Mathias Svalina is the author of three books, most recently The Explosions from Subito. He is part of Team Octopus.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
My immediate impulse was to say something pat & self-deprecating: it made me responsible for the death of more trees; it made me tangibly complicit in the grandly entitling & pacifying self-satisfaction of the American left. And while those are both true & things I think, my friend Jake died two days ago & I don’t feel so insistent on my own glibness right now.
Jake wasn’t an easy person for me to get to know deeply, but I have always felt deeply that he was a good guy. He always wanted to help, to support, to instruct, to extend. He was a smart & omnivorous editor, generously supporting writers of a wide variety of aesthetics. His poetry, in my opinion, was the beacon for what Southern narrative could do in the 21st century. It returned to history, but always from the present tense. It demanded presence of history. It demanded scope from a reader. The civil rights movement was present in the moment of reading that poem, not as in a documentary, but as in a scalding. He was devoted to this weird shit we do that so often feels to me like a mass-willful-delusion, as if everyone is publishing their poems, editing their journals while checking out the person next to them from the corner of their eye just to see if she or he is actually joking. Jake was not joking. His work was a moral commitment. I admire his poems & I love many of them. I’m sad & I miss him, not because he was so close to me that the loss of him actively disrupts my life, but because his voice was something I had, without being aware of it, come to count on. He, along with countless others, helped me to invent a sense to endure the inherent senselessness of the fact.
And while I met Jake before I had a book out, I never would have met him if I hadn’t devoted myself to poetry. The publication of my first book did not change my life. Sure, I must have briefly felt more validated to have a tangible product, but it didn’t solve or satisfy anything. It resulted in invitations to read at events to which I wouldn’t have otherwise been invited, which is awesome & I appreciate. But the joy of these events to me is not the buoying of me or my work, it’s the experiences we share in them, the pleasure of spending time with so many wonderful people, hearing their work, understanding their different-from-my-own vision of the world just a bit more clearly.
Perhaps the most rewarding effect of having books out in the world is that occasionally people will contact me out of the blue & we’ll become friends. Some people often think they’re clever in maligning poetry as a self-satisfying scene of poets writing for other poets, but I write for my friends. I write for Zach & Josh & Noah & Sommer & Heather & Sara & Julia & Danielle & Dave & Oren & Julie & Robert & Jon & others. I presume that anyone who likes my writing would probably be a friend. Recently this writer Eric emailed me out of the blue & we got to chatting & I ended up reading with him in Providence & having an amazing time & immediately thinking of him & me as part of the same team now. It was kind of cool for a while to have a fan, but now it is better to have a new friend. Having my voice out there, connecting to other people in this way, it’s my tourniquet.
Books are a form of capital in our inverted economy, sure, blah-blah-blah. And I can pay what bills I can pay because I’ve published books. Yes. But the books, the poems even, are a means to an end. I don’t care what a poem I write does for me & I don’t care what a poem does for the writer. I don’t give a shit if I’m reading a poem out of the Chicago Review or a hand-stapled chapbook. I am sharing an experience with a world that is objectively outside me, an experience that would not have existed without that act of reading that poem, without that object of that poem. And having a book out allows me to extend this into my daily life. I mean, I am given the honor of working with writers at Universities as they struggle to figure out their own worlds & minds through & with writing, with bits of toner burnt onto pulped trees, with the expelled pollutants that fuel the servers & batteries of these computers. I’ve spent the last sixteen weeks with eight of the most interesting, thoughtful, committed writers I’ve ever met. They have allowed me to rethink, to further-think, to test & resist my understanding of not only the product of poetry but the ideological, emotional & ontological process of choosing writing to occupy one’s time with while alive. And I feel that the trade-off I made every day with them, the trade-off between me & the world that I fuck up simply by being alive as me, I feel it is somehow worth it. Like, fuck! Christ! Shit! Thank you, Michael Dumanis, for publishing my first book & allowing me to do the things I do. This is how I make a meaning of my life.
