[photo credit: Corey H. Jones/CPR News]
Mathias Svalina is the author of four books of poetry – the most recent of which, The Wine-Dark Sea, was published by Sidebrow Books in 2016 – and one book of fiction. He is also a co-editor at Octopus Books, a small poetry press operating out of Portland. Though based in Denver, he will be peripatetic for the year as he writes personalized dream-poems and delivers them by bicycle to subscribers in various cities. For the month of November, Tucson and The Museum of Contemporary Art, with the help of the Poetry Center, hosts Mathias and his Dream Delivery Service. I met with him last week to discuss this service, his inspirations, the distinctions between writing poems and delivering dreams, and the vagaries of dream logic.
Paul Bisagni: Tell me about the genesis of the Dream Delivery Service.
Mathias Svalina: One version of it is that I needed a job. I was broke, and I have a very limited skillset. I’m really good at making things weird. So, I came up with the project kind of as a joke and kind of as a way to devise a summer job that would be fun as I was teaching in Denver. I ended up realizing that it brought together all the things that I actually enjoy about my life: writing all day long, biking around cities (especially when they’re empty in the middle of the night), and getting to be weird. I kept doing it, and this year, I’m doing dream deliveries for a month in various cities and seeing where that takes me.
P: Making things weird. What about the Dream Delivery Service is something that’s made weird, or what was the thing that you made weird and that is now manifest as weird in the Dream Delivery Service?
M: The continual use of dream logic or surreal logic. Every day I’m sitting down and writing, on good days, 40 little surrealist narratives that go out into the world, and at the very least, maybe 20-25 every day. Whatever my mind does, I look around the world, and things go surreal; they melt into a sort of surreal version of themselves, which I identify as the noncommittal causality of dream logic. In many ways, there’s a lot of rigidity to it – every day I’m doing the exact same thing. It’s not weird; it’s very routine, and subscribers come to expect getting a little pink envelope at their door every day. It’s that continually weird version or vision of the world.
P: What motivates you to go to certain cities? Is there a motivation, or is it just where you feel inspired to go?
M: Cities that I want to spend a month in; cities where I think that there is enough of an arts community and enough of a DIY-interested arts community, and also a city where there’s enough space that the odd thing I’m doing might be noticed. But also, I came to Tucson because I really love Tucson, and every time I’ve been here, I’ve tried to find a way to stay for a longer period of time.
P: Service is in the name of what you do. How do you conceive of this as a service, if you do conceive of it as a service? How does that relate to poetry writing in general, if that’s a service?
M: Most of anything I do in life starts as a joke, and the aesthetics that I choose or the choices that I make when I’m devising something are usually because it seems funnier this way or that way. I think it just seemed funny to have it as a delivery service like Grub Hub, to frame it less as an art project or a performance project or a writing project and more as something you order and click on and it arrives. So, the service element, to me, is more about the workmanlike elements of it.
P: Like it’s a trade, almost.
M: Yeah. The things that I’m talented at are not really interesting to me; the art part of this is not that fascinating to me. I’m fascinated by the bike routes and the work of getting things done every day and having to write eight to ten hours a day. That’s the part of it that’s really fascinating to me: the physical work parts of it.
P: Do you think that contemporary poetry is removed from that?
M: No, poetry is like all kinds of writing. There’s work to it and time invested in honing a craft and refining a skill and finding a voice and a niche. Poetry is very often removed from the capital element of it, so the economic use value of poetry is usually pretty limited, but that doesn’t diminish the work; it puts it into alternative economies, economies of prestige, or economies where the work of the poetry and the exposure of the poetry lead to other forms of employment or commerce. It’s never removed. If you are investing time into x and putting x into the word, and there’s competition for x, that’s work. Then there’s all the different levels of how that work gets manipulated or controlled.
P: When you were teaching poetry and delivering dreams in the same year, was there any interconnection, or did you think of them as discrete, distinct practices? Did they bleed into each other at all?
M: I did some workshops. One of the things that I end up falling back on when I teach poetry is a sort of, “This is my process, so it works for me; maybe it’ll work for you,” period. So, I’ll have students work in a repetitive form and over-write inside of that repetitive form, and at some point, usually during the semester, I try not to impose my process or my aesthetic uniformly on students. I just did a two-day workshop in South Carolina that was about finding a nonpoetic form and then trying to write excessively inside of that form. I take some elements of what I do in the dream stuff and use it in teaching, and it also overlaps a lot with some of my books that I’ve written, some of which are in repetitive, surrealist modes. For a long time, I was trying to keep the dream delivery stuff separate from everything else. I wanted to keep it cryptic and ephemeral – I wouldn’t do interviews about it, I wouldn’t talk about it. I wanted it to just be a very intimate, DIY experience without much backstory. But now that I’m trying to live off it for a year or two, I’m trying to strike a balance between cryptic and ephemeral and also available, trying to find a way to self-promote and still maintain some of the mystery that I want it to keep. Even saying that aloud lessens the mystery of it, like I’m trying to fabricate mystery.
P: Because you’ve talked about it as a service, I’m wondering if people have expressed interest in being apprentices. Now I’m thinking in labor terms. Are there any acolytes?
