“Language is Evidence”: An Interview with Justin Rovillos Monson

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The spring and summer of 2020 have seen the United States become the epicenter of a global pandemic, the origin point of worldwide protests against racial violence, and a case study in the self-destruction of institutions long lauded as democratic. Amid such upheaval, how can a poet—let alone, a poet confined in our nation’s patently undemocratic prison system—participate in shaping a more just and representative public discourse?

Justin Rovillos Monson, a 2018 PEN America Writing For Justice Fellow and the inaugural winner of the 2017 Kundiman/Asian American Literary Review/Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Mentorship, exemplifies the practice of poetry as a mode of resistance and reenvisioning. Monson is an inmate in the Michigan Department of Corrections and a first-generation Filipino-American writer from Oakland County, MI—but the citational, improvisational style of his work speaks back to these labels.

In a world where writers with multiple minority statuses tend to feel pressured to “represent” their identities in legible, transparent, or even conventional ways, Monson’s work resists the troubling slippage between the individual and the group. And, at a time when what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” has reached a fever pitch, Monson reveals the many good reasons for adopting a skeptical view of bureaucracy and the modes of selfhood it makes visible (or not). Despite the many causes for despair, however, Monson’s poetry “mixtapes” resound with gratitude and even playfulness. As Robert Frost once wrote, “The work is play for mortal stakes.”

I corresponded with Monson over email about his series, “Pre-Sentence Investigation,” a selection from which appears in Michigan Quarterly Review’s Persecution Issue.

Michael M. Weinstein (MW): My first question is simply, how has life been, as an incarcerated person during the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan, initially one of the country’s hardest-hit states? Are there aspects of life in prison that you feel ought to get more mainstream attention, especially at this moment of unprecedented socio-economic inequality and divisive politics?

Justin Rovillos Monson (JM): Well, the Michigan Department of Corrections has done a decent job with the pandemic so far. People are scared to get sick. There are no visits. I don’t know. The most I’m compelled to say is, I’m still here, and quote Kendrick’s “Feel”: “The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’ / But nothin’ is awkward…”

MW: As a follow-up, I was struck by a comment you made in an earlier interview: “If we really want to push social change, then the ways we talk about, and recognize the actions of, incarcerated individuals need to transcend both liberal and conservative dialect.” Undoubtedly, there are numerous ways in which incarcerated people and the prison-industrial complex get misrepresented in American discourse—but could you highlight one or two of the most pervasive misunderstandings you’ve encountered in this regard? How could we, your readers (and, perhaps, the mainstream American media more broadly) shift our thinking about incarceration into a more nuanced and productive paradigm?

JM: This is always the trickiest question to answer because rather than examining what changes need to be made to the system, it asks how an entire group of people wants to be treated or seenwho they want to be. I need to point out that I’m an exceptional case. I’m only able to be heard here and in my work, because my interests and my backgroundnot to mention luckhave given me opportunities that 99.99% of my incarcerated peers won’t ever get. Any answer I give this question will be incomplete because I can’t speak for an entire group of people with a vast range of dreams, desires, and pains.

That said, I think there’s a tendency for incarcerated peopleincluding myselfto lean into the mostly liberal hunger for the products of a lot of difficult emotional work. So, the world ends up with two major narratives: the story of the villain and the story of the poor soul. How both stories play out in the minds of Americans is a matter of personal politics, but the important thing is to recognize that these narratives allow people to take too much liberty in filling in the blanks of others’ lives—when ideally, a warm body would be standing beside them.

That’s where the danger lies, I think: transposing a sort of universal meta-narrative onto intimately specific stories. We yearn for these kinds of narratives so much that all we begin to hearall we begin to desireis violence to hate or pain to soothe. To be clear, I’m not advocating for an “All Lives Matter” sort of approach. Representation is necessary. Change is necessary. I’m just saying this: Yes, I’m locked up, and it is hard. I don’t want to be here. I do not know what this sentence means. But I also hold joy. I am in love. I have fears. I have insecurities. I’m capable of violence. I’ve hurt people. I’ve helped people. And I am more than my struggles.

MW: In “Pre-Sentence Investigation,” it often seems that you’re treating bureaucratic and juridical documents as raw material, in much the way that law enforcement personnel—or, for that matter, prosecutors!—might treat a sequence of events as raw material when making their case against a defendant. (In that way, this series reminds me of so-called “documentary poetics,” exemplified by works like Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony and Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead.) This makes me wonder: do you see the linguistic materials you’re using here as evidence? And, if you are putting language on trial, what are these words—or the bureaucratic/rhetorical structures that govern them—evidence of?

