A Poet from Astoria
Makes Verse Readable

By Lawrence Biemiller

New York, New York -- The Hell Gate Bridge rises out of the Borough of Queens on stone piers that march across Astoria's neat blocks like the legs of ancient colossi. On the main span, suspended beneath a thousand-foot-long arch of carbon steel, silvery passenger trains leap the East River, speeding north toward Boston. But lifting the trains high enough to make the leap is hard work. The thick stone piers reach two stories, gradually three, then four -- looming high above houses and yards and alleys, looming even above the el trains that Susan Montez writes poems about. The N, whose tracks throw crisscrossed shadows on the shops and Greek cafes of 31st Street, looks like a child's toy compared with the bridge that climbs slowly above it.

Susan Montez lives on 27th Street, two houses from the bridge, but most of Radio Free Queens was written in her old place, over on 33rd Street -- "They haven't put up the plaque yet," she jokes. Ms. Montez teaches English at Norwalk Community College, in Connecticut. Radio Free Queens is her first book of poems. It was published this year by George Braziller in an edition of 1,000 copies. "They said, `If you sell 500 copies, you've done good,'" Ms. Montez says. "`If you sell the press run, you're a star.'"

Which she might yet be. Her poems are as readable as The Daily News, as open as a corner bodega's outdoor fruit display, as frank as graffiti. She writes about daydreams and disappointments, friends and ex-boyfriends, the R train, the F, the GG. She writes about working as a travel agent, and later as a schoolteacher:

Sipping coffee and in a bad mood, I confiscate a Tootsie Pop
from Doreen. She whines, "Oh give it back, Teacher, oh please."
But I won't. Word's gotten out that I'm soft, I dump the sucker.

She writes about "the Sida" -- Spanish for AIDS:

And this is the way
      I dwell on that teeny bit
      of dope shot up 6 years ago
      trying to remember if we sterilized needles
      but think, "Hey, nobody's dead," then chant
      novenas, knock wood for weeks.

And she writes about men who have loved her, men she has loved, men who have begged her to tie them up, a boy she had a crush on when she was a girl:

Poetry's a ham radio
  broadcasting to those
    misplaced in 50 states.
If I were rich,
  I'd hire a detective,
    "Go find Corky Martin,
here's money, make phone calls,
  fly first class, do what
    you gotta do, just find
him, last seen, 1964, red hair,
  black glasses, black
    turtleneck, skateboarding."

She hedges only once, in fact -- in an author's note:

I would like to thank my mother to whom
I am deeply indebted. She has always
supported my poetic endeavors with
absolute blind faith. I hope she doesn't
believe everything she reads.

"Some things about my poems are true," Ms. Montez says, "and some things are out-and-out lies and fabrications." Obviously the polite thing would be not to ask which are which -- and not to ask at all about the poem called "To Ex-Dominatrixes." But has she found Corky Martin? The poem about him, "Radio Free Queens," ends her book as wistfully as if it were a deckle-edged snapshot of the two of them on the Ferris wheel at the Goshen County Fair:

if anyone knows
  the whereabouts of Edmund
    "Corky" Martin
contact Susan Montez
  Astoria, Queens,
    reward offered.

She answers without hesitating: "No Corky Martin. And I'm so bummed. That thing's haunted me since I was nine." She is standing on the balcony of her cluttered apartment, a foot or two from her 4-year-old son's turtle-shaped plastic sandbox. "Not that any of this is true," she adds. "You keep tripping me up."

Ms. Montez started writing early. "I moved around a lot all my life, till I was on my own," she says. "I wrote letters to people I was leaving behind." She also kept a diary. As an engineering major at the University of Pennsylvania, she recalls, "I had this friend, a gay guy, and we were in love with the same person. One time he read my diary to find out what he wanted to find out. So I was, like, screaming. And he was saying, `This is good stuff. You should go to New York.'"

Eventually she did. "I transferred to Columbia. I wanted to be Jacqueline Susann. Then I had this other boyfriend -- he was a poet, and he was in a seminar with Marilyn Hacker, so I was determined to be in that seminar too. I wrote 10 poems in one sitting. Marilyn said they weren't really up to par, but she let me in. In a couple of weeks people started really liking my work, and I got hooked on it." Poetry, she says, "transforms and redeems the common, the hurtful, the humiliating, and does it in a way that's helpful to somebody else."

Not that it's always easy. "Sometimes I'll crank out a poem in 10 minutes and that's it," Ms. Montez says. "The longest poem in the book, `Buenos Aires Notebook,' I wrote over the course of a summer." Then she sent it to "a lot of people" to read, and she started making changes. "It probably took me six months," she says. Six months for eight and a half pages of verse.

Ms. Montez values comments from those she asks to read her drafts. "My best friend Binnie" -- Binnie Kirshenbaum, a novelist -- "she and I critique each other's work. To get good criticism, especially if you're not in an MFA program, is such a gift. `Darrel, Our Messenger' I wrote at work when I was a travel agent. I showed it to people in my office, who were a good audience, although they were not poets. I wanted to write poems that people other than poets would read."

Her next manuscript is "almost ready," Ms. Montez says. She wrote it while living in a small Virginia town with a husband she has since divorced. Called Teaching Shakespeare, it's about relations between races. "You cannot live in the South and not be part of the race issue," she says. The title poem is "loosely based on a black student who had a crush on me -- I wrote it while I was teaching Julius Caesar to his class."

Which brings the conversation back to crushes. She keeps a running tally: Just now there are four "fiances" -- men who would marry her if she let them -- and three novios, or boyfriends. A letter from one of the fiances has just arrived, and she can't resist reading it aloud. "And this in the swan song of my youth!" she says, grinning. The polite thing would be not to ask.

But she is 38. Young enough for a fiancee, maybe not so young for a first book of poems. Still, some things take time. Poetry is a little like the Hell Gate Bridge: The poet works hard, syllable after syllable -- two, gradually three, then four, a hundred -- to lift the reader up out of the ordinariness of sitcoms and alleys and N trains for that leap to wonderment. Only a small reward is offered, even if you sell all 1,000 copies. So somebody please find Corky Martin for Susan Montez, OK? She can be reached in Astoria, Queens.

Copyright © 1994 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published July 13, 1994.