Poet Of The Week

Mathias Svalina

     August 29–September 4, 2016

Mathias Svalina is the the author of five books, including Destruction Myth (Cleveland State University Poetry Center), Wastoid (Big Lucks Books) and the recently released The Wine-Dark Sea (Sidebrow Books). He is an editor for the small press Octopus Books and runs a dream delivery service. Svalina will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series on Thursday, September 8, at 61 Local with Paige Taggart and Camille Rankine.

The Wine-Dark Sea

I want
what the date wants
from its box,
printed in lip.

The concerto
cast a morning
beneath bridges
where ropes dangle.

I cannot stand
inside myself.

What emerged
when I opened my mouth
was a thanking tomb.

So we tremble.
Do we tremble?

We tremble.

The Wine-Dark Sea

I almost died

like a letter
never posted.

Glue brittle.

I needed it later
but by then

each word
in quotation marks.

The Wine-Dark Sea

A skull
makes a puzzle
of meaning.

My mind
is a double-song
of caves—

is dangerous.

I wanted
a maw
& got a scattering.

Ash, an agent.
Fill it with light.

Open the wound
of the sea
for which there are no songs.

The Wine-Dark Sea

In a dream I tell Sommer
I must return to the hospital.

I say I must return to the hospital
like an ant eating its own body.

Sommer says We can never
understand the actual joy of the world.

I hide inside
a game closet.

It is morning
on July 9, 2011.

For three months I have
been trying not to die.

The Wine-Dark Sea

In unmost solaces,

I stunt each
word, paused
to the bridge.

Scars, trinkets,
images, whatever.

I can’t even watch stones fall now.

The Wine-Dark Sea

I reach for the kerosene of stars.
For a frail dictionary.

I wear three
layers of maps.

Each must reach
each night
until an I is a mark.

Anything: umber, sickness,
self or harm.

This is a geyser religion.
I’m the bagman.

–From The Wine-Dark Sea, Sidebrow Books, 2016.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I started this book when I was in the psych ward of a hospital here in Denver, which makes me feel weird every time I say it. I wrote 200 pages of poems, all titled “The Wine-Dark Sea,” all trying to express something I had never before been able to express. I cut the book down to 88 pages to make it a manuscript and then with the editors of Sidebrow I cut it to what it got published as. I don’t recall a lot about the individual poems, except that I was trying to use the writing of the book to break out of patterns of thinking that I’d been in my entire adult life. And so I was trying to be “honest,” whatever that means when producing art. I guess to me that means emulating Celan.

What are you working on right now?

I am just finishing up a month of my dream delivery service, so I have been biking forty miles around Denver from 2-6 AM every day and delivering dream-poems to people’s doors. I’m at the point in the month when exhaustion has set in like a tattered flag and that’s kind of nice. I’ll be delivering dreams in Richmond and via mail again in October and then in other cities for the next year or so—if you want some dreams delivered to your door, hit me up. I’d like to do dream deliveries in Brooklyn, but need to find an arts or literary organization that would work with me on that. At some point I hope to have the time and skill to finish this shitty novel I’m working on. I’m in the middle of a book-length poem called Thank You Terror, which will probably take me a few more years to finish. I need to do final edits on a collection of short fiction I have backburnered. And at some point I need to write this series of surrealist textbooks that I’ve had planned for years. And some other stuff.

What’s a good day for you?

I usually like Tuesdays. Especially Tuesdays in June.

So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? How is it changing?

I’ve been in Denver for seven years (I moved here from Brooklyn), which is longer than I’ve lived anywhere. Yet it doesn’t feel like home. I’m not sure I associate any place with home; I’m probably just sentimental about that word. Denver has nice elements: close to the mountains, bikable, lots of people I love living here. It’s a city that has allowed me to transform myself in many ways and to hone my writing. But it’s not quite janky enough for me to feel home; it lacks for me that sense of ramshackle confusion and potential. Though, that’s probably just a factor of being older while living here. Everything feels a bit more ramshackle and potentialish when all my friends were living in closets and discovering what it means to be in the world. Everything feels a bit more dull now that I am more dull. I do wonder what the future of Denver will be. As it becomes one of the hot markets for urban growth and tech/creatives gentrification, it is getting even less integrated and less supportive of working-class people and more representative of this cookie-cutter white-tech-folksy-bro-entitled-#blessed lifestyle.

Describe your time in Brooklyn.

I have been spending time in Brookyln since my teens, most often at the apartment of the photographer Jon Pack. Jon should be an official city resource. He’s that kind of New Yorker who knows the secretly awesome bakery or gallery or shop tucked away into every block in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I can text him and tell him I’m at so-and-so streets and off the top of his head, wherever I am, he’ll recommend something surprising and amazing. Brooklyn with Jon has always felt like a relief to me, like a returning to a place where I belong.

