Week Four: Robert Mittenthal
Reading his work, downtown Seattle, February 2009
Robert Mittenthal is a curator of the subtext reading series (SubtextReadingSeries.blogspot.com) in Seattle. His most recent books are Value Unmapped (Nomados) and Wax World, which is forthcoming from Chax. He believes (after Blaser) that the poetic is the language of the mapless.
1. Tell about a book that you have loved for at least a decade.
I can tell of an "event" resembling a one night stand. It was an experience I'll always remember, even though it's been distorted in my memory. I haven't reread the book since the event, and I'm unlikely to go back to it. Anyway, more than ten years ago, I had an encounter with Maurice Blanchot's Thomas The Obscure, translated by Robert Lamberton. It was a book I'd had around and tried to read a number of times with no success. One evening I tried again, and suddenly the book had me and I was riveted, paralysed, unable to stop reading. In fact, I was scared to get up for fear that I'd interrupt the spell that I was under. I read it in one sitting, or rather it read me. That's the sensation I remember. It was as if the book had read me. When finished I was left confused, stunned – I wasn't sure what had happened. In retrospect, I remember only the experience and almost nothing about the story. JG Ballard's Crash or Burrough's Naked Lunch or Bataille's Story of the Eye are other examples of books that leave you with the feeling of being read, of being repulsed and attracted at the same time, but their stories are more easily retold.
2. What circumstances are most conducive to your creative work?
To name another title of a book: Space, Time & Spacetime. A diet of adventurous ideas. The adjectives: double, nonfat, extra hot.
3. What is the biggest myth about being a writer? Something you’ve unlearned through your work.
“These are my words.” Reverse (or stop rehearsing) the unlearning, that is, stop worrying about influence and begin to influence yourself.
4. What is the writer’s responsibility — in relation to the world, the current state of events? How do you experience the daily news? Does this process enter your writing?
Duty is in a way a very unhappy concept. Not all constraints should be happily embraced.
My work is informed by politics, economics, and aesthetics. But whether a literary text works subversively or not depends less on one’s intent than on the so-called political forces that seize upon a description of the world. That said, I do remain as interested in how words use me as how I appear to be using them.
As a consumer of information, the daily news is a staple of my diet, though it often tastes pre-processed and artificial.
5. What is the role of place in your writing? Or, where are you, when you are working (physically, mentally, etc). What is your residence of word-ing?
To quote David Bromige, "I draw a blank." Maybe it is a habit that holds me back. I fear Place as a limitation or constraint.
6. What questions would you like to explore through your work at the moment? Talk about a work in process, or your most recent work.
All writing and reading as translation or in translation. I’ve been doing a translation or rewriting of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall – using a randomized version of the text as vocabulary. But this question of translation is really so broad as to effect anything one reads or writes.
In "Diseconomy of Scale", which appears in Wax World, forthcoming from Chax, I tried to write something that would mimic a structure that’s so big that it collapses under its own weight. It seems impossible to even imagine how capitalism could come to an end. A diseconomy of scale is one notion of how this could happen. The piece itself seems destined to fail, but I’m afraid it does not fail for being too enormous. Amazingly enough, the concept seems very timely, with all the talk now of protecting these behemoth financial entities that are allegedly “too big to fail.”
I continue to work on how to collaborate more effectively with myself and others. Lately I’ve been working on thumb poems. It’s a relatively new technological form, that subsumes the hand and has the allure of a more immediate communiqué.
7. On method, provide a writing assignment, tactic or process that you’ve found useful.
With Nico Vassilakis, I did collaborative work which came out of attending the same concerts. We work in very different ways, so I think the collaboration proved useful for both of us. The tactic – Nico’s really – is a way to keep moving by inverting a text that isn't quite right, reversing it to shake it loose and get it to breathe again.
8. Talk about the relationship between your creative work and any other work you do.
I thought the provocative idea these days was non-creative writing. The drudgery of translation, moving text from one box to another.
I don’t see much direct relationship. I work as a so-called knowledge worker in a lawfirm. I consider it a no collar job. It does ground me in the world and it exposes me to interesting disfunctions in the economy. There is a distinct class structure, but it’s like a university where there are plateaus of power – most everything is run by committee. Unavoidably, some of this bleeds into the work.
9. What is the most pleasurable aspect of your writing life?
The actual flash (or is it flesh?) – moving into and through the motion. The forgetting. The not looking back. It’s this allure which calls one back for more punishment.
That’s the retrograde answer, very un-non-creative writing.
Poetry Lives at the Video Inn
by Robert Mittenthal
Where a critic fears to say "I hate poetry"
A program of iron instruments – faking a move down a vulgar path
A reign of disappointments next to the occasional
Explosion and missed chance
Failure befriends one's other half
We she he that once pronounced
Airspace of the other
White walls and chain link
Bound to resist ideals (it’s true!)
The market prefers itself
Prepurchased contracts where language
Is bought and sold. I hedged what will be will be
Doris Day’s simple repetition built to an uproar
Lost time as a forge of memory
Platoons march thru an image
All three of them re-enacting
First question then argument
Interrogation as the excavation of the adjacent walls
Pixels the size of sand
We met at Blackhat
Three paces to the right
Swarms of flies in our wake
Carnage is for the rest of us
The bot-farm or army
Used to deploy information
The plasma hooks up
Who wagers to halt right there
Cowboys blue in the face
Backdrop where pixel density was
Never so immune to the eyes
Rev’d up end to end