An Interview with Mathias Svalina
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? In his analysis of the New York School poets, The Last Avant-Garde, David Lehman gives us Kenneth Koch's first poem, written at age five: "I have a little pony, / I ride him up and down; / I ride him in the country, / I ride him in the town." In a recent interview in Gulf Coast, Ben Mirov describes his first poem, from the sixth grade, which was "about a rock in a field that watches the passage of time. At one point in the poem, tractors come and tear the field apart." What happened when you wrote that first poem that resulted in you becoming a poet?
I don't remember a first poem I wrote, but I do remember the first time a poem affected me, physically struck me, as a reader. It was Blake's "Tyger." I was in maybe fourth grade and I remember feeling intensely creeped out by the poem. I don't remember what the discussion of it was in class, whether we talked about it as a sense of evil or the devil or whatever, but I remember that feeling of being energized by the words, by the incantatory qualities. I remember wanting to read it over and over again, wanting to read it out loud.
Somehow I feel like I was always writing poems. (I have a pretty crappy memory, so things before, say, 2008 mostly all blur together.) My friend Forrest, whom I've known longer than any other friend, says that when I was in elementary school my goal was to be a writer. So I trust him. I'm one of those people who filled up composition notebook with poetic giblets throughout junior high and high school.
When I was a little kid, like four or five, I used to make a lot of books. One of them became a sort of family legend -- I actually only know this because it was retold, I have no memory of it -- because it was about people in a space ship going to Mars or outer space. I couldn't, however, spell "ship," and I spelled it with a "t." So there were people riding the shit, the shit sailing through space, the shit landing on Mars, etc. I remember my family laughing a lot as they told this story. I'm sure that made some kind of impression on me that is still present in my writing.
I read Blake's marred Romanticism in your writing, especially in I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur. For instance, the lines "We sent our technicians to the academy of clouds & they drank from the world by means of sawdust & dew. We sent our technicians into the desert of stifled laughter, to fields of dust. We sent them to the steel-roped tops of bridges & asked them to close their eyes & imagine cracked mirrors," forms this litany of ineffable loss dressed up in the pretext of utility, yet there is a dark, somewhat frightening hope in where the technicians are sent; "the academy of clouds" would be a sight of both awe and chaos. Yet your writing is also consistently tied to the absurd. How do you understand the connections between Romanticism and absurdism, both aesthetically and culturally?
Interesting question. My initial reaction is to say that absurdism is the reaction to the inevitable hopelessness of Romanticism. Romanticism is a kicking against the pricks, an embattled belief in an inversion of the sociopolitical state, and therefore in transcendentally messianic escape. But this presumes a dialectic to history and to ideas, which I would see as imaginary. Absurdism is a constant vying, without the belief in a possible result. It's the pointlessness of the death of the unknown soldier rather than adoration of his body. Romanticism works in the consecrated ground of the text. Absurdism works in a forest layered with birdlime.
I guess you're right to say that there's a therapeutic dose of the Romantic in my stuff, of that desire for transcendence. The Romantic and the Absurd are inexorably connected, as are atheism and faith. The Absurd is necessary right now because we are still really in the Romantic era; I don't think there is much writing happening right now that isn't deeply indebted to Romanticism. But the Romantic is necessary for the Absurd as well. Pure absurdism is nihilistic. But who was ever interested in purity anyway?
Your answer to the first question seems to sum up any attempt at purity: shit will end up in there somehow, whether through error or active appropriation. Your writing, both in Destruction Myth andIAAVPE, has a lot of shit in it, and by shit I mean the world, as in your poems seem to generate themselves out of stuff the of world, out of nouns. How does this influence you thinking of yourself as a "strangeness machine" rather than a poet? How is a poem, or a poet, a kind of machine?
The text is a machine in its functions as a meaning-maker. The poet in the sense that he or she produces the poem. A thing relates to other things in the ways that it produces effects. Outside of psychology and close relationships, we are what we produce. This makes individuals in first world culture primarily pollution machines, trash machines, and commodity machines. I think the shit, the detritus of pop culture, comes into my writings because it is the definitive stuff of our culture. To not include the shit seems to me to be material nostalgia or even fantasy, that we can compose our lives in western culture out of purely the iconic or the profound. The shit ends up there because it takes effort to excise the shit now. We are the shit we machinate.
