Love and Literature with Keiselim Montás and Kianny Antigua
Many famous artistic couples have tried to strike the balance of literature and love: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera... but a lot of those relationships weren’t exactly even-keeled.
A relationship between creative people must function both romantically and artistically.
It's not easy. How do Kianny and Keysi do it?
It was a Sunday afternoon and Kianny was making a Dominican staple: white rice, red beans, chicken, green salad, and fried yellow plantains.
This was actually kind of an exciting moment because it was the first time they'd found ripe plantains in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Usually by the time they get this far north, the plantains are overripe, and they have to mash them up and make tostones instead.
Keysi and Kianny both have day jobs — Kianny is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth and Keysi works in safety & security there – but they are both published, prize-winning writers.
"But she’s more of a short story writer," Keysi said.
"And you’re more of a poet," Kianny finished.
They were both born in the Dominican Republic -- she grew up in the north, he in the South. They each moved to New York City, learning English for the first time as 16 and 17-year-olds.
They became writers as young people — Keysi as a 9-year-old, watching the way his father loved to read.
"He’s always got a book in his hands," he said.
Later, he also found a mentor in the poet José Kozer.
Kianny started to write after taking a literature course in college and falling in love with writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and, especially, after reading a short story by Julio Cortázar.
With the encouragement of their mentors and professors, they kept writing. Keysi got a job at LaGuardia Airport and started his career in security. Kianny worked at a supermarket, Payless Shoe Source, a bank - and finally began teaching.
But they only met here in New Hampshire in 2010.
"It's all his fault," said Kianny, laughing.
Keysi had been living in New York for almost a decade, working in safety and security at NYU. The job was intense, and it was hard to find time to be creative.
"You sort of become part of the gears, make the city move," Keysi said. "I sought refuge in the subway, because I knew that I could get to the office in twenty minutes, two hours... it was out of my control. So I did a lot of my writing and reading in the subway."
But Keysi had had enough of New York. So when a job in safety and security at Dartmouth College opened up, he applied, got the position, and moved to Lebanon. Although he loved the landscape and the quiet, he missed his friends and community of writers. So, he thought, why not get them to come up to New Hampshire?
When he organized a weekend, a mutual friend invited Kianny.
"The reason why i came is because they told me there was a pool here. It wasn’t all about poetry," she said.
Turns out, there was no pool. But the trip was worth it.
They got there late, after midnight. Keysi cooked a big meal, they had a few drinks, and then they sat around reading each other’s poetry until the wee hours of the morning.
"It was a magical weekend, I think," said Keysi.
Kianny was living in New Jersey, but not long after, they met up again, and the rest is history. Now they have a daughter, Mía. She’s in first grade and she writes comic books.
In a family of writers, it can sometimes be challenging to find the time for creativity.
"Before I met him, I wanted to meet somebody like him, of course. Somebody who understands what I am doing, this passion! If I say I am writing, who will leave me alone!" Kianny said.
"Which I do leave you alone, it's not that," said Keysi.
"Yes, you do," Kianny said. "I think we fight more over writing than everything else in our lives."
"I think it's also because we have very, very different approaches. I don't want to speak for her but from my perspective, I think she's impulsive."
"So, there you go. Me, on the other hand, I am too slow for her. I like to let things settle. I am very methodical."
"I don't like rushing things at all," said Keysi.
"We are super critical of each other, more than we are with other people. And this is something we have learned with time and experience. We criticize each other more but we take it more seriously—it hurts more," Kianny explained.
"But I think that's partly because whether we want it or not, I think we perceive each other as part of one another. So it is like, if it is my work, somehow she's reflected in it," said Keysi.
"Yes, it is upsetting sometimes. But I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t want somebody next to me saying oh my god, this is pretty, so beautiful," said Kianny. "I enjoy our fights... but forget that, okay?"
Keysi writes every day, but Kianny waits for the mood to strike.
"I let it happen. I take advantage when it comes – and it comes quite often," she said. "I wake up at 3 in the morning, lights on or off, and I write.
"To me, it's just a practice," said Keysi. "The way that I see it: a musician, they have to practice every day. It's their craft. I write in Spanish. I keep a journal."
Keysi points to floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that takes up an entire wall of the room, with volumes and volumes in Spanish and English, some stacked on the floor. On the top shelf, there’s a row of tall black notebooks with numbers on their spines.
"I have 25 books like that. Every morning it’s the first conscious act I do every day... to write."
Despite their different approaches, they have worked together – Keysi sometimes translates Kianny’s children’s books into English, for instance. And since they both write in Spanish and English, they say they serve as dictionaries for each other. This condition of being bilingual and bicultural is something Keysi has written a lot about. He calls it “transtierro.”
"Transtierro is a condition for those of us who are mentally, emotionally, physically connected to two lands: a present and a past, two languages. Who have built roots in both places, and who have to navigate between here and there, the acqui and aya," Keysi said.
"We have to be more American than the American, more Dominican than the Dominican. [We] have to know George Washington and Juan Pablo Duarte. You have to prove all the time that [you've mastered] both and yet you are not fully either one."
Meanwhile, Kianny has been focusing her work on the lives of women.
"Being a mom, being a homemaker, being the cook, being the professor, being the translator, being the teacher at the library… It’s just amazing, all the things that you have to do, not that you want to do, when you are in the position that I am. When you are a woman, and you have roles."
She’s writing on this theme and exploring the idea of putting together an anthology of Dominican women writers.
Keysi is enjoying translation, an art in its own right. He’s hoping to translate a book of Donald Hall’s poetry next.
It's been over a decade since Keysi left New York. Living in New Hampshire has changed both of them.
"When I moved here, I remember telling my friend: I am so bored! And she said, oh, Kianny. You’re not bored. You’re in peace," said Kianny.
"This absolutely beautiful environment has influenced my work, my writing. For example, I have a story called 'El canto de la lechuza', 'The owl's song'. I mean, come on. Would I have ever written that in the Dominican Republic or New York City?"
"I would love to share a sound that I love up here: the little brook in the backyard," said Keysi. "And right now it is roaring."
After lunch, the whole family goes for a walk in the woods in the backyard— Keysi, Kianny, and Mía. Keysi’s right about the brook. It’s rushing with spring meltwater, and it is both so loud and so quiet.