Web Feature

MATHIAS SVALINA
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW

 

EMILY DORSEY

Would you consider your poem "Tomaž Šalamun is Dying" an elegy? Have you written other elegies? Are there particular challenges to writing an elegy, especially for someone you don't know personally?

MATHIAS SVALINA

I’m not sure if the poem is an elegy, maybe because I never knew Šalamun personally, maybe because it is not a poem of grief. Šalamun’s work is important to me. I saw him read a few times & was each time amazed & delighted, but I always resisted introducing myself to him or having one of those hand-shake, I-love-your-work moments. There is something in me that doesn’t want those interactions, the rote awkwardness, the attempt to convey a connection that resists conveyance. 

It’s strange to love someone’s art. It’s different than loving one’s dad or one’s friend. But I don’t know how it is different. It’s strange to love a construct. Even when the construct is magnificent. Or maybe it isn’t strange. Maybe that’s one vision of love, all legos & vests & rhetoric, & we build these loves around bodies or books & the architecture & perseverance & groundskeeping is the work of the love, is the loving. It’s strange to love. Probably it should be strange. I don’t think I’m good at love. 

I felt the way I felt toward Šalamun that I felt toward Prince or toward Pauline Oliveros when they died: a kind of accelerated excitement in the depth & complexity & interminable flesh of their work. Maybe I was trying to capture some of that energy in this poem? Maybe not. I don’t really remember writing it. I’m pretty sure I did—I remember revising it. I don’t think I know how to write an elegy. I don’t know what it means to fashion grief. 

EMILY DORSEY

When did you first discover Šalamun's work, and what has your relationship been with his poetry?

MATHIAS SVALINA

Maybe I first read Šalamun’s poems when I was in MFA school, maybe I was 24? 25? Maybe I read him in undergrad. It’s hard to recall things that don’t have some kind of hurt associated with them. Poets like Alice Notley or Countee Cullen or NH Pritchard, I recall the hurt of reading them, the resistance & arrival & reward. With Šalamun, it feels like his poems were always there & I was always like Hey-buddy,-how’s-it-going with them & then, at some point I could not identify, he was an artist I relied on to keep myself alive. 

Maybe I didn’t realize how all-pervading his work was for me until I found out he was dying. Maybe then I panicked. Maybe it is easier to glorify & worship the work that is outstanding & unassailable, less so with the work that walks beside you like a good friend. Probably the best answer is that I have yet to discover his work. But best answers are mostly terrible things. 

EMILY DORSEY

How much of poetry is an act of discovery for you? 

MATHIAS SVALINA

Ideally, all of it. 

EMILY DORSEY

How often do you have a good sense at the outset of where the poem is probably going?

MATHIAS SVALINA

Ideally, I’m not sure.

EMILY DORSEY

When you start writing a poem, do you already have lines in mind that you hope to use in the poem, or is the act of writing an act of genuine improvisation?

MATHIAS SVALINA

I rarely recall writing anything. I have a memory that doesn’t enjoy remembering. Most of the memorable thinking I do with a poem are in the editing & revision process, & even then, I don’t know. Revision feels improvisatory. I’d like to think that the writing process is an act of discovery, but if that’s true maybe I have never discovered anything. Maybe the urge to write for me is simply an urge to do a thing & be done. Being a poet means having all these continual endings, lines, stanzas, poems, publications, books. Things end & end & end. And that stands in comparison to the vast ceaseless chaos of interaction. Sometimes aesthetics can be a comfort. Sometimes. 

EMILY DORSEY

 As your writing had evolved, has your view of "political art" changed? What do you think constitutes "political art?" Are the personal and the political inherently linked, or can they be compartmentalized? Do you feel a responsibility to create political art, and if so, how much responsibility?

MATHIAS SVALINA

I feel a great responsibility to create political art & I will never be able to live up that responsibility. Which seems right, maybe? Shouldn’t one be Platonic about such things? 

When I was in MFA school I wrote poems about the Black Panthers & the American Indian Movement & fancied myself quite the politic creature. But I was a tourist. I think I was thinking the politics of art was a politics of others inflicting harm on others, a politics of a hierarchy I was able to observe from outside its structures. Which is maybe to say I don’t see anything as personal or private. That binary, like most easy binaries, seems a fantasy of privilege. 

Though there’s a way of parsing that as self-congratulatory, in that everything-I-do-is-an-act-of-resistance mode, which, OK. But I cringe when I hear people (especially cis-male, straight white guys like me) trying to glorify the important political act of their essentially apolitically voiced art. Anytime I hear art described as a way to refract a person into a greater political event than their daily life seems to be, I get wary. Or I get wary of applying that refraction to myself. I don’t know. I try. I fail. Mostly I write about birch trees hugging baby bears or ants folding their legs into origami Arby’s, but who am I to say what that means? Nothing is neutral. It’s hard to say what art means or does.

EMILY DORSEY

Is one lucky to be a poet or doomed to be a poet? Do you agree with this? To what degree is poetry unavoidable in your life?

MATHIAS SVALINA

I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question. Writing is the only thing I can do. I’m pretty much a failure at everything in else in my life. And, quite frankly, I’m not that great a writer. I see myself as something like a solid C+ of a writer, which is better than average, but not really warranting one to answer questions about the nature of art.

EMILY DORSEY

How did you start your dream delivery service? Why did you start it? What's the strangest thing that's happened in the course of the service?

MATHIAS SVALINA

I started the Dream Delivery Service because I was broke & jobless I couldn’t conceive of a job I could do that would keep me sane & safe, considering that my only real skill-set is the ability to write an endless stream of weird shit. So I was joking with a friend about devising a way to get people to subscribe to me writing them weird shit every day. And then the next morning I thought that maybe it was maybe feasible as not a joke. 

To me the strangest thing that has happened is that anyone has subscribed to the service. But the thing I think about most that has happened recently happened in Tucson. I was delivering on a Monday morning, about 4 a.m, & the recycling bins were lining the street in one neighborhood. A woman was walking up the street in the dark as I propped my bike against a tree, a trash bag of clanking cans over her shoulder. I walked up to a house & dropped a dream off in a subscriber’s door. 

When I came back to the bike the woman was close by. I have a headlamp on when I deliver dreams, just under my bike helmet. From the illuminated circle of the headlamp she waved to me. I waved back. She had been picking through the recycling bins in search of cans & such things from which she could make a little money. I took her to be homeless & possibly an addict. She seemed to take me to be also picking through the recycling bins. She asked me how my search was going. I told her I was fine & asked her how she was doing. She shook her bag & said she was doing OK. But I don’t have a light, she said. She held her hands out, palms up. Her fingers were sliced & cut open, blood smeared over her fingers & palms. The broken glass & can lids. Her soft fingers rubbing against them in the dark in search of resellable metal. I took my headlamp off & gave it to her. She thanked me. I rode off into the dark, hoping not to hit any potholes. Hoping something I could not & cannot articulate for her. 

The following Monday when the recycling bins were again lining the streets in that neighborhood, I hoped I might see her again. I did not. Nor the next Monday. And then I was done delivering dreams in Tucson. I’m not sure if that is strange. It seems like the opposite of strange. But it’s what I think about.


MATHIAS SVALINA is the author of five books, most recently The Wine-Dark Sea from Sidebrow Books. He is an editor for Octopus Books and runs a dream delivery service.


EMILY DORSEY is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.



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