INTERVIEW WITH ART MANTECON

This interview was conducted on March 16, 2002 at Starbucks in Sactown.

EPG: So can you tell me a little bit about your personal history, like where you’ve lived, where you grew up?

AM: Yes I can. I was born in Laredo, Texas in 1948. When I was three years old, my parents decided to move to Detroit, Michigan. There is an interesting story behind that which I’m not sure that you have enough tape to record. It involved my father not wanting to vote "bota." In Laredo, Texas there were two political factions of the Democrat Party. There were no Republicans because Texas still considered itself a Confederate state and there was no Republican Party, but there were two factions of the Democrat Party, one called themselves, "the botas" which looked after the interests of the rich and the landed, and the other ones were called the "huaraches" which were more concerned with the problems of the poor. My father’s leanings were more huarache than bota, but his background was more bota because his mother was in law enforcement, my grandmother, Margarita Herrera. So at any rate, to avoid doing that, because in order to get a job, a decent job in Laredo, you had to vote bota. He decided to go and follow his college friend, Pedro Morales, to Detroit, Michigan; and that’s where we settled, and that’s where I grew up. And I attended school there. At the age of 15, things got tough in Detroit, Michigan, and he decided to move the family again. He had wanted to go to San Antonio, Texas, but my mother had relatives in Sacramento, so he capitulated to her and we moved out here.

EPG: What did your grandmother do in law enforcement?

AM: She was the matron of the women’s jail in Laredo, Texas. She basically locked up whores from the other side of the border, from Nuevo Laredo, who came across the border on weekends to ply their trade. As a matter of fact, I’ve written a lengthy piece about this. When I was five years old, my grandmother wanted to show me off to all these prostitutes that were in jail, and so she spirited me away in the middle of the night one time that we were visiting her in Laredo from Michigan. And I was taken wrapped in a blanket and then set loose in this jail with all these prostitutes who were screaming and yelling for me and reaching through the bars, and they grabbed me and were running their fingers through my hair. The whole thing really frightened me and I think really just ruined my entire outlook on women entirely. I turned around because I was about to cry, I wanted some help from my grandmother, and I saw her pointing a snub-nosed .38 at these women because she was of course making sure that they weren’t going to hurt me in any way. Anyway, the whole thing did not give me a very good message about women. It told me that women were dangerous and had to be kept at gunpoint.

EPG: When did you first start writing poetry?

AM: I wrote my first poem when I was 15 years old. We’d just moved from Detroit, Michigan, to Sacramento, and it was on the occasion of my first trip into San Francisco with my parents. We came across the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin headlands, and the whole bridge was just floating in this beautiful bank of fog, and I was inspired to write a poem about it. And that was my first juvenile effort. Shortly thereafter, while still in high school, a friend of mine, my best friend in high school, Mick Martin, who now is the leader of the Mick Martin Blues Rocker Band or whatever the hell he calls it, uh, he and I did this poetry magazine while in high school, James Marshall High School, called "Lost." And unfortunately, all of the poems in that volume are lost.

EPG: So you’ve been in Sacramento since you were fifteen, but I’ve only seen you in the poetry scene in the last five years. Can you explain that?

AM: Well, I didn’t really start writing poetry again in earnest until about ten years ago. I considered myself a writer. I had been a Journalism major and it was my intention when going to college to become a newspaperman. That didn’t happen. I instead switched to Philosophy, in which I got my degrees. The short story writing was successful enough, and I got published, but I didn’t really consider myself a poet. From a very early age, from high school on, I had bought into the whole idea, the whole idea fostered by Arthur Rimbaud that poetry was the work of seers, sages, of sorcerers, and I firmly believed that. And I felt that I was none of those things, that I was just an ordinary human being; and that if I wasn’t a sorcerer, I couldn’t possibly write poetry. It wasn’t until I ran into Francisco Alarcon at an event where I actually wrote a poem to commemorate the publishing of Jose Montoya’s first major collection of poetry that . . . it was during that time that he convinced me to become a poet, or he convinced me that I was one. He kept insisting that I was one. And finally, I caved in and started believing it myself. And from that point on, I started writing in earnest. And that was about 1992 or so.

