In celebration of World Poetry Day this month, artist Robert Montgomery tells us how to use words as a two-finger salute to authority
In a world that feels more out of control every day, Robert Montgomery’s work is more poignant and necessary than ever. Using the environment that surrounds him, this modern day punk poet and artist rejects our status quo through indirect messages like “ALL PALACES ARE TEMPORARY PALACES”, presented visually in extremely stark and direct ways. “I put it on billboards and I set it on fire. Both are pretty unashamedly in-your-face tactics,” he tells us.
Often without permission from authorities, Montgomery borrows the familiar; our landscapes; our cities; our billboards and uses them as vehicles to deliver his messages through oblique and often ethereal language. In the same way, as temporal power is impermanent, so too Montgomery’s art is often ephemeral; a billboard in east London that can be covered up; a sign set alight in the gardens of the Louvre; an installation mounted on the back of a truck in Turkey. His words themselves are indirect, referential, evocative and require time to digest. Once they have been, however, the poet’s anti-authoritarian stance stays with us and continues to resonate.
On 21 March, to celebrate World Poetry Day, Montgomery will be acting as an ambassador for the #PayWithAPoem project. Turning consumerism on its head and reaching out through the written word, the worldwide project will let people pay for their coffee in exchange for a handwritten poem. “I love the playful freedom of that, I decided to do it because it reminded me of a poem I love by Allen Ginsberg, ‘When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?’” says Montgomery. With all this in mind, we spoke to him on how to be a punk poet in an increasingly authoritarian world.
“When we invaded Iraq despite the public feeling against the war, I felt compelled to carry on my own small protest and my first billboard poem in Shoreditch was about that, "WHEN WE ARE SLEEPING AEROPLANES CARRY MEMORIES OF THE HORRORS WE HAVE GIVEN OUR SILENT CONSENT TO INTO THE NIGHT SKIES OF OUR CITIES AND LEAVE THEM THERE TO GATHER LIKE CLOUDS AND CONDENSE INTO OUR DREAMS BEFORE MORNING". That's really how the kind of work I make now started."
WORDS HAVE POWER; CHOOSE THEM CAREFULLY
“For a long time I had been thinking about something Roland Barthes wrote in his book Mythologies, ‘myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message’. Thinking about the kinds of myths billboards create, the kind of thinking and physiological archetypes they create by their type of speech, I wondered if I could provide an antidote to that type of speech. I think advertising and the news media often treat us like idiots.”
“Poetry is an expanded language, which explains the magic of life. I think poetry will always be important because its real purpose is to uncover the magical in the everyday” – Robert Montgomery
TELL THE WORLD ABOUT ITSELF
“There are plenty of problems in the world to write about, aren't there? Global warming, the erosion of free education, our continual wars, our lack of an empathetic response to the refugee crisis. The problems keep it contemporary I think. I'd only run out of material if we lived in a Utopia and, in that case, I would write glorious Keatsian pastoral verse.
I often write about the things that move me or the things I see as historic crises. Since last autumn, I've been making a lot of work about the ecological crisis we are clearly facing and doing frighteningly little about fixing. I just did a solar powered piece for the Climate Coalition in London for their campaign for clean energy within a generation. That question is the huge question of our time and its consequences are spiritual and karmic as well as physical.”
IT DOESN'T ALWAYS HAVE TO BE POLITICAL
“Poetry opens up an expanded experience of the self, it reaches the whole person – we all have pretty complex emotions and dreams inside of us, every person is in a way a whole dream universe. Sometimes I write pieces in the first person, in a sort of intimate voice and those are more like letters to lovers and not necessarily political. I intentionally want to be able to switch between those two voices.”
KNOW THAT IT WILL CONSUME YOU
“I think artists and poets are compelled to make what they make or they become dysfunctional and find it impossible to live. It's more like a mental illness than a career choice.”
DON'T LOSE HEART – BE TENACIOUS
“Don't give up. Never give up, and if you feel discouraged read Ariel by Sylvia Plath – it’s just pure electricity.”
In honour of International Poetry Day on Monday 21 March, Montgomery has been named as Viennese coffee roaster Julius Meinl’s global ambassador. To find out more about the ‘Pay With A Poem’ campaign, click here