JM: To offer some context: the excerpts of “Pre-Sentence Investigation” published here in MQR are part of a much larger sequence of erasures and vignettes. I used the official Department of Corrections sentencing recommendation document used for my case, hence the poem’s name. My goal was to destabilize the institutional narrative by offering my own interpretation, while still honoring the victims of the robbery I committed. It was really important to me to pay whatever respects I could to my victims and still catalog multiple sides of the story. The poem attempts to mix samples of bureaucratic language with lyric, reconstitute the narrative arc, and disrupt the notion that evidenceeven languageis ever unquestionable.

So yeah, I do see the linguistic materials as evidence. Language is evidence. Think about this: when I sit in front of the parole board in six years to see if they’ll let me go home, they can use this interview. Anything I say can and will be used against me. Language itself isn’t on triallanguage is what it isbut it is being used to shape a narrative that is otherwise owned by the institutions that claim to own me. And that’s the big question: who or what is on trial in the poem? If it is me, then will you choose to convict?

MW: You’ve spoken before about the idea of a poetry series/collection as a “remix.” Can you talk a bit about how you go about remixing, cross-cutting, and editing the borrowed language you use? How do you decide how much—and in what ways—to alter material from other sources?

JM: I’m not sure I have a “process” as much as I just lean into certain sounds and aesthetics. If I come across something dopewhether it comes from Whitman, Hov, or a conversation I heard on the yardthen I try to take note of it and maybe incorporate it into my writing later on. It’s less about technical considerations and more about working with a certain vibe or ethos.

Actually, a good example is the two poetry “mixtapes” I’ve been working onessentially short chapbooks with a mad informal, sort of hustler-feelalongside the manuscript for my first collection. I’ve been obsessed lately with the possible parallels between the hip-hop and poetry worlds as they exist in this cultural moment. I’m interested in how we equate poets with MC’s but often forget about the DJ. Where does the DJ factor in? So, I’ve been treating suites of poems as mixtapes and collections as albums, using samples, creating common threads. The goal is to build a new poetics because, honestly, the poetry world seems to be too insular and too well-behaved to move towards achieving its own potential. A few months ago, my homie Jonah told me that hybrid works are the future. I think he’s right. We need more expansive works. We need bigger poetic ecosystems. We need a new energy.

I bring all this up in response to your question because I don’t see the remixing and cross-cutting and editing as instances of poetic craft, but as attempts to disrupt the institution of poetry in a way that allows us to be a little more reckless, a little more UGHHHHH [in a Pusha T voice] in our work. I guess I’d call it a poetics of deinstitutionalization. All that said: get wavy, borrow language, credit your sources, and shout-out your big homies.

MW: The poet W. H. Auden, one of the twentieth century’s great chroniclers of terrible times, famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” With this in mind, my question is, given the timeliness and social/political significance of the topics with which you engage, why poetry? What led you to choose poetry as your medium, and what do you think are the unique affordances of poetry for this moment?

JM: Auden’s words are often on my mind, in part because of my incarceration. I go through phases where I feel he’s right. On the other hand, poetry has done a lot for me. This interview is a testament to that.

I chose poetry mostly out of necessity. It offers a lot of room to experiment and to document things in a way that isn’t as available in other genres, but that wasn’t that deciding factor. Writing in prison, I simply found poetry to be the most effective and efficient way for me to put my voice out into the world. It just so happens that we’re at a point in history where people want to listen. So, I figure: I’ll give you what you want, but while you’re here, tell me what you think about this idea. Oh, and what’s good? How are you? My name’s Justin. Maybe in this way, I’ll become more than a caricature or a token representative.

I don’t really think that poetry offers any unique affordances for this moment. Actually, I think it’s the other way around. Institutions are being shock-tested. Our modes of connection are shifting. Through that, new relationships are being formed with ourselves and others. I think we put a lot of pressure on poetry itself to dosomething, as if poetry exists separate from us as human beings. Right now, I think it’s incumbent on poets to recognize the shifts in the American landscape and build a poeticsand I mean more than poemsto carry into the future. If all else fails, take it to the streets. ♦