The most surprising thing I learned about Kate Monica, UConn’s 2015 representative of the Connecticut Poetry Circuit, was that poetry was not a life-long pursuit for her. Rather, she used to hate it. Her work is so fluid and natural, informal but still balanced and graceful that I assumed she had been writing it her whole life.
She grew up loving prose and novels but it wasn’t until freshman year and English professor Bruce Cohen’s class that she became interested in poetry. In his class, Monica was exposed to “different, good writers” such as Sharon Olds and Philip Larkin. “It opened my eyes,” she says. The experience led her to try out for UConn’s slam team, becoming a teammate in her sophomore year.
Kate Monica is a 21 year old junior, and so far, her work has been published by the Long River Review, the Newer York, Electric Cereal, Orchid Children, Holey Scripture and Control Literary Magazine. In 2014, she won Collins Literary Prize for poetry.
Her work is decisively modern and strikingly poignant, even when focused on the commonplace. She explores “discomfort in different ways,” and features “characters that don’t quite belong. They desperately want to communicate but keep missing each other. I’m interested in those little moments of desperation that we all feel but we don’t know how to help each other.”
One such poem, titled “1 Nov 22:00,” published on Electric Cereal, is in the form of a Facebook chat between “a decorated general of Vietnam War” with anthropophobia so crippling he hasn’t left his house in 15 years, and a high school girl. In the chat, the girl gently tries to help him overcome his phobias (“you should try texting your grandkids”) but she will not do the connecting for him. (“If you see my granddaughter at school, will you tell her I said hello?” “that would be kind of weird i think. i don’t really talk to her. and she’d wonder why i knew you at all. it would just be rly weird.”)
I ask her if she thinks she belongs to a particular school of poetry. I suggest “confessional” and she agrees. “Even when I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about myself. Even if I don’t mean to, it’s confessional anyway,” she says.
Some of her inspirations include musician Laura Stevenson (“genius”) and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (“effortless”), a subject of one of her poems. Frank O’Hara is another “genius” in her eyes – “his work is effortless, like he just thought of it.” William Faulkner “has great characters, which I think is essential, so people can connect.” She also cites comedian Maria Bamford as an inspiration. “She has really well-written jokes. She’s simultaneously really dark and whimsical and hilarious at the same time. She balances depressing and funny so she doesn’t lose viewers.”
As a writer, Kate Monica describes her style as “a sense of urgency.” As a performer, she says, “frantic and nervous – at least that’s what I’ve been told. That’s less intentional, and more just me being actually nervous.”
The Connecticut Poetry Circuit, an annual competition that selects 5 poets from all Connecticut universities public and private to perform a series of 15 readings, is the first time Monica’s been paid to do a reading, so “it feels more professional than doing it for free. It’s interesting to meet more people and see their different styles of reading,” she says.
I ask if she’s more comfortable writing or performing and she tells me that, “I’m more comfortable just writing. There’s much more to worry about when performing. When you write, you can just let the words do the talking, when you perform, you have to make it sound how you want. In performing, you lose opportunities to be ambiguous because the reader can’t go back. It’s harder because you do it in one take.”
I ask her what she thinks a poet should be, and she thinks for a moment. “There’s this one quote…,” she says, and pauses. “Let me look it up,” and she does on her iPhone. “Here it is. ‘Poets comfort the disturb and disturb the comfortable.’”
“Who said that?” I ask.
“It says Banksy,” she furrows her brow at the screen. “That can’t be right.”
Regardless of who actually spoke the words, they hold especially true, I think, in Monica’s own work.
“Someone who is a poet should be uncomfortable in the world,” she says. “Like they can’t handle how beautiful and awful the world is so they have to synthesize it in order to exist comfortably.”
I ask her my bombshell question – “who are you and what do you want?” – and she thinks for a minute. “I can answer the ‘what do you want,’” she offers. “I don’t want to miss out,” she says.
I reference that Oscar Wilde quote – “inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. They live the poetry they cannot write” – and we debate it. We both don’t quite agree. We think there has to be a balance.
“I want to prioritize living over thinking about living,” she says. “I don’t want to miss out on living because I’m too busy writing.”
Kate Monica’s poems have such a vivid heartbeat; they are very much alive, very much dependent on someone who has felt and lived and experienced. It seems to be a pretty symbiotic relationship. I think she’s safe from her fears.