I lived in Sunset Park, on the Bay Ridge side, for a year with Julia Cohen. I loved how I could walk down the street and see teenage girls in booty shorts pass women in head scarves passing couples arguing in Cantonese passing us, whatever we were or are. I loved the people who would gather every night in Sunset Park. I loved the gnarly movie theater on 5th with the stickiest carpets. I loved tipsy subway rides back from some reading. I love the noise of the city and the trains.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

This is hard to me, as I feel like so many different ideas get conflated in the word community when artists use it. There’s an idea of professional interaction. There’s an idea of identifying one thread of one’s self through being part of said community. There are ideas of support and friendship and love and respect. There’s an idea of niche or clique creation and cultivation and critique and re-creation. (There are more ideas, obviously, that I’m too exhausted to think of right now.) I don’t think all of these show up in every grouping of artists. Or they never do. Or not all at once. And there is a confusion of one facet of community for another in utopian fallacy. Or there is a disappearance, rug-pulled-out style, of one facet at the moment when it is needed.

I have found community in many ways, and I have attempted in my own flawed but trying ways to foster it, and I have benefitted from being a part of a community, and I have failed it in my own flawed and trying ways, and it never quite feels like a community. Which is maybe right. Maybe a poetry community isn’t a community, but a poetry community and the rules and modes of it are self-reflexive and aestheticized, and every community functions in this same individuated and insinuated and nodal manner.

Is that idealism? Am I becoming a Gnostic in my old age?

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Oh man, so many just living right now. Cathy Park Hong is an inspiration as a poet, a thinker, a person. When I think of someone whom I want to hold up as an example of why poetry is cool and necessary and exploratory it is Cathy Park Hong. Ummmmm: Cecily Iddings’s poems of nuance and clarity; Ana Božičević, my favorite living de Nerval poem; Jenny Zhang’s unyielding confrontation of the personal and the needing to be spoken; Matvei Yankelevich’s wildly calm absurd and masterful organizing; Morgan Parker’s searching and hilarious confessionalism; Amy Lawless’s lyric processing; Dottie Lasky’s yawp.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My first great professional poetry mentor was my undergrad professor William Henry Lewis, a fiction writer who seriously feels the poetry. He brought Jay Wright and Larry Levis to read at my little school and both of them lit me up and have continued to be primary loves for me. I think Lewis was an influence about and example of how to go hard, to read with depth and care and relentless passion, to write as a form of exploration and discovery in content and in aesthetics and in the other thing. He’s an amazing writer, but pretty low-key about promotion—if you haven’t read his two books of stories check him out.

My other important poetry mentors have always been my friends. I don’t have much to say about this that a million others haven’t said. I value that shared sense of discovery that friends bring to mentorship, a mentorship that is not structured into authority but into belief and wonder and fear and terror and love and trying to make sense of the world and trying to be better people.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s 2015 book The Verging Cities is one of the more masterful and affecting books I’ve read in years and it keeps with me. It weaves surreal and autobiographical and documentarian modes together in an exploration of El Paso and Juarez and, through that, an exploration of the many borders within us and that we are within.

Unlikely Conditions, a collaborative book by Cynthia Arrieu-King and the late Hillary Gravendyk is absolutely fantastic, for the poems alone, but also for the record of a friendship writ through poetry, and for the memory it keeps of Gravendyk.

Then again, I read Donne’s “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day” just about every day and it finds a way to stand out anew every time.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Robert Hayden’s Middle Passage has been on my to-read list for years and I haven’t read it. The Shahnameh, I feel daunted by that one. The Mahābhārata, too. I still have never finished all of Quixote. I dunno, a ton. I’m a Penguin Classics junkie.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts?

I’m more for the haphazard approach of dipping into and out of old books, bent face-down on the bed, on the floor, stacked on top of every flat surface. But then maybe reading four or five books by a single author in a row too. Though lately I have not had a lot of free time and have been traveling a lot, which has led to a more linear process and a lot of audiobooks. It feels exciting to me that way, less like being a part of a crazed world. Maybe that’s good?

Are you a note-taker?

Not if I can help it.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I haven’t liked writing at home all that much, actually. I’ll do it, because one does what is afforded one, but home has been a place to store my distractions—stacks of books and rows of records and snacks and the dog. I like to read and write in libraries and coffeeshops and on buses and on friends’ couches. When I’m really working on a project I try to always keep one part of myself inside it and to feel like anything I’m doing or thinking might be part of the writing process, which means writing on scraps of paper or my phone or little notebooks in addition to writing during chunks of time devoted to writing. It means, maybe, trying to allow the life to make the poem rather than the poem being an object that is emitted from life.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love any time I’m under or nearly under a bridge. I love Jon Pack’s apartment. I love the subway, though more so when visiting than when I lived there. I love anywhere Amy Lawless’s laugh is. I love walking streets with friends, preferably at night, preferably a bit lost or confused as to where we are going, not so late that the end of the night is in sight but not so early that it feels mapped out and digestible.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the bridge
And what I bridge you bridge
For every bridge that bridges me as good bridges you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

You are in a library with your father. Your father keeps opening books and signing his name on the title pages with a red pen. A librarian sprints over to tackle your father but he ducks and spins and is able to dodge her. It is more than vandalism here, writing in books: it is a sin. The two of you jump out a window that looks like an oversized headphone jack. Outside, your father unzips himself from throat to crotch, skin and clothes falling off like a loose robe. Your father’s exterior crumples on the streets of Brooklyn. Out of your unzipped father steps, reborn anew, Biggie. It is this that gives me life, Biggie says, audacity and complexity and love.

Why Brooklyn?

Because of that triangle sample of DJ Premier’s in that Crooklyn Dodgers song.