You've mentioned before that Larry Levis has had an influence on your poems. Your chapbook Whatever You Love of Weapons You Love for Weapons, from Brave Men Press, certainly has something of Levis's imagistic incongruity, and many of your poems function through the incantatory power of the litany in some form, which also appears frequently in Levis's poems. What draws you to his poems? What other poets or poems have stayed with you in that way?
Part of my love of Levis stems from having attended a reading of his when I was nineteen. He was reading from the poems that would become the books Elegy and from Widening Spell of Leaves that night, it was a little less than a year before his death. I'd attended many readings through my high school years, but Levis's was like no other experience I'd ever had up until then. I just happened to have been getting deeply into Coltrane at that time, and I felt an immediate relationship between Coltrane's searching, exploratory use of the riff and Levis's extension of the image or digression into its own discrete territory, his way of making each line feel like its own poem stemming out of the central trunk of the poem. The reading felt truly transformative. In addition to loving the reading, Levis was such a wonderful and personable guy that I walked away from the evening feeling a deep affinity for him as well. I felt fundamentally changed by the event. I'd been writing a lot up until then, notebooks and notebooks full of vaguely Ginsberg-ripping-off work. But after hearing him read and being completely blown away by the work, I sort of felt like I was starting all over again. I remember being up late that night, looking at my notebooks and thinking that if I was really going to write poetry that I'd have to aspire to be as impressive as what I'd seen that night.
So part of the allure of Levis for me is that he was That Person, the one we all have, I think, that person who represented a sea change in my understanding of the work of poetry and my understanding of myself as a poet. I think that after that reading I started to take myself seriously as a writer, which is an ongoing struggle that continues to this day.
But I can always return to Levis and not only enjoy it but continue to learn more about what makes poetry successful. He's deceptively complex in his use of disjunction, of wildly expansive poetics. He is, in his own way, deeply deconstructive of the nature of his art. He also, in his best poems, has perfect timing. This is something I try to aim for, to know when to shift focus, when to return, when to digress, and when to barrel through with an idea.
We were lucky enough to have a wonderful and committed creative writing professor at the little liberal arts college I went to, a fiction writer named William Henry Lewis. He is one of those seemingly rare types who is a badass fiction writer and also not only gets but adores poetry. He also brought in Jay Wright to read and he has continued to be a constant touchstone and inspiration for me. His mixture of the personal, the public, and the surreal has always been wondrous in my eyes. An amazing writer who is too often overlooked, I think. When my father was dying I was obsessively reading Wright again. He made sense of the world for me.
But it's weird how we develop this early pantheon by coincidence and happenstance, isn't it? There are a lot of writers whom I don't really talk about right now because they are either not a direct influence on my aesthetic or are not a kind of poetics that I choose to champion, but who are fundamental to how I came to understand poetry: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Robert Penn Warren, Jim Harrison, Cummings. In addition to Ginsberg, these were the poets I was reading when I was in high school. I read Lorde because I found a copy of her poems at a thrift store. Rich I fell for because I went to a reading of hers at George Mason. Cummings I read because the singer of my favorite band when I was a teen, Craig Wedren of Shudder to Think, told me that he was an inspiration for his weird, surreal lyrics. All of these poets' work is present in my conceptualization of poetry, but not in any active way.
James Tate, on the other hand, is an obvious influence on my first two books and I also discovered his work when I was in high school. I remember that a friend of mine lent me a Best American Poetry and I read through it, thinking that most of it was boring, but that Tate's poem "Distance from Loved Ones" was the real deal. Rereading it, I could not figure out why this eerily plainspoken poem made me feel so intensely in response. He's always been a hero of mine since then.
You've written and published numerous collaborative chapbooks with Julia Cohen, including the forthcoming Force, Proximity, Repulsion from Cinematheque Press. Also, the most recent Poor Claudiaincludes a series of collaborative poems that reinvent the lives of classic American country music stars written by you, Julia, and Jennifer Denrow. Collaborative techniques have a rich tradition from the Surrealists to the New York School to the present, but you and Julia in particular seem to have found a lot of fodder in the process. What attracts you to the collaborative experience? Do you understand it apart from your own individual writing? What is your process like? With Julia? With others, like Jennifer or Paula Cisewski?
