Poet, author, and concept artist Mathias Svalina has hogged a great deal of my attention this past summer and fall. I discovered the wordsmith while browsing my library's online catalog for books of prose poems. The first one I swallowed up whole was 2011's I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur. Pitched as a novella, each page (more or less) is the tiny book is dedicated to a new invention with a new start-up company. Like putting padlocks on clouds. Like taking community members on a 'celebrity' bus tour through their own neighborhoods. Seeping further and further into the absurd and the surreal (building a skyscraper in your likeness), the book of creative madness (which speaks volumes on society) had me scrambling to gather the remaining four copies of Svalina's work available at our library. While we carry five total (I can't recommend Wastoid enough), Svalina has released (at least) twelve books in the last ten years.
Honing in on the conceptual, the prolific Svalina has a book where every poem is a creation myth and a book where every poem is an ode/fable to a lover. Even his most recent, 2016's The Wine-Dark Sea, is a book where every page-long poem is simply called 'The Wine-Dark Sea'. With that playful absurdism in mind (while still covering plenty of serious topics), he properly kicks things up a notch with his active Dream Delivery Service, a subscription-based program that started in 2014 where Svalina writes and sends subscribers one dream every day for a month. If anyone lives within a four mile radius of his location at the time (currently Denver), he will drop the dreams off personally. It's worth noting that nightmares cost more.
Svalina spent all of November biking around Denver and delivering daily dreams. As he wraps up November's dream service tomorrow, I spoke with him about the overwhelming process of hand-crafting dreams (over 10,000 and counting), his forthcoming work (he has like six projects he's working on), and the cities he plans to visit in 2018 as part of his ongoing attempts to fully embody Mr. Sandman.
How has this dream service evolved over the years?
I started the Dream Delivery Service in 2014. I was broke & needed a way to get through a summer. I had no idea if anyone would have any interest in it & never thought I would do it more than once. Initially I wanted the service to be disconnected from me & to use my name as little as possible. I wanted to keep it as ephemeral & cryptic as possible. I turned down interviews, didn’t post about it online after it started & instead deleted all online presence. I wouldn’t talk about it when I did readings or class-visits. And I deleted all the dreams after the month was over. Since then it’s slowly progressed into not only something I do regularly but something that I try to get public attention about.
Aesthetically, I feel like I’m pretty intimate with the form at this point, having written somewhere around 10,000 dreams by now. I have written a dream about pretty much any idea, thought, or image I’ve ever had. Which often makes me annoying in conversation, as pretty much any topic people bring up I’m like Oh! I just wrote a dream about that! I think better, maybe live better, through the dream form now. The kind of thinking that underscores the dreams has always been how my mind works, but now my mind functions more often than not through the for. Which, I dunno. That sounds frightening, now that I’ve written it out.
Do you find that the dreams improve over the month from discipline, or descend in quality from fatigue?
There is definitely fluctuation over the month. I think the fatigue period is usually around the 20th of the month. Consistent sleep deprivation has set in & the routine has often become somewhat strenuous. That’s usually when I’m at my most self-doubting & self-loathing—it is a weird lifestyle to keep up, working 16-20 hour days at what often feels like a gimmick or a rejected Miranda July movie-pitch. But then I tend to pull out of it for the final act of the month. I think the dreams get more sentimental as the close of the month approaches. Or actually, I have no idea if the dreams do, but I do. I always get sad when the Dream Delivery months end. Real life is awful.
I'm really fascinated by the personal bike delivery. Do you knock on doors and small talk or simply put them in mailboxes? Have you had any creepy encounters with subscribers? Bonds formed over a one-month period?
I bike around & deliver the dreams before dawn. Usually I leave them in the subscriber’s door, so when they open the door in the morning the little pink envelope falls to their feet. Because I spend so much time alone & in my own solo routine, it feels very, very awkward for me when I do encounter subscribers. I kind of forget that people are reading the dreams for the most part. Or not forget, but I think of them at a distance, as if they are in the real world while I’m biking through the unreal city, collected stuff that’s fallen off of people’s windows.
I feel a bond to the subscribers, certainly, but the bond is usually based on somewhat arbitrary things, the boots they leave on their porch, the spot where I prop my bike when I walk to their door, the converted hearse that is consistently parked near their house, the incantatory meditation of writing the numbers in their address & zip code daily. Maybe I feel more of a communion than a bond, a feeling that arrives through & inside the project, as opposed to person-to-person & the project being a conduit.
I love that you charge more for nightmares. Can you expand on this a bit? Is it more difficult to bring terror than joy?