EPG: Well I like it that you have that sense of not wanting to be hypocritical, because a lot of people, I don’t know, maybe they think that they are sorcerers or seers, and they really are misguided, and they just go out and write all this poetry . . . it sounds like you were really serious about that and kind of conflicted about that. And I felt that way too . . . . Did you ever help Mick Martin write songs or anything? Was he just another creative person, and you guys somehow hooked up?

AM: That’s basically how it was. I forget now exactly how I met him in high school. I believe it was in our Journalism classes because he was also interested in journalism, and we were both on the high school newspaper staff. He did start up a little garage band, the name of which escapes me now, but I recall that he was impressed enough by my voice that he kept begging me and begging me to sing with his band. Finally, I actually agreed to do it, and although I never wrote a song for Mick Martin’s band, I did sing "Help Me Rhonda" at Washington Elementary School.

EPG: I think that’s another type of poet, "poets who try to sing," which I think is not one of my favorite types of poet. Well you said you had a couple of degrees in Philosophy, Master’s in Philosophy? Why did you end up getting an advanced degree in Philosophy?

AM: I was an insufferable snob is basically how it happened. I started off as a Journalism major and was a Journalism major for the first two years of my college career. I quickly came to the discovery that I wasn’t getting the sort of education that I really wanted. I wanted a classical education. And I felt that the best way to get that education was to major in Philosophy. In Spanish-speaking countries there is actually a major called, "Filosofia y Letras," "Philosophy and Letters." There is no such thing in this country, so I took the other half of it and I left off the "Letras."

EPG: So did you take any formal poetry classes or many literature classes?

AM: No. Never. As a matter of fact, during my entire college career, I only took the minimum basic requirement in English, English 1A and 1B. I know how to speak English, and I’ve spoken English since an early age, so I really saw no need to take English courses. I also felt that I was reading widely enough, and I preferred my own eccentric approach, my own organic approach, to digesting literature, rather than being spoon fed it.

EPG: Yeah, I kind of felt that same way too, because I made up my own major, it was an "individual" major, just a conglomeration of different classes, Philosophy, and Comparative Literature. So were your parents very literate?

AM: No. My mother was kind of an airhead. My father was a very jovial, witty, worldly, wise-cracking, incredible force of nature. Both of them together were rather like a kind of Mexican-American version of George Burns and Gracie Allen, if you can imagine such a thing. My father had a very interesting background. His father, Jose Macedonia Mantecon, was the founder and owner of "El Grande Circo Mantecon," a circus that was founded in San Antonio, Texas, and later changed its headquarter base to Monterey, Mexico, which is where my grandfather was from. My father’s three-quarter brothers, they were not his half-brothers, they were his three-quarter brothers and sisters because my grandfather married two sisters. The earlier, the first children were the children of my, let’s see, what would she have been? My aunt, no wait, my grand-aunt. It was my father’s aunt who was the mother of the first Mantecon children. When she died of the Spanish Flu around 1918 or so, my grandfather married her sister, my father’s mother. So his siblings were his three-quarter brothers and sisters. The circus provided a very surrealistic childhood, to say the least, for my father, as whenever they would blow into town, come into Laredo, they would scoop him up and take him on their excursions, on their roadtrips throughout the Southwest, all the way up to St. Louis. And he would help out with selling peanuts, and he would also take part in the "convite." The convite is a Spanish term for when the circus comes through town, you march through the center of the town banging on a drum and playing the trumpet, and saying, "The circus is here! The circus is here!" That is the convite which he partook in. And, at any rate, no my parents were not literate.

EPG: But maybe you’re doing the same thing as your father, kind of just saying, "The poets are here! The poets are here!" because you’re mc’ing a lot of things around town, it seems like. So there’s probably something there, in your dreams, right?

AM: I don’t know. I never thought I was very like my father. As a matter of fact, I would often be revolted by the idea that I was anything like him. I was always very shy and retiring as a younger man, and he was extremely outgoing, always singing, always whistling, making some sort of wise-crack, always calling every strange woman, "Mary," every strange man, "John." He was just very very outgoing and I couldn’t stand it. But as I grow older, I find myself becoming more and more like him, which disturbs me a great deal.