I enjoy collaborative writing for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, because of the bonding between writers. I always think that art in all its forms is a method of relational connectivity, whether that be between thousands of viewers or readers or between two individuals. So that mode of collaborative art with another person allows for a greater understanding of differences and relations between them. I first began collaborating with Julia before we were together romantically. We collaborated by email, having only met each other in passing before. It gave me a greater understanding of this person and how she uses and makes poetry. As we have progressed in our relationship collaborative writing has been a way of learning about each other and of having fun together. Zach Schomburg and I have a collaborative chapbook manuscript that we've never tried to publish (though some poems from it were in 6X6 a while back). We wrote that basically as a few nights out when we were both in Lincoln. We're also working on an epic poem called Science Fact, which will be a kind of masterwork for both of us when it is done. Collaboration is a very joyous social act and I think that joy shows through in the work oftentimes.
I do see the work as separate from my own writing, to the point that Julia and I have a collaborative bio that we use with that work now that does not mention our solo work. I think "Julia Cohen-and-Mathias Svalina" is a very different kind of writer than either of us on our own. Though there are pretty obvious stylistic overlaps and such. Having it separate is most clear to me in the revision process, as I can approach the work without the kind of individual blinders that affect my revision of my own work. Revising my own work is a process of extreme self-doubt and typically a great deal of disgust. I don't have those hang-ups with collaborative work; I can see it as simply work, rather than an extension of myself. I'm not sure why this is so, but it is.
The processes have differed greatly. Jules and I had collaborated by email, Gchat, texting, in person, and by phone over the course of different projects. Paula and I had written separate poems that we ended up integrating into kind of mash-ups. With Jen, Jules, and I, we were hanging out at Jen's place and she had an assignment due for Selah Saterstrom's workshop, something about Loretta Lynn. She was having trouble doing it so Jules and I started saying, "What if you wrote blah, blah, blah..." and Jen began writing it down and contributing as well. I think we wrote all of those over the course of about thirty minutes. Then Jen did most of the editing for them. My friend Craig Foltz and I have been writing collaboratively via email for a while now, though we haven't tried to publish any of that work yet. He lives in New Zealand, so that collaboration is again a way of keeping bonded with him.
You've edited Octopus Books and Octopus Magazine with Zach Schomburg since 2006. Every issue of the magazine has been a menagerie of unique voices and essays, and has really set the bar for online journals. The press has been equally distinct, publishing books and chapbooks from a wide range of poets with different aesthetics and styles that have made best-of and best-selling lists all over the place. Can you talk about the impetus behind what you and Zach do at Octopus? How did you get involved? (Katy Henriksen has said that AWP 2006 was kind of a nexus for what happened with Octopus, Cannibal/TYPO, etc.). How do you understand your work as an editor in relation to the poetry community? Like many independent presses, you and Zach work together from different parts of the country; what is that process like? Can you talk about Ben Mirov's Hider Roser and Patricia Lockwood's Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, two full-length collections coming out from Octopus Books this summer?
Wow, thanks for the kind words about Octopus. That's really nice of you.
To me the impetus behind Octopus is purely love. I feel like the project is an expression of my love for Zach and Alisa and my love for the current community of younger American poets. I don't see Octo as having a mission to put out books that sell well (though it is nice when they do), that make money, that promote a certain contemporary aesthetic, that provide lines on CVs for academics, I am merely looking to fall in love with poems and with books of poems. We have found that the books we fall in love with tend to be books that other people fall in love with as well, which is nice and allows us to continue putting out books without losing too much money on the endeavor.
I got involved with Octo in 2006; Zach had moved to Lincoln, Nebraska where I already lived, and we found out that we liked each other and had considerably overlapping taste in poetry. He was looking to start a press at the same time I was looking to begin a chapbook press, so we joined together. The first publishing project we did with Octopus Books was a set of eight chapbooks, which coincided and intertwined with issue eight of the magazine. I'd say that AWP 2006 was galvanizing for us, Typo, Black Ocean, the people who are now Volta, and others of our peers. For me it was the first glimpse of a sort of next generation of aesthetically reaching presses and journals after Verse/Wave, Fence, and Slope. It was a moment when we started sharing info on printing and designers, began to see ourselves as an independent community that existed alongside but not really as a part of the more linear, more exclusive, and academic community fundamental to things like AWP. We attended offsite readings. We talked. We stayed up late. There was love in the air; we drank from it like hordes of bats.
