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

“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
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.’”

"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." - Joe Montaño

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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.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela