“WHAT WAS FISHING like in Cuba?” This is the very first question directed at Thomas McGuane, even before he has a chance to sit down or take a breath. It comes at him from an eager audience member just after he finished reading a darkly comic short story from his new collection, Crow Fair (March 2015). Though I am somewhat startled by the seemingly mundane question (Fishing? Really?), the audience remains keenly attentive. McGuane takes it in perfect stride, and, instead of sitting down, he walks over to the edge of the stage to get closer to the questioner. The two of them talk fish for at least 10 minutes while we watch. Barracuda, bonefish, snook, tarpon. How to get to Cuba (through Mexico, and don’t let customs stamp the passport), the Castro brothers, the food, the weather. This exchange says a lot about the state of letters in Montana, not only because the first question after a reading is about fishing and not writing, but also because of the downright gusto with which the state’s most famous writer responds.
Fishing and the craft of writing in Montana: in McGuane’s writing, as well as in that of the other talented writers that claim this state as their own, you find scenes of the landscape, the rivers, ranchers, the hunt. We might even say that this relaxed exchange on fishing gets at the essence of how writing happens in Montana. And “How it Happens,” the first major festival to gather some of the best and brightest of Montana’s writers, which just took place in Livingston in June, offers some other answers to the question its title poses.
Scott McMillion, editor of the Montana Quarterly magazine, organized the festival because, he said, he wanted to make the writers and artists featured in the magazine leap off the page, come alive, interact with readers. For two days, the famous and the less famous talked about art, film, music, poetry, and literature. Among the poets and writers there was a good deal of joking and bantering. Tom McGuane, after hearing David Quammen’s explanation of Spillover as a book about “hideous, infectious diseases,” quipped, “I’ve often thought a life in literature was a kind of hideous, infectious disease.” But there was also a moving talk by landscape artist Clyde Aspevig, music by composer Philip Aaberg, and a screening of James Welch’s Winter in the Blood. The arts in all their glory, from the sorrowful to the silly, were alive for two days.
At the poetry panel the last morning, the poets drank mimosas with the audience while they read from their work. They riffed off each other’s verses like guitarists. The tone moved between the hilarious and the somber, the ridiculous and the existential, between the fruit fly and the river. We don’t take ourselves too seriously seemed to be the whispered subtext. And yet, we do.
I have now lived in Montana for almost 20 years, and although I have always been aware of the writing emerging from the state, I did not fully appreciate its gravitas. I’ll confess that as a Latin Americanist, one who long believed in the primacy of the Boom writers like Cortázar and García Márquez, I secretly avoided Montana literature, thinking it might only be about skinning deer, tracking bears, prairies, and buffalo — about fishing. But after years of hearing about the great things these writers were achieving, I finally began reading “our” authors. Yes, there were deer and bears, prairies and rivers, but much more. Montana literature has a long history, including Chief Joseph’s tragic speech of loss, “I Will Fight No More Forever,” and Will James’s essay of longing, “I Learned to Ride,” which begins, “I’ve often wondered what power keeps drawing a human or animal back to the place where daylight was first blinked at.” Home.
More recently, it has ranged from Judy Blunt’s powerful manifesto of the woman rancher in Breaking Clean, to James Welch’s dark Winter in the Blood, Thomas McGuane’s searing stories of relationships in Gallatin Canyon, and science writer David Quammen’s tender and unexpected fictional short stories like “Walking Out.” Jim Harrison and Walter Kirn, Maile Meloy and Dorothy Johnson, Ivan Doig and Norman Maclean (you have probably seen A River Runs Through It) — it doesn’t matter that very few were actually born here, we claim them all just like the homesteaders claimed this land, troubling as that fact remains.
People in the state talk about Montana writers with a great deal of pride. They ask “Have you read the latest offering” the same way they ask about the wheat, the blizzard, the cattle’s frozen ears and tails, or the caddis hatch. They’re our writers and we’re proud of them.
And it is a mark of that respect that the writers are treated no differently than, say, the blacksmith, the postman, or the rodeo queen. Quammen tells me over coffee after the festival that the homesteading mindset, which sent pioneers here to tame and claim what seemed a terra nullius, is still appealing to writers. Montana is the place where writers can be left in peace to hone their craft while immersing themselves in the wildness of the land. The juxtaposition of the rugged and indifferent landscape with the writer sitting at his desk taming his craft has echoes of the homesteader trying to domesticate a wild land.
Almost 70 years ago, in 1946, Joseph Kinsey Howard compiled Montana’s first ever anthology, Montana Margins: A State Anthology. “People, Surrounded by Space” was the title of his introduction, and that’s still a popular way of describing and talking about the uniqueness of Montana, about what makes it different. Kinsey gathered both from what he calls the “terrible” and the “flowers” of the state’s literature. He felt there was as much value in the terrible writing as in the gems. His final goal, he says, was more pedagogical than aesthetic: “It is good to learn the resources of one’s own scene.”
His anthology celebrates regionalism, the land, animals, men, and women. Through these writers Howard discovered the “texture of life here, the feel of dry soil, the tumult of the wild wind, the way Montanans think.” He chastises readers and critics alike for harboring a myopic attitude toward regionalism — which should not be confused, he says, with provincialism. Regionalism demands hybridity, adaptation to the environment, and hewing closely to the land, its flora and fauna, and its Native tribes — the Crow, Blackfeet, Assiniboine. “The pioneers were not provincial,” he says, for it “would have been fatal on the frontier.”
Unlike Joseph Kinsey Howard, Thomas McGuane, who chats with me on the phone after the festival, believes that regionalism in the West has its limitations. “We didn’t have the Civil War, 300 years of slavery; we can’t claim the initial discovery of our continent. I don’t have a lot of feeling for a long history here, either, because my grandparents were immigrants.” He tells me, “I don’t have a dog in this fight.”
The Last Best Place,compiled more than 40 years later (in 1988) by William Kittredge and Annick Smith, is almost double the size, and has become considered the apex of Montana anthologies. It includes an extensive collection of Native American myths and stories, with a moving introduction by James Welch, in which he reminds readers of the importance of storytelling, “‘to ease the way’ through life by instructing, entertaining, shaping one’s view of the world and its creation, by placing one within the great scheme of things.” This anthology is designed to correct the neglect of this literature. “Young people in Indian country,” says Montana Quarterly editor McMillion, “are not being reinforced in the idea that their life is worth telling, worth writing, worth selling.” Kittredge and Smith believed that they needed to fill in other historical gaps in the Montana literary tradition, as well, namely a lacunae of women, Hispanic writers, and writers of other ethnicities.
Anthologies like Montana Margins and The Last Best Place capture the transformation of Montana literature, from the tribal to the pioneering to the modern. And the success of the anthologies launched others like Adrian L. Jawort’s Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st Century Montana American Indian Writers and three new anthologies from Bangtail Press that focus on Missoula, Livingston, and Bozeman. In these anthologies the wild wind, the frontier, the “long time ago” exist alongside the works of authors like Quammen, Meloy, and McGuane, for example, who have added their contemporary, modern, even Darwinian sensibility and preoccupations to that western palimpsest.
The title of the festival begs the question: how does it happen? “It,” as the writers answered this question, was clearly writing itself, not just Montana writing. For Quammen, it happens when he follows the scent of a story to its place of origin, whether it’s the Ebola virus in the Congo (for Spillover) or the importance of horses in Native American culture (for National Geographic). From there, his path follows a multiplicity of trails, most of which involve stops at a kitchen table listening to someone talk about their experience.
McGuane admits that the process is a bit of a mystery. “You never know what’s in there,” he says, adding that this baffling mystery is kind of like “freebasing,” in that you have no idea what will happen once you begin writing.
During the Q&A session, however, it became clear that the audience was more interested in what constituted the sum and substance of Montana writing. Is there such a thing as a Montana writer? What about Montana literature? A unique body of texts with its own set of concerns, language, and themes? Its own ethos?
Well, no, was the consensus, there really isn’t such a thing as a Montana writer, there really isn’t a literature of Montana. The poets with their mimosas were the most eloquent on this topic. The poems they read are about beer, birds, fruit flies, and the Missouri River, about longing, sorrow, and bleakness — none of it especially unique to Montana. Phrases like “cottonwoods clacking in the breeze” provide wonderful imagery, but are not specific to the state; in fact, the cottonwood is a symbol for Nebraska, Wyoming, and Kansas, but not Montana.