By which I mean, I wouldn’t have met Zach if not for poetry & he's exponentially bettered my life simply by being my friend. I wouldn't have met Julia, who has been the most important person in my life. I wouldn't have met Jake, Josh & Noah on a weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska when the temperature dropped below negative ten, when the pipes in my shitty apartment froze, when those three came to town & read poems for a bunch of strangers for no money & only because it was a gift & a gift they wanted to give, when about forty people packed into the Tugboat Gallery & had that otherwise-impossible & indelible experience.
By which I mean, I would not miss what I miss now that Jake is dead. And I would not be able to keep his voice with me as I remain alive.
1.5 - How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well, I feel a little weird following up with something pragmatic, but here goes. Destruction Myth set up a form of serial poetry that I continue to work in. I write in another mode that is more open & metaphor-driven—the long poem in my new book, “Above the Fold,” is in this mode, as is a manuscript I’m working on called The Wine-Dark Sea.
So a lot of my work continues in this little absurdist narrative strain, people installing McDonalds into their bellies & whatnot. Readers & editors seem to like this style & it’s easy to write this way. I can write like five or ten of them a day when I’m having a good day. It’s easier than staying awake. But I hate this ease & consequently I keep trying to make it more taxing. Right now, the way I think about it is that I want to be embarrassed by every poem I write. It should reveal too much, attempt too much, be too nonce, too stupid. I love Edson & this obviously shows in my writing. I love his work’s commitment to its goal, that you can put a poem of his from last year next to one from thirty years ago & they seem of a piece. But I feel like I would not warrant continuing if I were to continue to write the same entertainments. So maybe my first book set a base-line & thereby a way to measure myself against that.
It also set up a fear in me that people would only be interested in reading my poems to the extent that they are entertaining & candied. In The Explosions, my new book, I have poems that are goofy & (I hope) entertaining, but I also have a 70-page poem that is (I hope) demanding. I wonder if people will be all “Why would I turn to you for this kind of stuff, Mathias?” Mostly because I don’t feel like I would turn to me for that kind of stuff. I guess I’m simply wondering if people only accept me to the extent that I service them.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was that pretentious high school student scribbling away in composition notebooks, wanting to read you a poem while we were all drinking Mickey’s Big-Mouths. I can’t honestly recall what appeal it had for me, but I always remember writing poems. I can speculate that it must have had some sort of emotional satisfaction for me. Perhaps coming out of a deep faith in Catholicism the song of poetry appealed to my desire for prayers. Perhaps my mind wanted something that was beyond my understanding. But probably it was that I thought “writer guy” seemed like a kind of cool that I thought I could, as a fat, unattractive kid with no self-confidence, actually accomplish. And, of course, poems are easier to write than stories.
As a kid I was a fantasy novel freak, checking out like a dozen books from the library each week, anything with elves n shit, anything with hazy paintings of big-boobed women in revealing fur cloaks. I kind of wonder why I never tried to write something like those. Maybe it wouldn’t have the same level of escapism if it came out of my mind. Maybe that those worlds are comforting for exactly their ideal formalism, with Tolkien being the originating perfect sonnet, & I’m not comfortable in writing mere obedience.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I tend to write quickly & copiously. I have a line in a poem that says my problem is that I’ve never not been able to write. First drafts usually look roughly similar to final drafts. More than transformative revision of individual poems I tend to overwrite in a series & then edit out poems. For instance in a manuscript I’m working on called The Wine-Dark Sea, I wrote 200 pages with the goal of cutting down to 88 pages by the end of the process. That seems to be my process of late.
