There is a level of cautious tenacity needed to navigate the untamable waters of human experience, and John Mortara has it.
Mortara has the voice of a precocious child—innocent yet bewilderingly triumphant. Their work quite literally builds whole cities, climbs mountains, and rides as a paper aeroplane towards its target. In poems like “just for today you are awesome,” Mortara plunges into the dangerous realm of conversationalism. Their work treads the line between talking and saying. “just for today you are awesome,” the poem opens. “and this morning you wear your hands like sparkly gloves.” Turns such as this are what make Mortara’s work so fun and disabling to read.
They also meditate on the concept of being an existence within oneself. In “this poem may or may not be about you,” Mortara writes, “like maybe instead / you already know someone / exactly like me / like how i am tired / of trading this limbo / for that limbo / this in-between of things. . .” They move between planes of thinking time and again. In “every night i call the cops on myself,” they manifest inner tension as physical violence: “every night i scream at myself. / i smash various fragile objects in my apartment. / i pick up a vase. how did this vase even get here i don’t know but i’m going to smash it. / then i scream bloody murder at myself some more.”
Mortara is currently on tour promoting their new book, Some Planet (YesYes Books, 2015). The collection of poems further endeavors to unravel the mystery of human identity and consciousness. It attempts to tackle the role of the individual as well as the individual in connection with the universe. Perhaps the best example from the collection is “experiment,” which begins, “go climb the nearest mountain / climb it until there isn’t any mountain left / . . .rest your head on a rock and look up / maybe your eyes will first see constellations / they were mapped by others so / draw your own / connect the lights into all the names you have ever uttered / connect the lights into all the hurts you have ever held / take the remaining embers and build yourself a new body.” And then, without warning, one of Mortara’s unexpected moments of profound ache: “. . .i confess now the thought of this terrifies me.”
Some Planet is available from YesYes Books, so be sure to read up below & order your copy today.
First and foremost, who are you reading right now?
um, i’ve been on the road for about a month now and will be for another month and a half so i actually haven’t had much time to really sit down with a full-length collection or novel unfortunately.
FORTUNATELY though, i’ve been reading with and hanging out with some really cool poets and friends of mine and i’ve been lucky enough to pick up some of their chapbooks along the way. here’s who i currently have hanging out in my backpack at this moment:
why you tread water by rob sturma
funerals & thrones by jd scott
some things always change by josh grizzly shepard
i want your tan by tracy dimond
the friendship blog by meg ronan
What or who got you started writing?
i was probably in middle school and i started playing guitar and had a lot of angsty feelings and no one to talk to really so i wanted to play music but couldn’t sing i would write all these half-attempts at songs that would never exist and somewhere along the way (probably in high school?) i was like oh this is probably poetry or whatever
You’ve been on tour over the last few months—what’s that like? I understand from your tour vlogs that it’s been essentially a one-poet-and-car kind of adventure.
yes it’s me in my car. i’ve always wanted to do a long cross-country road trip. i really love america no matter how… america… it is. the next book is going to be very much about what it’s like to be an american. how to be a someone from new jersey in america in the world in the universe and so on. i’ve got a TON of notes and poem drafts from this trip so i’m excited to sit down and crank out the next manuscript. ^_^ common questions i get about the trip are ‘don’t you get lonely driving by yourself?’ and ‘don’t you miss home at all?’ my answers are usually ‘no.’ and more dramatically, ‘i don’t really have a home.’
In addition to the release of your new book and the tour, you’ve also curated a new collection of voicemail poems coming out soon. Let’s talk about your voicemail project. Where did the idea come from?
i actually haven’t been working on this summer’s issue (due out in july). i’ve been on the road and really unable to give voicemail poems the attention it deserves. so, i’ve handed it off to some really awesome friends that are pretty much running the show now and kicking some serious butt at it: amy saul zerby, jeffy denight, brinna virginia dessert, anya bychko, paul christian. just at this moment i’m looking at what they selected and it’s gonna be an awesome one. stoked.
Have you received any submissions that surprised you? Why did they?
some of my favorite surprises so far have been this bilingual piece (english and chinese) by Kristin XinMing Chang and this piece by nine-year-old Kaitlin Harness.
How did you develop your voice in your work? Rather, how do you make writing about pac man and the complexities of humanity’s emotional spectrum look so easy?
i think i just listen to my internal voice and humor every single thought that passes through me each day, no matter how ridiculous/funny or emotionally-complex. often the work winds up being both of those things because of that.
Do you feel that literature as a medium lends itself to social advocacy?
every poem is a political poem forever and ever
Why do you write? For whom?
well, i think this is common for most people but i feel like art serves a few key purposes
1. communication – being able to speak to the reader
2. associative learning / problem solving / figuring out your shit
i think i’m usually trying to do all three of these simultaneously. i’m trying to figure out how i feel about certain things by putting into words and comparing it to other things i understand about the universe. i can be a pretty introverted and lonely person so being able to speak to and engage the reader is a pretty cool thing that is really important to me. sometimes, we’re just bored and want to be entertained. the core of it though, is that writing is (second only to riding my bike) the most important tool i have in order to survive being inside my own brain. the medication works ok but without writing poetry and riding my bicycle i’d be dead. no way around it. is that melodramatic? w/e. don’t care. LOL.
What does it take to become the poet laureate of feeling very uncomfortable?
just keep saying it over and over until it starts showing up in google searches …errr…. i mean…. believe in yourself. there’s nothing you can’t do if you just put your mind to it. well… somethings you just can’t do and you’ll need to come to terms with that but… believe. believe. believe. okay great talk. go team. break.
If you could send one of your poems to your eight-year-old self, which would it be and why?
i just wouldn’t. that’s no way to treat a child.