It’s possible to visit Butterfly Herbs in downtown Missoula for years without realizing there is a coffee shop tucked way in the back. This was the case for poet Gary Lundy. He didn’t discover the place until some of his friends started working there, despite years of regular visits to the front of the shop from his then-home in Dillon. Now, every day around 10 a.m., Lundy arrives through the back entrance, orders coffee and a scone, and warmly greets a majority of the other assorted regulars. For the next couple of hours, he hunkers down over a notebook or computer, working away, easily recognizable by his white hair streaked with bright colors (currently purple).
Butterfly is the epicenter for a particular community of artists working in practically every medium, and within those confines Lundy is well known and beloved. In the greater circle of Missoula’s literary community, though, his name isn’t as familiar, despite an impressive body of work. He publishes regularly in online journals around the country, as well as internationally. He has also published five chapbooks and two full length books of poetry via small independent presses.
Lundy’s latest book is called each room echoes absence edited by poet Craig Czury and released last month via FootHills Publishing. It is the first in the North Carolina press’ third series of books dedicated to Montana poets. At the urging of long-time friend and Missoula poet Mark Gibbons, Lundy submitted his book, which consists of poems written in 2015 for his friend Pansy, after his death.
“I did it as a goof,” Lundy says. “I’m not exactly someone you look at and say, ‘Now there’s a Montana guy who drives a big truck,’ and all that. This work was something I was really proud of, but I didn’t expect anything to come of it. Then three days after I sent it, Craig Czury wrote back and said, ‘We gotta have this.’ I immediately went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face to make sure I was awake.”
The style of Lundy’s work is fragmentary, almost stream of consciousness, and experimental in its use of language.
“I’m more interested and intrigued — and I guess this probably comes out of a kind of jazz sensibility — in just letting the poem do what it wants to,” he says. “I hear fragments and I write them down, then let them go wherever they go. I don’t sit down, say, to write a love poem.”
Lundy was raised in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Colorado. He started writing poetry as a teenager in high school.
“I was informed peripherally by the Beats, and of course by folk music, and the Vietnam War,” Lundy says. “I had a friend — Linda Anderson, who is still a dear friend of mine — who was the editor of the newspaper there. She published a couple of my poems. One was something like, ‘Ain’t got no friends, don’t want none, fuck it, walkin’ down the road with my hands in my pockets feelin’ baaaaad!’ I was so proud of it.”
Lundy says his high school experience was pleasant but also unpleasant because of the Vietnam War, and a “not exactly conservative” outlook already had him at odds with much of the world around him. At 18, he moved into an apartment on his own. He went to school and “flunked out” before enlisting in the United States Navy, where he served two tours in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. Returning from the war, Lundy went back to school, where he ultimately received his Ph.D. in Twentieth Century American Poetry from Binghamton University in New York state. He taught on the East Coast for several years before he moved west to Montana. He taught at the University of Montana Western in Dillon for 20 years, retiring in 2011 and moving to Missoula in June of 2013.
One particular encounter early in his teaching career affected Lundy deeply. In the mid-’80s while at SUNY Oswego, New York, he had the opportunity to meet and spend time with the Quebecois feminist poet Nicole Brussard during a writing festival featuring Canadian writers. At the time, he had no idea who she was, but he enjoyed her company and the long talks they had. She was reading from Lovhers, a book she had just released. After they parted ways at the festival, Lundy picked up the book and began reading it.
“I understand where the readers who struggle with [my work] come from,” Lundy says. “I could not read Lovhers. It challenged everything that I had been taught about poetic language.”
Brussard’s work introduced Lundy to a different kind of poetry. It challenged the ideas of poetic form, and how the page interacts with the reader. Not to mention Brussard’s assumptions about gender. It took six or eight months, Lundy says, but then one day something clicked and he couldn’t put it down. After that, he began discovering other experimental writers, particularly women, and never looked back.
“That book changed my writing career,” Lundy says.
Lundy says he likes to challenge his readers as a necessary part of the practice of producing and sharing art, particularly when he feels he has finished his part of the process. The work needs interaction and involvement with others to complete the cycle.
“The work is only complete,” Lundy says, “when you [the reader] read it with what your experience is bringing to bear on it. Until then, it’s just stuck on my computer. Until then, I’m just an orphanage for all this fucking writing.”