kunt.”

Montaño’s Facebook flaming went viral in the poetry community. Orion, he wrote, “is nothing but a two-faced punk bitch with his balls in his wife’s purse.” About ASU poetry professor and city of Phoenix poet laureate Rosemarie Dombrowski’s recent book of verse he posted, “What nonsense sentimental crap. This is what ASU professors write?” He called poet Christopher Fox Graham “another redneck hick with no talent.”

After self-publishing Five O’Clock, a book of his poetry, Montaño posted on the Four Chambers Press Facebook page. “It would be wise of you guys to feature me at one of your events,” he wrote, “but I don’t expect you to grow a pair and take a chance outside your crony system.”

At times, Montaño appears apologetic about his public raging. “I’m not saying what I did was right,” Montaño confesses. “I can’t intellectualize it. Maybe I need to grow up and get over my bully shit. I started this game, baiting Bernard on Facebook. I’m not really proud of my behavior. I’ve insulted people harshly and rudely, personally. It has nothing to do with poetry, it’s just meanness, vindictiveness.”

His detractors like to hint that Montaño may be mentally ill, although he says he hasn’t been “diagnosed with anything like that.” Pressed to defend his public hazing, Montaño becomes defiant. “I love literary feuds!” he barks. “Normal Mailer and Gore Vidal? Oh my god! John Irving and John Updike! You know, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez came to blows over One Hundred Years of Solitude!”

But these people were already famous when they went ballistic.

“Yeah, I know,” Montaño says with a little chuckle. “I don’t excuse a lot of my behavior. But I don’t like getting death threats, which I have from some of these guys. When I called the cops, they came out to my house and said it was all just idle threats. They were like, ‘Yeah, you guys are fucking poets. You’re not going to hurt anyone.’”

Being a bully, Campana says, has become Montaño’s ace in the hole. The heck with writing great verses; going after other poets in the scene gets a lot more attention. “Every successful thing that happens to someone, he is there, bagging on it,” Campana says of Montaño. “What’s the point?”

The point, Montaño’s wife insists, is to force local poets to improve their craft. “They didn’t appreciate having to contend with someone who took poetry seriously,” says Berman, who’s also a poet. “He challenged their lack of poetic knowledge and their hierarchy.”

Others join Berman in defending Montaño. “He does tell everyone they should read more poetry,” poet and high school teacher Ernesto Moncada admits. If you removed Montaño’s name from one of his poems and showed it to any of his detractors, claims Montaño’s friend Joel Salcido, an MFA candidate in ASU’s poetry program, they would see a well-crafted poem. “When he criticizes my work, he’s talking about what I am writing, and not who I am,” Salcido concludes.

Many others admit that before things began to unwind, Montaño was making a real difference among local poets. Manuel Arenas, who moved here in 2005, had been writing verse since the 1980s. Montaño opened doors for Arenas.

“Joe and Deborah donated money toward my first poetry collection. I got invited to read at their salon, and there were creative people there, and this really positive vibe. Joe is into a lot of Beat poets and punk-rock stuff, kind of the opposite of what I do with metered verse and traditional techniques. But he saw the value in what I was doing. Then he had this falling out with everyone, and all that fell to shit. It destroyed the scene we had.”

It also led to a boycott of Joe Montaño.

Bill Campana was the first to call for a boycott of Montaño.
Bill Campana was the first to call for a boycott of Montaño.
Courtesy of Bill Campana

I am sick and happy and falling from hunger.
I am re-learning the poet.

— from “Hermosillo Blues”
by Joe Montaño III

It was Bill Campana who first called for a boycott of Joe Montaño. After Montaño catcalled Schober (“Your mom should have had an abortion!”) while Schober was reading at the Firehouse, Campana made a public appeal to local venues.

“I asked, ‘Why is this guy being booked?’ I told venue owners, ‘If you want to book him, fine. But don’t expect me to participate.’”

The boycott only fueled Montaño’s fire. “Fuck you to … all the cowards who support the violence of the PHX slam community,” he posted on Facebook. “You cowards who won’t even face me.” He made a poster depicting Christ being fellated, Campana reports. “He drew Christ as Shawnte Orion, and the guy blowing him was the president of the Arizona State Poetry Society.” Montaño flamed Campana at an open mic at Jared’s Café in Mesa. “I got up and called him a cunt, and he just sat in the audience, smiling at me,” Montaño says of the incident.

Schober and Campana began trolling Montaño online. “We set up fake Facebook accounts,” Campana confesses, “and Joe would be telling me to go fuck my dead father. He talked about how he was banging my mother. I admit it. I did screen grabs of these and reposted them. I wanted people in the community to know who they were dealing with.”

It was Montaño’s Facebook post about setting fire to Arizona State University (“Burn down the ASU poetry department!”) that took the feud to its next level. “This was brought to the attention of the ASU police,” says an ASU professor who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from Montaño. “You simply can’t make threats toward an institute of higher education and not end up on the radar of law enforcement.

