INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINA MANTECÓN AT THE MANTECÓN RESIDENCE, ELK GROVE, 7/28/04 BY ESKIMO PIE GIRL
EPG: So can you just give me a brief overview of your life?
CM: O.K. I'm originally from New Jersey. Family with 3 girls and a boy. I was the oldest. When I was 18, I met this guy; and I guess in the back of my head I was thinking I could hook up with this guy and this would get me out of the house. And since I had no prospects at home after high school, I just married real fast. We wound up moving out here to California because we were expecting our first child, and his parents were relocating to California and [they] said, "You know, education is really cheap in California. So if you want to come with us, you can live with us and go to school." And so my first husband went to Sac State and after Steven was born, I went to Sac State as well and we did some time in Junior college and we both finished school, or actually "he" finished school, and was a Programmer. And by then we had two kids, two boys. But I realized that the house that we were gonna build outside of Rancho Seco in Ione that was my dream house was not enough to stay in the marriage for. And we were divorced that year. And after another marriage and divorce, I wound up with four kids at 26, and at that point, I started a ten-year sabbatical from relationships. And I got a job and put myself through school. I went to Sac State. And was really fervent about just focusing on how I'm gonna get us all out of this thing. You know, being a single mother in a two-bedroom apartment with four kids, it was a disaster.
So I went to Sac State and got my degree in English. And just as I was graduating, I met this guy who had a job as a Student Assistant and as a Technical Writer, and he said to me, "We're looking for another Technical Writer if you're interested." And I thought, "I would never survive an office job." I had been a waitress for years. That's how I put myself through school. And I just did not see me slowing down enough to do office work, or wearing panty hose. I just didn't see me doing that. But I figured I could try. So I did and was there for seven years. So since I was a Student Assistant, I finished my B.A. and then just continued on at Sac State to get my Master's. And then I had an opportunity to just keep the same job, but do it as a Contractor and make a lot of money. And so I've been making a lot of money for four years. And just sacrificed everything, just everything. So four years ago was when I was probably doing the most of my writing 'cus I was in grad school 'cus you have to. You've got deadlines.
EPG: So when did you start writing poetry?
CM: When I originally went to Sac State, I thought I was gonna do either Nursing or Pre-Med. And after about a year of doing the science prereqs and just killing myself, it occurred to me that what came naturally to me was writing and literature, and what didn't come naturally to me was science. I could do it, but it just wrung me out, so I figured I'd change majors. Plus I was studying with Kathryn Hohlwein, and she was just amazing, and she said to me, "You shouldn't go into science, you should go into English." So I switched, and so most of my writing started then. So that would be like '97, '98.
EPG: So did you have any expectations when you were younger that you would become a writer?
CM: For a short time when I was in high school, I had a wonderful English teacher in New Jersey. I went to an urban high school in New Jersey, and it really was a good school compared to California's schools. I always look back at that and I say, "We had Latin. They were teaching Swahili." And this guy was wonderful, and he just taught American Romanticism and I swallowed it whole and loved it. But I had no family support and so me going to college . . . it didn't matter what the SAT scores were, it didn't matter what I wanted, there was no support. And I just didn't have the, I guess, the initiative . . . I had initiative, but I couldn't figure out how to get to college on my own. I didn't see a way to do it. You know, I wanted it, but I just couldn't . . . it's very different back East. Everyone is pointing to Ivy League. Everything is so expensive. And even the community colleges are prohibitively expensive. It was all about money.
EPG: So when did you write your first poem?
CM: The first real poem that I wrote is in, "Whispers Along the Delta." It's called, "Little Girl Four." And I wrote it as a response to Jenny having had heart surgery when she was three years old. She was premature when she was born, 2 pounds, 13 ounces. . . Are you o.k. with the cat? I'd hate to have the hives start bothering you, like anaphylactic shock.
EPG: I'm not allergic to cats.
CM: If you have a sick baby, if you go through the kind of trauma that I went through with Jenny when she was born, and she's my only daughter, it just doesn't leave you easily. And I felt so terribly guilty that I was responsible for her prematurity, that there must've been something I'd done. And I carried it pretty heavily. And then when we found out when she was three that she did have an anomaly in her heart and she needed the surgery, it just, just broke me up. And I thought, you know we'd gotten her through, and it seemed like she was developing normally. People didn't have a great prognosis for the treatability of disabilities. And I got her to three and she was doing great and then she needed heart surgery, and it just devastated me, as much as they told me, "Oh, it's fine. You know, they come out of it fine, it's not a big deal." So I decided to write, "Little Girl Four" for her fourth birthday in July. And that was it. That was the first poem I wrote. And I didn't think much of it, but then I went to, I guess it was just a little gathering of women writers at Kathryn Hohlwein's house, my professor, and I read the poem, and I was really surprised that the feedback there was so positive; and that's when I started actually writing. I always considered myself more interested in doing critical analysis, imagined that maybe I'd teach. I started to think as I was getting close to the end of my Bachelor's degree that maybe I'd transfer to Davis and get a Ph.D. I looked at the University at Santa Cruz, but the logistics of the four kids. Hello? You know, I mean, I knew that it wasn't going to be an easy option. But that's when I started writing and decided to go on in the Master's Program in Creative Writing.
