Mathias Svalina is standing at the end of my driveway in the dark. His stature is average, from the looks of his silhouette, but his body language appears slight—nervous. I can see a billow of fog from his breath. It’s 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday, November 30—the last day of Svalina’s Tucsonan dream delivery—and 29 degrees Fahrenheit in midtown Tucson.
“Come on in,” I whisper, waving through the doorway.
“Okay,” he says, his tone vaguely confused.
He rolls his black Raleigh road bicycle into the kitchen, where I’ve fixed up a bowl of fruit and yogurt for him to eat before completing the last leg of his deliveries.
“Do you want the lights turned on?” I ask.
“Oh, um, I’m fine with this if you are,” he says. He sits in the dark, eating breakfast. He takes his helmet off, commenting that an old student of his—she’s a subscriber to the dream delivery service—knitted his sage green wool hat.
From November 1 until today, Svalina has been delivering original dreams to 51 subscribers, including his old student, and me. Each dream he writes is between 100 and 300 words, sometimes tedious, sometimes laced with absurdist humor, sometimes with a typo or two, and always defined by surrealist logic. He delivers each of them in pink envelopes.
Svalina has been doing this for a month at a time in cities across the country for two years, starting in Denver, Colorado. With support from the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson and the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, Svalina and his dreams came to Tucson. Before Tucson, it was Richmond, Virginia. Next, it’ll be Marfa, Texas. Then New Orleans. Then Chicago.
This morning he’s allowed me to join him for part of his route through Tucson, a daily 40-mile bike ride. Even in the dark, you can’t miss Svalina’s mustard yellow pants with the bottoms rolled up and his zip-up with neon green sleeves as he weaves through the grid of Tucson’s streets. He pedals up Columbus, down Campbell, across Fort Lowell and Grant, leaving behind pink envelopes in every direction.
As he quietly ducks in and out of the desert suburbs, I recall something Svalina said in an earlier conversation we had at the Poetry Center, sitting next to a shelf stacked with four of his poetry books: “Mine is a service that nobody needs.” Svalina was self-deprecating, but not wrong. Indeed, nobody needs dreams delivered to their door every morning. Yet 51 people paid for just that. I start to wonder who lives in each house we stop at, and why they wanted the dreams, and what our community gains from this kind of visitor.
Svalina has since left Tucson, but his subscribers remain. And to answer my lingering questions about his impact, I spoke to some of them.
Sarah Gzemski is a publicity coordinator for the UA’s Poetry Center, and a poet herself. Gzemski knew of Svalina’s work before he arrived in Tucson. As a graduate student at New Mexico State University, she saw Svalina give poetry readings two or three times.
“I’ve always admired his work for its strangeness. In his writing, he has a unique and impressive understanding of dream logic and the way dreams work,” she says.
She subscribed to the dream delivery service—at least initially—because, “It was intriguing. To have a dream delivered to your house every day isn’t an opportunity that comes around often, if ever. It was exciting.”
But for Gzemski, the dreams brought with them a comforting sense of routine that, at times, did feel like a need, contrary to Svalina’s statement. “There were times this past month that I did need it. A lot of things in the world are in turmoil right now, and to have something that I could rely on showing up every day at my door felt comforting, like taking your dog for a walk or making morning coffee,” says Gzemski.
The Sunday after the presidential election, she says, Svalina’s dream was something she “needed to read.” It was about a group of corpses in a graveyard—mostly sure they were, in fact, dead—but, one by one, slowly realizing that they were actually alive, and helping one another get up, and get moving.
The UA’s Poetry Center has a responsibility to help expose the Tucson community to this kind of work, she says, because “We have the ability to do that. It’s a one-of-a-kind place in this world. The fact that Tucson, Arizona has this is important. It means we are a center for arts and arts education,” says Gzemski. “We have the ability to help people relate to poetry in all kinds of ways.”
Svalina’s residency in Tucson allowed Gzemski, who has lived in Tucson for just six months now, to feel a strong sense of community. “To know that there were other people getting dreams—some who I know, and some who I don’t—was intriguing. I wondered about other peoples’ dreams a lot.” She adds, “The fact that Tucson and the University foster something like the dream delivery service makes me feel at home here, and like I belong here.”
Kim Stoll, a development specialist at the Pima Animal Care Center, subscribed to Svalina’s dream delivery service, too. She hadn’t heard of Svalina before, but had seen the service advertised by the Poetry Center.
For Stoll, the dreams were a way to connect to Svalina, herself, her friends, and the community. The only contact she ever had with Svalina, she says, was when he emailed her asking if he should start leaving the dreams in her mailbox instead of at her door, because he was waking up her dogs by coming to the door. “That became my image of him: A guy tiptoeing up to my door every morning, trying to be as quiet as possible,” she says. “I just thought that was nice.”
She felt connected to the blocks of prose left at her door every morning, reading them like horoscopes, searching for their meaning in her own life. “It was like someone else writing my subconscious, which is weird, but cool.”
After reading her own each morning, she would discuss the dreams with friends who also subscribed. “We’d start the day talking about our poems,” she says. “It also made me think about other people going out to their porches, all of the doorsteps in Tucson, what they look like, what the people look like. A single person delivering something to many different people can connect them in that way.”
One of those people, Dana Diehl, agrees. Diehl, a second and third grade humanities teacher at BASIS Primary, particularly enjoyed the dreams delivered on Sundays, because, on Sundays, all subscribers received the same dream.
“I loved that the poems on Sundays were the same for, and shared by, everyone who received them,” says Diehl. “In the same way I imagined the poet riding his bike around town dropping off poems, I could imagine subscribers reading the same dream, at the same time, and I really liked feeling that connection.”
Diehl knows that Svalina takes his dream delivery service all over the country, but, to her, it felt natural to Tucson: “It makes sense to me that this would happen in Tucson. Tucson is a very quirky, strange place. There’s a lot of different histories and cultures squeezed into—and mingling in—one space, in this place where, actually, it feels like nothing should exist. It’s kind of a miracle.”
Svalina will be in Marfa, Texas this month, delivering dreams to residents there. In the meantime, Tucsonan subscribers continue to feel the power of his month-long stay in the little city on the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert: A renewed closeness to the place, and its people.