|MIDDLE WESTERN POET AND ESSAYIST TOM MONTAG
COMPLETES HIS BIG BOOK OF BEN ZEN PROJECT
Books, Fairwater, Wisconsin, has announced March 1, 2004 publication
of Tom Montag's The Big Book of Ben Zen. A middle western poet
and essayist of long-standing, Montag spent more than a decade working
at the Ben Zen poems collected here. This book contains all 268 Ben
Zen poems that Montag wishes to preserve.
Some of the poems included in Big Ben appeared previously in chapbooks
from Juniper Press, Page 5, Cross+Roads Press, and Hummingbird Press,
and in the little magazines. While the poems are small, most of them
from two to five lines, Montag thinks their impact is powerful. "This
Ben Zen fellow of whom I write," Montag says, "teaches us
to see in new ways and to consider possibilities we hadn't counted upon.
Ben would be a little monk with an ancient wisdom who wanders the modern
world and says things that sound like poems."
In the introduction to Big Ben we're told: "To say there
is nothing new under the sun is nothing new. To speak simply without
being simple-minded is not simple. You cannot speak the truth from inside
the truth. Ben is an alien, a foreigner, an outsider. He stands outside
our usual truths, speaks simply of what he sees. He is a teacher not
afraid to talk of God but he is not an angel. He is not afraid to laugh,
nor to be laughed at. He is not afraid to fall...."
In an interview about the book, Montag also noted that "the middle
western farmer and the Buddhist monk would find much to talk of; and
I think each would understand the other's silences."
The Big Book of Ben Zen (104 pp., trade paperback, ISBN: 0-9746499-0-2)
is available from MWPH Books, PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931, for $12.50
plus $2.00 shipping and handling.
Tom Montag was born and raised on an Iowa farm and wrote of his early
years in the memoir, Curlew:Home.
Vivid prose about his farm childhood during the 1950s is interspersed
in that book with the journal of a trip he made back to his hometown
in October, 2000. While Curlew:Home tells his story and that
of his family, Montag has said it also represents many other middle
western farm people who have no one to speak for them. Several readers
have told the author: "This could be the story of my life."
Columnist Myram Tunnicliff wrote in the Emmetsburg Democrat that
Curlew:Home should speak to every person "for whom the land
holds meaning." It is a tribute "to the values of the entire
middle west," she said.
Donna Seaman at Booklist magazine called Curlew:Home a
"companionable and reverent memoir" and said "Montag's
prose is thoughtful and unhurried, opening out into moments of beauty
and wry humor, echoing in its quiet rhythms and low-key observations
the gentle roll of the rich midwestern landscape he loves.... He celebrates
the country's most overlooked and underestimated region and movingly
portrays his hardworking and loving parents."
For the past year and a half, the popular public radio show Prairie
Home Companion has kept a selection from Curlew:Home on its web
site in the
"Stories from Home" feature at www.prairiehome.org .
Curlew:Home was read on Iowa Public Radio in January and February,
In October, 2002, Montag published his collection of essays about writing
and being a writer, Kissing
Poetry's Sister. Jessica Powers at newpages.com wrote of this
book: "Tom Montag has a gentle style; he writes with depth - thought
and emotion are carefully balanced and you get the sense as you read
this that here is a wise man - not a perfect man, but a good man - and
he is letting us into his house and his life for a few moments each
day so we can experience the richness that is his.... I look forward
to reading whatever Montag writes in the future."
The editor of Creativity Connection, Marshall Cook, called the
same essays "a marvelous book of prose."
In his "Woodburners" column, Bob Arnold of Longhouse said
Kissing Poetry's Sister is "another honed down beauty by
long time midwestern stalwart Tom Montag. He knows that if we are fuzzy
thinkers, it is because our language has grown fuzzy. So no fuzzy writing
here. Just an elegant and smooth sailing collection.... It's a secret
little book, I tell you. One to hole up a day with."
Montag's current prose project, which he calls "Vagabond In the
Middle," is an exploration of what makes us middle western. Of
this investigation Montag says: "Who are we and what are the middle
western emblems common across our area, I want to ask. Landscape, environment,
people, and history all factor into the definition of the middle west,
all shape what we've become. In coming to understanding, I expect to
mix interview and personal experience, history and geology, essay and
journal entry and meditation. I'll walk, I'll drive, I'll listen, I'll
read, I'll listen some more, I'll watch. Always I will be looking for
the true stories that tell us what is it that makes us who we are. I
will burrow into the life of each community, to find the stuff it is
made of; I will record that, then compare the communities to determine
what they hold in common, what they keep as difference. There will necessarily
be a peeling back of the surface sheen of the landscape to see what
pulses beneath, to understand the land not in some generic, historical
sense, but in terms of particular lives lived here. The truly local:
these lives, in their times, in these places."
The focus communities for the Vagabond project are: Smith Center, Kansas;
West Point, Nebraska; Redfield, South Dakota; Rugby, North Dakota; Alexandria,
Minnesota; Emmetsburg, Iowa; Maysville, Missouri; Vandalia, Illinois;
Ripon, Wisconsin; L'Anse, Michigan; Fowler, Indiana; and Eaton, Ohio.
In January of 2003, Montag started his five-year journey visiting these
communities and he reports on his progress in an irregular newsletter
as well as on his web site at: www.wlhn.org/vagabond
Montag's collection of poems, The
Sweet Bite of Morning, was issued by Juniper Press in June,
2003; Denise Hill at newpages.com wrote of it: "I was able to visualize
a literal blossoming, as the poems moved from observations of snow shifting
across roadways and fields, to the warmth of spring, the emergence of
new life, and on to the intense clear blue sky heat of summer. Montag
provides an incredible journey across time and season that any true
Midwesterner can actually feel in their skin.... Montag's strength in
this work is his brevity and concise use of language, with a special
ability to create strong and lasting images through his choice of details."
Montag's poem "Lecturing
My Daughter in Her First Fall Rain" is one of 60 works by Wisconsin
writers permanently incorporated into the design of the Midwest Express
Convention Center in Milwaukee. He has read from and talked about his
work on the Wisconsin Public Radio programs "Higher Ground"
and "Hotel Milwaukee."
Montag's poems and his essays on a wide array of topics have been published
in recent years in such magazines as The Baybury Review, Bellowing
Ark, Briar Cliff Review, California Quarterly, Cream City Review, Flyway,
The Heartlands Today, Humming-bird, The Journal of Unconventional History,
The Midday Moon, Mush, New Stone Circle, North Dakota Quarterly, Northeast,
Poetry Motel, Riversedge, riverwind, and Rosebud.
In October 2002, Montag retired from a career in the printing industry
to devote himself full time to his writing. He and Mary, his wife of
more than 30 years, live in Fairwater, Wisconsin. The couple has two
grown daughters, Jenifer and Jessica.