EPG: I was going to ask you if having children changed your poetry, but I guess in some ways they were the cause for your poetry.
CM: Yeah, they were always right here. I had Steven when I was 19, and so I've always been a mother, it's integral. I never got to be, you know I never really got even to be a woman without being a mother. They were always right there.
EPG: Your mother read at your wedding, and I just wondered if she was a writer.
CM: She is. My mom is . . . she's always written. My childhood memory is that any time I . . . no matter how early we would wake up in the morning, my mother was always sitting on the couch in our family room, writing. Always, always writing. She's very religious and she's been studying the Bible for like 30 years. And that was her place, with a cup of coffee, always writing. And she keeps like five different journals, and they all have to do with this Biblical study that she does and her own spiritual journey. And no one will ever read it, but she just has boxes of these journals that she's kept.
EPG: Did she ever write letters? Or did you ever write letters to her?
CM: Yeah, well when I moved out here to California, we corresponded between the two of us when I was 18, 19. And then she came out after I came out here, and she settled here in California. She lives in Santa Cruz. At this point now, she's the one between the two of us who's actually writing. She lives in Santa Cruz and she belongs to a writer's group, and she's interested in the contemporary Christian market. She's a big fan of Annie Lamott. And I am a big fan of Annie Lamott too. You know but we both kind of approach Annie from different sides. And that's o.k. because Annie's big enough. She can take it. But we have that in common, and I mean she definitely inspired me to read and to write. She kept a huge library and I just read from book to book. And I imagine you were the same way when you were a girl. It didn't matter what the book was, as long as I had something. That occupied my time.
EPG: When you write, is it like very slowly and carefully, or does it come all at once like Jack Kerouac?
CM: Usually, if I'm inspired, it does come fast, and it goes down on the page fast. A few times I've done pieces that I knew I was going to do over a long period of time and you just hold the germ. And I've got a number of things that I've held on to for ten years. I haven't had time to finish them. And so that comes a little more slowly, but generally it goes down fast on the page. I use a computer and I work fast.
EPG: It seems like a lot of your poems are like prose poems, telling a story.
CM: Yeah, narrative.
EPG: Did you ever try doing any different forms? Did you have to do any of that at school?
CM: Yeah, but it's not what comes natural for me. The line and the visual appearance of the line is really important to me. I mean, Art writes more of a prose poem style. And to me, I like the artifice of arranging the words and making my breaks and my spaces, and vertical space. That's all really important to me and I'm kind of pushing the look of his poems a little bit because he's mostly interested in the aural effect of the poem. And I'm saying, as it is on the page matters too, because this is the way most people experience poetry, is on the page. So that matters.
EPG: You've written several very powerful poems about women. Do other women inspire you?
CM: Yes, this one woman I know spent a couple of years in prison. And while she was in prison, I began sending her books because she was my captive audience. And so I pretty much went through the canon of what I had read as an undergrad. There was a little bookstore in Cameron Park where I lived, Bear Mountain Books, and I had just a stack of books. And every time I would think of another book, you know, I'd say, "Their Eyes Are Watching God! Do you have it?" And every week, 'cus I didn't have a lot of money, but every week it was, "Which book are we sending?" And some weeks, I would just go nuts, I'd be, "You have to send two, send two this week." And they were nice enough to ship these to the women's prison, women's correctional whatever, in New Jersey. And so this woman had the books and she read them, and then she began to pass them hand-to-hand to the other women in the correctional facility. You know most of these women are inner-city women minorities, and low socio-economic backgrounds. Usually women like that are in prison because of family violence. A lot of these women killed their husbands or killed the kids, and the tragedy . . . she began telling me about their stories. It was just wrenching. And so I would send her some books, like Cisneros, and she would read it and then she'd pass it to someone else, and she said, "These women are turning to me and saying, 'I didn't know they wrote books about us.' 'I didn't know we were in these stories, we were in these poems.'" And these books passed around the facility, and then eventually, it turned out, there were also a number of women there who were illiterate, couldn't read, and so they began to get a reading circle going and then a writing circle. And by the time she came out of prison, she'd decided to be an English major. And she just finished in May. So we definitely inspire each other. She's been working on . . . she just said to me the other day she sent off a number of poems that she had done about her daughter who's autistic to a publisher, and they're interested in it, and they asked her to send them 30 pages. So she's kind of moving in her own direction.