And project ideas (I want to say “project” as often as possible to register my disagreement with Dotty’s Poetry is Not a Project pamphlet from Ugly Duckling, love her work, adore her vision, adore her, disagree with how she says most of what she says in that) come up pretty frequently for me. If I can finish this one I’m working on in the next week or two then I will have finished six manuscripts this year & I have oneother one I’m working on & another planned out. Projects start usually from jokes with friends that I want to keep joking within or things about which I am inchoate.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
“Book.” I like having a project because it allows for far more freedom than discrete poems, in which I have to establish their own rhetoric & function every time. So all I have to do is sit down at my computer & begin writing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t think readings have anything to do with my creative process. I like doing readings, more for the chance to be around people who care about writing, which ties into what I’ve said above. And I’m a fan of public rituals. I love the concert, the protest. I love the rhetoric of a classroom. I was raised Catholic & part of the importance of mass is getting the incense smoke in your hair, in your clothes & part of it is checking out all the other people in the church.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t see how the current questions could be different than the past questions or the future questions, other than in gradations of implementation. There is a finite set of things that humans do. And anyway I don’t think the writing of poems answers any question worth asking of a poem. If Dickinson had answered anything, why would she have written the same two or three poems over & over again a thousand times?
The reading provides answers. Theory is a reading practice & one can find the latest hip thinking in the Marie de France or Aesop or the Eddas as readily as in the poems of some self-styled vanguardist. Which is not to belittle theory & contemporary philosophy, but to belittle the air of gloating self-importance that habitually accompanies its use, whether Pinker or Baidou, by writerly types. I get as bored of people who think the Sokol hoax was interesting as those who think it was wrong.
I have theoretical concerns & urges to my writing. They matter deeply to me. But it feels boring to talk about these things. Why would people care what I think of my work? I’m an idiot.
Beyond mere writing, though, I believe in absurdism as a guidance for social presence, in giving equal authority to the shoe hanging from the telephone wire as to the mailman as to the dead root below the dirt below the asphalt. Which means I disagree with everything I believe; so I try to believe as much as possible. But like inconsistency, believing is hard work. You have to accept that you’re not smarter than everyone else. This seems difficult for people who get into the arts, academia, & other cultural hierarchies.
Disagreement is a kind of belief, via respect. Like I’m an atheist but I respect religiosity. I don’t agree with liberalism or conservatism, but I respect them both. Disrespecting another’s intellectual practice is an act of supremacy, of presuming that the bullshit electricity in your mind is inherently superior to the bullshit electricity in another’s mind. But then again, recognizing when another’s practice is supremacy is supremacy as well & I’m all for that. So I don’t know. I’m probably all wrong, but maybe wrong like that early Skrewdriver song where he sings “You’re so dump.” At the very least I am certain I’m not right.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t see the role or responsibility of a writer as being any different from a non-writer: try not to fuck up the world, don’t impose violence, resist supremacy, be self-aware. I pretty much fail at all of these, but roles should be ideals.
This is not quite the answer to the question you’re asking, but I feel it’s one implied: in my opinion a writer has no inherent metaphysical, spiritual, political, etc-al difference from a non-writer. Any time I hear someone in a Q&A say “as a writer I” I think about how people don’t say “as a plumber I,” or “as a bus driver I”; writing requires a set of skills, some inherent & some learned, just like any other vocation. I love Shelley intensely, but that unacknowledged legislator stuff makes me want to punch him in the dick.
Writing is political how a reality tv show is, how the choice between granite or quartz countertops is: they’re consumption, entertainment. One of entertainment’s implicit arguments is what it means to entertain—how we create hierarchies of importance & meaning. Another concerns what one attends to for entertainment—the self in relation to a socio-political fact. These arguments are obviously political. But arguments are merely one minor political step. I might read about atrocities in Syria & then write poems about atrocities in Syria to entertain myself & others, but this act does not make me more moral, especially if all the while I am participating in a culture & political entity complicit to those atrocities. This kind of entertainment does, though, delineate taste. That taste & how it inspires may allow for action in the world, but a poem is a consumable. Poetry is inherently political, just like how Funyuns are.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Neither, but I find it delightful.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do no harm.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’m not a scholar or a very sharp thinker. And that makes critical prose excruciating for me. I can usually write one or two reviews a year. For some reason I can’t write a simple describe-&-assess kind of review. I get all anguishy & emo.
I wish I could write critical prose with consistency. For selfish reasons, writing critically allows me to understand my own gut reactions on a deeper level. But beyond that I think it is vital to the larger poetry community to have public reactions to work. I mean, those standardized 600-1000-word reviews are fine as a dissemination of the ideas of a book (or a display of the reviewer’s ego) & I read them & am generally happy about them. But I crave deeply invested, personally committed reviews that attempt to push the book as far as a thinker can. It’s an act of love & generosity & bypasses the dull & nostalgic “should there be more negative reviews” argument that pops back up every six months or whenever some mid-career poet wants attention. I like books for the exploration that they allow & every book allows an exploration.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a routine for writing, but I write just about every day. I can write anywhere, at pretty much any time. I don’t got much truck with “inspiration” as a generative device. Writing is a task for me. It is also for me my most effective form of escapism. When I’m working on a poem I escape the crushing pain of existence. I can think I’m awesome. Then I’m done & I remember that I just used a bunch of my time for a work that in no way helps the world. I guess that’s my routine, an addicted vacillation between pleasure & self-loathing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
As I said, I write pretty constantly & have never felt writer’s block. But I do like noise when I’m writing: radio on, record player going, a half-dozen books open within reach, friends in the room also writing & chatting & reading out loud from books on their laps. I like any interruption to my thinking. It is a more accurately me.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
It’d be my goal, I guess, to let everything in my life influence my writing: the metal shows, teaching, the mountains, therapy, friendships, alleys. But that’s a bit grandiose.
The paintings of Mattias Gruenwald & Amy Cutler pretty directly influence the more fabulist writing I do. Medieval iconography. Black metal bands like Drudkh, Agalloch & Nightbringer. Julie Mehretu’s sense of cosmopolitan layering guides a lot of my thinking about the social spaces of art. I like the form of my fan.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oh man. I’m just going to do the lame-o listing thing here: Dickinson, Celan, Hopkins, The Odyssey, Meister Eckhart, Philip K Dick, Zachary Schomburg, Neidecker, James Tate, Jabes, TR Hummer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Thomas McGrath, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Grimm’s, Larry Levis, Nathaniel Mackey, Duras, Samuel Beckett, Brian Evenson, Stein, Derrick Jensen, Cixous, Levinas, Alice Notley, Shirley Jackson, Countee Cullen, Glissant, Dante’s Paradise, Artaud, Lara Glenum, Mina Loy, Selah Saterstrom, Brandon Shimoda, Inger Christensen, RI Moore, Eco, Baroness Elsa, Bernadette Mayer, Caroline Bergvall, HD, Schopenhauer, Ursula K LeGuin, David Foster Wallace, Tzara, Buber’s collections of Jewish folklore, Cathy Park Hong, Daniil Kharms, Harryette Mullen, Samuel Delaney, Vallejo, Zukofsky, Christina Rossetti, Spenser, Donne, Kafka, Reginald Shepherd, Tan Lin, Russell Edson, Joshua Clover, Myung Mi Kim, Anne Carson, James Schuyler, Roberto Tejada, CS Giscombe, Jay Wright, Mei Mei Bressenbrugge, Hannah Weiner, Mary Ruefle, Mayakovsky, Christian Hawkey, Noah Eli Gordon, CD Wright, Fred Moten, Arthur Sze, Karen Volkman, Brenda Hillman, Elizabeth Willis, Fanny Howe, Ed Robertson, Dan Beachy-Quick, GC Waldrop, Tomaz Salamun, Sawako Nakayasu, Shakespeare, Joshua Wilkinson, Shelley, Allison Titus, Heather Green, Justin Taylor, Heather Christle, Julie Doxsee, Rebecca Farivar, Amy Lawless, Jenny Zhang, Cindy King, James Gendron, Abe Smith, Sara Renee Marshall, Boccaccio, Julie Carr, Eric Baus, Andrea Rexilius, Julia Cohen, James Wright, Robert Penn Warren, John D’Agata, Laura Sims, Roger Zelazny, The Bible, NH Pritchard, Lisa Robertson, Catullus, Auden, Jules Verne, Molly Gaudry, Agamben, Chaucer. I could go on.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to chase down & kill a hyena with my bare hands, rip its skin from its flesh & roll around on the carcass until I am covered in hyena blood. But I probably won’t be happy with myself when I do this.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, my occupation as in job is teacher not writer. Writing is a vocation for me that on occasion renders a little money. I’m pretty happy being a teacher. I love working with students & their writing, from poetry workshops to intro-English composition classes. I think I’m ok at it.