Hider Roser and Balloon Pop Outlaw Black are an interesting pair of books, in my biased opinion, in both how we came to choose them and how they work. Ben is someone who had been in Octopus before, whose writing Zach and I have loved for a while. It was immediately one of the manuscripts that stood out to us, and our outside readers agreed with us. Hilder Roser is a great book and I've been excited about it from first read. Patricia I had never read before reading the manuscript (though our manuscript reading is a blind process, so I didn't know I'd never read her when I read it); it wasn't part of what I think of our core aesthetic identity, a kind of deadpan surrealism (though at least half of our books are not part of this aesthetic either). Additionally, I couldn't get a bead on what it was doing upon a first read, but I knew I was interested; I couldn't easily categorize it, which is usually the sign of either a magnificent manuscript or a magnificent failure. Either way, those are the most interesting manuscripts to me. I passed that manuscript along to other readers with a note to the effect of "I think this is really good; I hope you all like it as much as I do." Turns out that they did, and the more I read it, the more the book made itself clear to me, and the more I understood just how wonderful it is. It's funny to me that since taking her book, her name has been popping up everywhere I look.
On your blog last year you posted a link to download a list of over a 100 songs from 2010 that made it on your best-of list and it's without a doubt the most diverse playlist I've ever seen. There's Deathspell Omega next to Lil Wayne next to Joanna Newsom next to a recording of a communal water pump in South Asia. I'm not trying to ask you a stupid question about how music influences your writing, but I am interested in how your range of interests in other arts contributes to your understanding of poetry. You've talked before about your lack of interest in defining the boundaries between genre, which is definitely part of J.A. Tyler's project at Mud Luscious, and that seems to somehow parallel you being just as psyched on M.I.A. as Nathaniel Rateliff. It's all music, right? This isn't as much a question as a prompt.
I'm a dabbler in the arts; I feel like I scratch the surface in a lot of different genres but don't know them deeply. I have found a lot of contemporary visual artists whom I love (Julie Mehretu, Julie Speed, Matthew Ritchie, to name a few) but my knowledge of contemporary art is pretty spotty. I know a few operas, a few photographers, a few blackened doom metal bands, but I'm not comprehensive in learning about any of those media or genres. I'm something of a novelty junkie. I don't like the urge to listen to albums repeatedly, to play the same song over and over. I feel like there is something stultifying to it, as there is in looking at the same artists or listening to the same music (or reading the same theory or poetry) that one did in earlier times.
(More than anything else, I guess, I hate the urge toward nostalgia. To me it is the most stunting and regressive of urges, spurred on by the inherent conservatism of fear: fear of change; fear that the youths of the world are passing one by; fear of what would happen if one cared as much as one did when those writers and musicians were as new, as crucial and exhilarating as they were when one was in their prime. If you'll accept that the work of aesthetics is logically equivalent to the work of ethics, as they are both attempts to understand or make sense of the chasm of the subjective, then nostalgia in aesthetics mirrors nostalgia in ethics and this nostalgia is more often than not characterized by a reactionary, self-defensive approach that sees change as somehow innately wrong.)
My urge is to shift things up in my viewing and listening. If I'm listening to all death metal one day it might be all Schubert the next. I can see the connection you're making between a disregard to genres in music and a disregard to genres in writing. I think that's right on. Literature, to me, is much more of a socially located thing. It is, at heart, communication, and so I almost always react to it via its rhetoric. It's easier sometimes in music to see art for what it is, for all the reasons all the writers on the topic have already written (see Kant on free beauty). And I think I am drawn to music for the very reasons Hegel finds it boring -- the abstraction of it is pure potential to me. It's a force of always becoming. (I admit that almost all lyrics to rock and folk songs absolutely suck, so I usually only listen to the melody, phrasing, and tone of the singing, rather than gleaning any meaning from the words.) In this way I think I look to music to do the things that people of faith look to their deity to do, to forgive, to make sense of experience, to understand that there is something more important than the puny insignificance of an individual life. Sure, I get this feeling from other arts as well, but music allows for me to mainline it.