EPG: That's a great story.
CM: Yeah, it was a rough time, but she got the job done. She had that time. And those books went out.
EPG: As far as your own writing, do you have any kind of writing schedule?
CM: No, not a schedule. There are some old projects that I wanna get back to and start again. And Art is doing some translation work, and he's able to get something done every couple of days, and we go over it together. And a lot of the writing that he's done in the last year, really not that there's been a lot, but the poems that he's written, we collaborate. And I think that's really unique, to be in a marriage in which we're both poets. So everything's really ultimately shared. I guess it would be possible that I could sit by myself and write something and tell him, "No, I don't want you to see it," but I don't see that happening. I wanna share. You know that as you're moving through it, you do want to get the feedback, and so everything is shared.
EPG: So has your poetry changed since you got married?
CM: Well we were just married in October. No, but there's a lot more material. I guess there's humor.
EPG: Well I think your styles really complement each other. You both have really wonderful vocabularies.
CM: Well Art has a great vocabulary and I know how to . . . I have Rodale's synonym finder so I'm set and I have Art. "Give me five synonyms for this," and he can give 'em to you with a Latin root. But when I first heard him read . . . maybe the first time I heard him read, I didn't think to myself, "Boy, he has a writing style close to mine." But I just thought, he's dynamic, this guy is the best poet, bar none. I was amazed. And you know, he's such an unassuming guy. As soon as he puts the paper down, he falls over. I mean he's just fascinating.
EPG: Do you guys sit around and read the dictionary to each other?
CM: Yes, yes, yeah it is like that. And his dictionary is Spanish and English. There is that kind of appreciation for words, and we both have that love.
EPG: Sometimes when you write, you're writing about a specific place. You started writing in Sacramento, but do some of those other places you've lived, like Sutter Creek, come into your poetry?
CM: Yeah. And that's the way it is for us [poets]. Sutter Creek was really a special time. That's where I went after the second divorce, with my kids. Do you know it, the town, you've been there?
CM: It's such a funny . . the Mother Lode is interesting, it's not real. Sutter Creek is all fabricated. It used to be real. But I just, I guess for me at that point I needed the facade of "life is as simple as Mayberry and it can be as idyllic as Mayberry." And for me, I had eked out this little life for myself as the waitress in a cafe on the first block, and it was working. I did my job, and my kids went school, and we walked down to the creek. Even now, the kids and I, when we look back on those Sutter Creek years, we've written the narrative so that it is idyllic, and it has remained that. They only remember the good stuff. And mostly because I tried to carefully reformat it for them.
EPG: Who are some of the other poets who have influenced you?
CM: Well, I would say Mary Oliver, primarily. She's at the top. So many women say that. I can't read her enough. I could go through the list, I guess, but . . . I really enjoy reading novels as well, and I like writing prose. Do you write prose?
EPG: Yeah, I just do little fiction pieces. A lot of times I'm inspired by reading a novel. I'm filled with this great writing and I just take it and go off with it.
CM: I guess I've been inspired more by prose writers, Peter Carrie, an Australian novelist, and David Foster Wallace and I guess some of the stuff I'd read while I was in school. But I'm just in a place of reinvention right now. I love Rilke, and he makes me furious. I just have this love/hate relationship with men writers who have the opportunity to write that I don't have. I look at that. I can't tear myself away. It's like these pieces of paper glued together, and there's no separating me from the job I have to do with these people that live with me. I just can't get up from the table and walk away from it. So maybe I don't get to write much. That's the sacrifice.
EPG: But you'll have plenty of time to write later, and you'll have a lot more experiences to write about.
CM: I think that's so, as long as I don't get hit by a drunk driver.
EPG: I think a lot of those people, I don't know how old Rilke was, but they lived pretty gruesome and lonely existences. I mean they probably would have loved to have had a family.
CM: But they get to have it, and get to have somebody else taking care of it. Meanwhile, Art is in there doing the dishes. What do I have to complain about? He's a great guy.
EPG: Are you involved in any writing projects or events in Sacramento?
CM: Well, you have your finger on the pulse of the writing scene in Northern California.
EPG: I don't think so. I avoid it.
CM: Yeah, I've never been in the loop. And I don't know why anybody ever thinks that I was because I was never there.
EPG: I just think that everybody has an interesting story to tell, and I just want to put all of these stories out there.
© Christina Mantecón and Eskimo Pie Girl