If I hadn’t been a writer? I don’t know. As well as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In college for a while I was trying to get on a track for becoming a medievalist, but I’m a terrible scholar & have no knack for languages. After college I worked in marketing for a while & I could have continued along that track & been pretty solidly middle-class at this point. But that was pretty obviously a no-go for me on a personal level. I liked wiring houses with my brother when I did that, but I might have liked it because I never thought it was going to be my life. I’d maybe be working in a library or a bookstore or a public assistance center if I hadn’t become a teacher. Maybe some unidentifiable middle-management position.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Nothing made me. I must have received some sort of validation, either publicly or in my invention of myself, from writing. It must have satisfied some desire. I try to do something elses at times, but by this point in my life I pretty much have no skills other than teaching & writing for a small niche market.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m not sure if books can be “great” for me any more. I try to love what I read. Like Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One, I read it recently on the plane & it felt like it was dashed off as compared to his other work I’ve read. But I’m not as interested in being able to say it’s no good as I am in trying to find what was beautiful in it. And there are sentences that are glorious & the attempt to understand the nature of the social system as one of self-repression is interesting in relation to the explosion of the id that zombies seem to represent. I don’t think it came to any answers, but why should it? Just because I wanted some?
So recently I’ve read a lot of books I’ve loved: Lilli Carre’s Heads or Tails, The Mabinogion, Jessica Fisher’s Inmost, HD’s Trilogy, Christopher Stackhouse’s Plural, Samuel Delaney’s Babel-17, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Noah VanScriver’s Hypo, Giovanni Singleton’s Ascension, Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, Sylvia Legris’s Nerve Squall, Brandon Shimoda’s O Bon, Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, & more, & they are all great. Which is to say that I don’t have a way of defining great other than “I read it.” It is not the book’s job to make me love it. It is my job to figure out how to love the book.
As for film, Jeanne Liotta put on a night of film poetics at the Counterpath Books space recently that was amazing, hilarious, disquieting, & entertaining in a way that satisfied me more fully than a Hollywood movie. But then again I thought Avengers was great & that Red Dawn remake too. I really loved Wreckmeister Harmonies & am looking forward to watching more of Tarr’s films. I found the series Elsewhere great in how it was beautiful, troubling & beautifully self-troubling. I like watching the Inspector Lewis BBC mystery episodes, as it makes me relax in a way that books never make me relax, not even page-turners, & that is great.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Writerly-wise, I’m writing a book called I Was A Teenager, which is about being a teenager. I’m writing a book called Hail Satan, which is about accidental cyborgs. In the new year I’m starting a book that’ll either be called Do You Know Me? or The Gaping Hole, which will be a biography of everyone I’ve ever met in my entire life. I need to edit the manuscripts I completed this year & also a collection of short stories I have called Comedy.
Teacherly-wise, I’m developing a class built around the rhetoric of guns in America & another built around the rhetoric of contemporary songs.
Personal-wise, I’m trying to be a good person, but that is difficult, as I don’t think I can be.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;