M: It is very little money for a lot of work, so normally people just tell me that I’m not charging enough or that I’m working too hard when it comes up like that. Nobody else seems to be interested in doing what I’m doing. Also, I like that I get to do the majority of it all alone and be alone with my project for long stretches of time. I’m not sure I would even welcome the idea of an apprentice. Someone was joking that I need an intern to plan logistics and everything. I’m not good at any of that stuff. If somebody wanted to buy me or buy the project and just have me as an employee and they would set up all the structure of it, and I would just do the work – that would be great. But the idea of devising or delegating responsibilities to people, that’s the stuff I don’t want to do – inside of offices, of universities, that’s not my skillset. I hope I’m a good teacher; I think I’m an okay writer; I’m a decent editor; and I can do this weird thing where I write all day and bike around. So, I’m trying to only do the things that make me feel good, and I don’t need much money in my life, so the tradeoff of living in poverty while doing things I’m happy to do – I’ll accept that tradeoff.
P: It’s interesting to think of the service as a “weird” thing because when you describe it, elementally, it’s simple.
M: I hope so.
P: You deliver a poem by bike to another person. It’s interesting that people would perceive that as weird, when it’s really a simple act of exchange.
M: The fact that they’re dreams and not poems is more…I don’t know. I think if I had a poem delivery service, I would have very little interest in it. The fact that it’s a dream delivery service, and that’s the form and the rhetoric that I’m repeatedly doing, the intimacy and the sort of offset quality of receiving a dream that is your dream every day – is more interesting and more fruitful than a poem delivery service. I don’t think of them as poems; I don’t have a lot of interest in genre distinctions to begin with, but I think of them as the form, which is the dream.
P: How do you make them personal?
M: They’re written in second person, so almost all of them will start with something like, “You’re in a quarry, and above you, snakes are leaning their heads over the edge of the quarry, and they’re whispering the names of your friends from elementary school…” Things that are sort of Jungian and iconic, and things that are open enough so that the reader will inevitably fill in. In some ways, it’s like the cold-reading tricks of a fortune teller or a fortune cookie, and in some ways, it’s just very basic, an aesthetic relationship that happens. Probably a third of subscribers I’ve either met or I know something about because it’s mostly circulated throughout Poetry Town. I might know that they have a dog, I might know that they lived in Honduras – things like that, where I can slip in personal references that make it slightly tailored to them, but I try not to make it too much like, “You and your partner Darryl are walking into your yellow kitchen.” So, it’s merely individuated, merely tailored. It’s mostly about trying to create spaces that people can feel dream intimacy in, I hope. I’m also very tired when I’m writing them, and I write so many every day that I don’t actually remember any of them, so when I’m trying to call up examples, instead I just make up new ones.
P: This isn’t about a specific poem, but psychoanalysis is often applied to dreams, or I associate it with dreams because of Freud, and you’ve mentioned surrealism or absurdism in interviews and in your poems. To me, psychoanalysis doesn’t really go with those two because you’re analyzing something, you’re rubbing up against the absurd, combatting it. Is this something that people have mentioned to you or that you’ve thought about?
M: Yeah. Usually, if you tell your friend, “I dreamed I was inside of a cougar, and I was wearing a living cougar as my skin, but the cougar was making all the actions, and then I ripped a zebra in half, and inside of that zebra there was a baby, and I knew it was my baby,” your friend would be like, “Oh man, what does that mean?” There’s this turn from the dream to an instance of interpretation, and that’s the oldest thing with dreams. They’re divinatory. Whereas from my perspective, I’m just writing the narrative part. I’m not really thinking about or projecting or desiring any exegesis at all. Weird shit happens, and there’s some less weird shit that’s kind of normal. I’m sort of looking at it as a form. I’ve had subscribers who will say, “You wrote this dream for me, and it totally makes sense because of this and this and this, and this is my relationship with my mom.” My response is always like, “Wow. Cool. I just thought, when you opened the bag of Fritos and a handful of wrenches fell out, that that was weird.” So, once you call something a dream, it’s used differently than a poem. Sentence fragments. Those things are interesting to me.
P: I have one last question: which poets do you admire, or which poets are doing the kinds of projects that you consider harmonious with yours?
M: I don’t know. I feel like I tend to not have much interest in poets who might be aesthetically similar to me. When I’m asked about influences, there are obviously people I write in a similar manner to, like James Tate and Calvino. Everybody in American surrealism is kind of ripping off Calvino and Kafka in various ways. They’re important to me, but they’re not the people I’m really excited about. I really love Camille Rankine’s book. She’s amazing. I really love Jay Wright; he’s one of the writers who, since I was a teenager, has been really important to me. I think I learned about Lorca and Villejo through Jay Wright and his homages to them. Lucille Clifton is a poet who, in the last decade, I’ve read very deeply and thought about very much. Larry Levis is another poet I like from my teenage years. I love this intellectual phenomenology of the world that he can do inside of his narrative poems about, like, thinking about his buddy. I feel like the ones who are harmonious with me or who might share aesthetic similarities with my stuff, I’m not particularly interested in reading. People who can write these crisp, terse lyrics are the amazing ones; the people who can write these socially, politically engaged narratives are the real writers. If you can write weird shit, you’re just boring. I can do that, too, and I’m boring.
P: So, how do I subscribe to the Dream Delivery Service? I want to participate.
M: There’s a website – dreamdeliveryservice.com – and you sign up through PayPal. It costs $40 for the delivery service, and I deliver in a four-mile radius of my home base, so for anybody outside that, it’s $40 plus postage. People in Tucson can get it delivered to their door every day before dawn, and people outside Tucson can get it through the mail every day for a month.
P: Well, I look forward to receiving whatever I receive, whatever you conceive.
Originally from New York, Paul Bisagni is nominally a student of applied linguistics at The University of Arizona, though he bristles at most disciplinary classifications. When he is not studying or teaching, he tries to read for pleasure, to see as many independent films as he can, and to moderate the antics of his cats, Algernon and Boudicca. He thinks obsessively about actresses, the future, and baby names.