“He’s spent years harassing friends of mine,” says the source, “and it’s gotten ugly and violent and lewd. He’s hurting a lot of people, and others are afraid to publicly denounce him because in addition to thinking he’s potentially unstable, they think it will set a dangerous precedent. We’ve all been waiting years for this to ‘blow over’, and frankly, we’re all tired of the psychopathy Joe continues to exhibit.”

After the ASU post, which Montaño calls “a joke that was taken out of context,” pretty much no one wanted to work with Montaño or Berman anymore. Few are willing to cop to a full-on embargo, however.

“We do not boycott Joe,” says Friedman of Four Chambers Press. “But we also don’t work with him at the moment, given the situation and our policy of non-engagement. We don’t believe in singling out people in any way, but Joe’s behavior makes it hard for us as an organization to be supportive of him.”

“I am not for an all-out ban on Joe in spaces,” says Joy Young, a spoken-word performance artist and teacher who’s been featured at Montaño’s Balboa events. “Joe is doing work that makes me want to book him, but he’s saying things that are vile and inappropriate, and people feel unsafe with that. The worst part is that no one can hear the fair points he’s making, because he’s being so awful. His voice is important, even while his actions are inappropriate.”

Montaño, she says, isn’t the only local performer who’s dabbled in hate speech. “The difference between Joe and the others is that the others made amends, or they just vanished. He keeps hanging on, being inappropriate.”

The last place in town willing to book Montaño, according to Moncada, was the Firehouse, which closed its doors in December. Had the venue remained open, it’s likely programmers would have banned Montaño after his November 11 outburst.

On that night, Moncada was the featured poet at the Firehouse’s monthly event. He planned to plead for solidarity among poets, especially after that week’s presidential election results. “I wanted to ask that we set aside these awkward and silly differences between open mikers and slammers,” says Moncada, who teaches at Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics, a charter high school that emphasizes arts education. But before Moncada could plead for brotherhood among poets, Montaño took the microphone. He read a Charles Bukowski poem titled “Nowhere” (“To me, the present gang is a bunch of/soft/fakes/…I look around and/I look/and/I say: where are the/writers?”), followed by one of his own verses. After which he told the audience and the other readers how terrible they were, and was given the boot.

“He was saying, ‘You are a bunch of shitty poets, you are not as great as me!’” Moncada says. “I was cringing.”

Montaño calls the donnybrook “the typical shit I expect from those people. After I read, someone called me a dickhead, and I responded. It wasn’t very pretty there for a second. I don’t know. Maybe I’m still angry about certain things. Deb and I basically can’t read anywhere. We’re not welcome. It’s frustrating.”

Moncada remains friendly with Montaño, but says he’s at a loss about how to proceed with their friendship. “We are so few, we poets,” he says with a big sigh. “Why are we fighting?”

“Think I am going to the Four Cunts social tonite, not because I can learn anything from those hack sissies, but because I like making people feel uncomfortable.”

—Joe Montaño III
in a Facebook post

Joy Young believes some good has come from Montaño’s horrible behavior. “Joe’s actions have made us consider how to handle hate speech, what to do about it when someone is creating an unsafe space, how to reassure people that our events are safe for performers and audiences,” she says. Friedman, Young reports, is working on a set of guidelines that venues can use to create safe spaces for performers.

“The thing about poetry is that it’s not exactly an art form that people are fighting to get into,” Moncada says. “It’s not movies or burlesque or playing guitar in a rock band. It’s a particularly dorky thing to do, to write poetry. Poetry has its own empirical rules. Just because you don’t study it doesn’t mean you’re excluded from it. Joe is not helping the craft or the art form, especially locally, by putting all these restrictions on what makes a real poet. If I were a young, beginner poet and I went to an event and saw him shouting, I would be terrified to share my writing. It’s hard enough to get people to come out for a poetry reading, but if they think some guy is going to be screaming at the performer, it’s harder.”

And what of the feud between Montaño and the poetry community? Schober says he and Campana are doing their best to distance themselves from the fracas, for a very specific reason. “At this point, we worry that Joe will snap and try to kill everyone. The burning-down-ASU thing changed the game.”

Montaño is trying to keep his head down, too. Just lately, he’s pouring all his anger into his writing, and working with young poets from ASU. He’s busy promoting his new book.

“My bullshit behavior is my own,” he confides. “I don’t deserve an apology from Bill, given the way I’ve degraded him. I have been a bully. I’m trying to be done with it. My wife is tired of it. I’m trying to move on.”

He stares at the floor for a while. “But the thing no one hears is this: Poetry means everything to me. It’s my fucking life, man. It’s the only thing I’m good at. I’m not a very good painter. I could be a better husband. But when I’m writing, I’m wiser, I’m really the man I’m supposed to be. Not this depressive, angry Jekyll and Hyde character that keeps showing up at poetry readings, yelling at everyone to get their shit together.”

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