EPG: With all of this training in Philosophy, how did you start working for the State?

AM: Well, it’s like this. Right after I got out of graduate school, it turned out that none of the big philosophy firms were hiring anybody, so I had to find some other line of work. And I started off basically as a busboy at an elementary school here in Sacramento. I then got a real job with Social Security, with the Federal government. And then from there, I went on to work for the State. It’s not been a bad career choice. I make more money than most professors do, and I have the leisure, the intellectual leisure, to do really whatever I want after work and not really have to think a great deal about what I do for a living.

EPG: So are you thinking about retiring at all, any time soon?

AM: I can’t retire any time soon. I recently separated from my wife, and we sold a big fat house in Elk Grove. With the money I got from the sale of that house, I was able to buy my own house in Midtown. It’s a thirty-year mortgage, and I figure I will be about 85 years old when that mortgage is paid off. So no, I can’t afford to really retire any time soon.

EPG: Max Schwartz calls you "the scientist," in reference to your job, because I guess you do some type of research there. But you call yourself an "etymologist"? Can you talk about what kinds of things do you do? Do you sit around looking up words?

AM: Constantly. No, one of my great joys is leafing through dictionaries of different sorts. Now that I have the Internet at my disposal, that’s a lot easier for me to do. Before, it would necessitate going off to some college and looking into old dictionaries. I especially like looking at encyclopedias from the 19th century. They have such a unique perspective. At that time, it was felt that everything could be explained in terms of chemicals. If you look at old encyclopedia articles from the 19th century, you will see everything from butter to lions and tigers being described in terms of chemicals. But, yes, I do sit around looking at a lot of words. Etymology is one of the real fascinations of my life. I believe that we really don’t understand who we are, where we were, and where we came from, unless we really understand the origins of the words that we’re using. And knowing these origins gives you some real insight when it comes to any kind of descriptive artistry.

EPG: I want to hear you describe a tiger using chemical terms.

AM: Well, I can’t really do it real justice, but the articles in question would probably break a tiger down into terms of carbon and sulfur, sulfur being probably the composition of most of the hair or fur of the tiger. The carbon and water and other elements that are involved in the tiger’s body would also be a part of the article.

EPG: Well, I really like the 19th century myself too, just a lot of discovery going on, and that’s when the novel really came into being, and a lot of good writing, philosophers. Who are some of your favorite authors, and do you have any favorite genres?

AM: I don’t know if I have a favorite genre, per se. I like anything excessive. I believe that Oscar Wilde was right when he said that, "Nothing succeeds like excess." And I think you can see that in my poetry; it is so excessive I think, that it would really curl the hair of most of the people that go to the Sacramento Poetry Center. Now your question was, who are my favorite authors? I can tell you right now that the authors that I keep going back to and that hold me enthralled are Rabelais, who I think wrote absolutely the greatest book ever in the history of Western civilization, followed closely by Cervantes’ "Quixote," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ "Hundred Years of Solitude," by Joyce’s "Ulysses." My gosh, what else? What else has really just blown me away? "Alice’s Adventures through the Looking Glass," as well as the "Adventures in Wonderland," Borges’ short stories. These are the things that have really delighted me, along with some really idiosyncratic favorites like G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Sir Max Birbaum, writers of that sort.

EPG: Do you think poetry has a purpose?

AM: It has absolutely no purpose whatsoever other than to get one laid.

EPG: So is that why you write poetry?

AM: No, absolutely not. No, that’s not why I write poetry at all. And I hope that no one takes me seriously when I said that. I was just thinking mainly of ______ and _______ [poets whose names have been censored] when I said that. No, I believe that the real purpose of poetry is beauty. And that is what I aim for. I aim for beauty, excitement, fear, terror, absolute mystification. Even though I know I am not Arthur Rimbaud, I still have that ideal in my mind. I want to achieve that level. I know I never will, but that is my aim. And that is what I want to do. I want to achieve mystery, I want to achieve beauty, through the simple liberation of a lyric.

Copyright 2002 EPG and Art Mantecon