The second time I did the Dream Delivery Service I added the nightmare option at the last minute because I was joking about it with my friend Eric Baus. It never occurred to me that anyone would order them. Who would want nightmares? But every month I do it 2-5 people subscribe to nightmares. And actually they are harder to write than the dreams. Dreams are completely open, pure potential & improvisatory exploration. Nightmares have to narrow down to a goal of scaring or unnerving or horrifying. That’s harder to do without repeating cliché horror-movie tropes or obvious nightmare scenarios like knife-wielding chases & monsters. Or harder to do because I’m bad at it.
You've delivered dreams throughout various cities in the States, like Richmond, Tuscon, and Denver. Are certain cities easier to deliver dreams? Is being turned around inevitable?
So far every city has been great. Tucson was great because it was so flat & dark & at night the coyotes & javelina roam the streets. Richmond was great because the cemetery doors were always ajar & the leaking fog. Austin was great because the city is essentially two big hills so you’re always doing some interesting biking & crossing over the river. Denver is great because the foxes live in the gutters & come out to investigate sometimes. Marfa was great because the stars, every night, tried to kill me with their icy beauty. I’m looking forward to delivering in a famously hilly city like Pittsburgh or San Francisco or Seattle. I think that will change up the experience in a cool way.
Obviously you are swamped with dream crafting and biking for November, but can you tell us a bit about any forthcoming bodies of work?
I have two books that will be coming out some time in the future. Once is a collaboration with the photographer Jon Pack called The Depression. My side of it consists of prose-poem absurdist fable about living with chronic depression. The other book is The Hosanna Mansions, a book of poems that I was writing while my dad was dying. Both of them are pretty sad.
I’ll be doing Dream Delivery Service around the country again in 2018, in San Diego, Chicago, Chataqua, NY, & maybe Buffalo & Seattle.
As far as real writing goes, I’m slowly working on a long poem called THANK YOU TERROR, editing a collection of short stories, & trying to find some free & focused time to finish the two novels I have in agonizingly unfinished states. Anybody have some focus I could borrow for a few months?
You have numerous books where the poems all have the same name and/or they all begin with similar lines/phrases. Do you have a bounty of throwaways/pieces stored in the vault from these writing periods that didn't make the cut? Perhaps a better question: do you have B-side creation stories?
Nah, no vault. No archive. I delete everything that doesn’t go in the books. I tend to overwrite as a process, so I think I wrote 100+ Creation Myths, but only 44 ended up in that first book of mine, I wrote 200 pages of The Wine-Dark Sea & then cut it back to 88 pages. The deleting is a creative process for me, a way of finding out what I’ve written, finding the edges of a form, finding out how a form makes its varieties of meaning. I have no interest in drafts or b-sides or papers or whatever, when it comes to my own work. If I could delete the books, I would, actually. When I first did the Dream Delivery Service I looked into printing them in invisible ink so that even the dreams people got on their doors or in the mail would disappear. But that was outside my budget. And probably, now that I think about it, it would piss off subscribers. I do save one from each day of the Dream Delivery Service now, whereas I used to delete them all. I keep them to make little chapbooks & to keep as examples.
You shine inside both prose poems and (for lack of a better word) 'regular' poems. How does structure and form take shape within your work?
I write from within form. Form typically dictates my writing process. Often I’ll have 2-4 manuscripts that I’m working on at the same time, each in a different form. And then whenever I have ideas or time to write I can step into one of the manuscript modes. I only shine, if I do shine, because I have swallowed too many Christmas lights & now I can’t stop swallowing batteries.
Being as how I live in Chicago and this blog is often centered around Chicago, can you speak on your upbringing here? Do you return often?
I was born in Chicago, but moved away before I developed any memories. So even though I’m from there my first experiences are from Louisiana. My family would return to Chicago regularly, it was pretty much the only vacations we’d ever do. So all of my Chicago experiences was mostly through family events. I don’t really have anything interesting to say about it, unfortunately. I’m excited to run the Dream Delivery Service in Chicago next Fall, though!
Do you have any advice for writers/dreamers working on their craft?
Take yourself seriously as an artist. Which doesn’t always mean taking the art seriously. The art happens. But being an artist takes a lot of work & mostly silly, ridiculous work, & a lot of devotion to an asymptote. Work to discover what the thing you can say that no one else among all the billions of us can do or say. And finding that thing is, for most of us, hard as fuck, because your unique thing is, almost inevitably, narrow & strange & so personal it doesn’t like a thing, more like an organ that is always at work in the body.
Any final thoughts / words of wisdom?