Longevity seems to be one somewhat nebulous element — Greg Keeler says, “I’ve been here 40 years and it is bound to seep in” — but longevity isn’t specific to Montana writers either. Michael Earl Craig, who was anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2014, says that while the idea may have mattered 50 years ago, today it is of almost no concern: “It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone anywhere anymore. It seems that a regional sense of place, or even any sense of place, is of dwindling concern. I live here and pay taxes here so I guess I’m a Montana author.”
Tami Haaland, Montana’s poet laureate, grew up on the Hi-Line, the harsh northern frontiers of the state where small towns are strung along the railway tracks. She adds that the label “Montana writer” is not simply a marketing ploy, a gimmick, but also one that can really backfire, especially for the poets. For instance, she says, the label of a Montana poet evokes cowboy poetry around a campfire whereas a Montana novelist can evoke high culture, real literature.
“I was a poet in Michigan,” says Marc Beaudin. “And while I lived there I was never called a Michigan poet. But the minute I moved here I was labeled a Michigan poet in Montana. Now I wonder how long it will take for me to be called a Montana poet.” For Beaudin, though, who owns Elk River Books, a bookstore in Livingston, technology has been a real game changer.
It is diminishing the need, the idea, of regionalism, of a sense of place. If you are online for 14 hours a day exchanging ideas around the world, then are you still a writer from Montana? I don’t want to lose that old traditional sense of place. But it is a diminished idea.
In fact, each poet ended with ambivalence, sending their ideas skittering down the hill only to be pushed uphill by the next poet in the hopes of pinning down the answer.
At the end of the two-day conference people seem less sure what a “Montana writer” is than when they started. Perhaps it is indeed a sign of our times, of the global, of the technological. Perhaps the common denominator is dislocation — most of the writers are transplants; it is a state of migrants — perhaps there is no common denominator. Although anthologies like Montana Margins and The Last Best Place are representative of Montana writing, they offer a dizzying thematic and stylistic diversity that pulverizes the idea of a representative Montana writer or identity.
A couple days after the festival I sit down with David Quammen, who, back in 1981, wrote a piece for The New York Times about Montana letters. “Montana is cold, lonely, vulgar,” he writes. So, he seems to ask, why do writers gather here? In short: economics. Writers gather here because it is cheap, the way Paris was cheap. Over coffee and biscotti, I ask him whether or not, more than 30 years later, that is still the case. Is there a new answer to the question of the state of Montana letters? How have things changed?
For one, he tells me, back then the idea of a “literary scene” in Montana had just begun to cease being a joke. Before then, if you called an editor in New York and stated that you were a writer from Montana they’d assume you were a hick and hang up. Even his friend, The Atlantic writer James Fallows, urged him to leave Montana: “Get out of there, move to New York, rub up against ideas, other writers, café society,” Quammen remembers him saying. Quammen is glad he stayed. “The writing landscape is entirely open. It’s open in a way that the Brooklyn landscape is not, for example, to a white Jewish writer.”
In our phone conversation, McGuane, who many say is responsible for creating thewriting scene, says that though he once, long ago, may have felt like an outsider here, he doesn’t anymore. After more than 40 years in Montana, “you become part of where you live your life, with the PTA meetings and so on. And you know I don’t think people care anymore where you are from.”
When I ask McGuane about the current writing scene, he laughs a little, insinuating I shouldn’t get carried away with my aspirational labels. And yet he goes on to tell me about an upcoming dinner to be hosted by writer Rick Bass at McGuane’s ranch. “We are going to have 17 writers,” he says, (the list includes Maile Meloy and Molly Antopol) “and Rick is going to cook for us. He is writing a book about cooking for his mentors and literary heroes. He just cooked for David Sedaris and John Berger.” There is a scene that swirls around McGuane, whether he admits it or not. He is a force — a likable, charming, and warm force who works hard at his craft. Then he stops every weekend and goes fishing.
Both agree there isn’t a Montana writer or a Montana writing scene. There are many writers, and there are many scenes. And both agree those writers and scenes are damn good.