“as a human being living amidst a civilization’s collapse”: Mathias Svalina talks about his new book & gives away money
I’m pleased to present the following interview I conducted with Mathias Svalina, author of one book of poems, Destruction Myth (Cleveland State University Poetry Center), & one book of prose, the newly released I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur (Mud Luscious Press).
To celebrate the release of I.A.A.V.P.E., Mathias has decided to give away money.
One dollar to be exact, but a very special dollar…
To win, post a word from the dictionary in the comment box below. Mathias will randomly select one of the words as the winning word. To the writer of the winning word, Mathias will write a unique business plan on a dollar bill, which the winner can then showcase (or spend) to commemorate their first dollar earned.
Contest ends Friday at noon.
HIGGS: Why MLP? How did that come about?
SVALINA: I was interested in what Mud Luscious was doing with the liminal space between poetry & prose, devoting itself neither to the prose poem nor lyric fiction. While other presses obviously publish this kind of work, JA is dedicated to it, calling the books “novel(la)s,” a term that courts silliness in a way. People ask me what it means & I have to honestly tell them I don’t know. I mean, what the fuck is a novel(la)? It’s like a novella but with a little extra la in it. It’s a joke on the academic pretension of wanting to ape French continental philosophers & point out the wordplay implicit in words, yet it also does this pretentious move as well. It’s a subgenre that JA is creating through his editorial selections. The man is cheeky.
I was writing this book with a sense of play, both in the absurdist extensions of the businesses & in the genre. When I finished it I thought of Mud Luscious as a good home. I sent it to JA right when I finished a first real draft & he got back to me pretty quickly saying he wanted to do it. I felt like we were on the same vibe.
HIGGS: What is this book’s relationship to your other book, Destruction Myth?
SVALINA: This book certainly has affinity with Destruction Myth in that both of them are absurdist series of a particular form. I find this approach to writing very appealing. I have a manuscript, currently unpublished, of instructions for children’s games – a section of that was a chapbook for The Cupboard. Currently I’m working on a book of spells & I have the beginning of a manuscript that is all mind-in-a-vat thought experiments.
One difference between this book & Destruction Myth is that I felt more inclined to remind a reader or try to convince a reader that the Myths were poems. Even the cover of the book states “poems.” I didn’t have that urge in this book & instead tried to use the unpoeminess of the pieces to some kind of advantage.
HIGGS: A question about character: One way to read I.A.A.V.P.E. is univocally, which is to imagine that all of the entries come from the same speaker. Another way to read I.A.A.V.P.E. is multivocally, which is to imagine that each entry comes from a different speaker. Is this ambiguity deliberate, or have I missed an obvious clue embedded in the text?
SVALINA: I’d rather not say too much on this, as that ambiguity is important to me & I don’t think my reading of the book is superior to anyone else’s reading. But I see him as one character. One who has lost a child in his recent history. I feel like this trauma is part of why he is driven to start all these businesses, to fill the space left by the death with any attempt to divert energy.
While there are personal elements that emerge out of the book, I wasn’t trying to make a complete picture of the speaker emerge. I didn’t want this to become a traditional narrative embedded in the form. Instead I wanted the form to dominate the character. So the multivocal quality is deliberate because the different businesses demand different voices. An entrepreneur is many people in one, an actor of capital. And so he is exuberant at times, elegiac at others, but mostly he is talking about business. He is very productive.
On the other hand the speaker of the book could be seen as me, just Mathias, attempting novelty & diversion as I carry my dead child through the world.
HIGGS: A question about structure, which is also a convoluted question about how you envision the differences between fiction and poetry: Reading I.A.A.V.P.E., I didn’t get a sense of the narrative progression one typically finds in a work of fiction; rather, it felt like a book of poems in the way that a book of poems is often a collection of self-contained units. To put it another way, I.A.A.V.P.E. doesn’t abide by an Aristotelian (beginning, middle, end) structure; rather, it presents a catalog of entries that could conceivably have ended sooner or gone on forever. But then again, it doesn’t feel like a book of poems either. (This is where I think the idea of experimental literature comes into play: that liminal object, neither poetry nor fiction in the conventional sense.) I’m curious to hear your thoughts about these distinctions, about the differences between poetry and fiction, perhaps what fiction can do that poetry can’t, and vice versa. Especially in regards to I.A.A.V.P.E. Did you simply wake up one morning and think: today will be the day I do not make line breaks?
SVALINA: Like a book of poems, I wanted these to function both as discrete flights of absurd fancy, yet to cohere into a larger argument. In that respect I see the book as poetic. But when I was writing them I didn’t think of them as poems. Nor did I think of them as fiction. I called them business plans, which obviously they are not, but I wanted a separate genre for them. I feel affinity with books like Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories, Galeano’s Book of Embraces, or Viscount Lascano Tegui’s On Elegance while Sleeping more than a book of prose poems, though. These are narratives, the book functions as a field rather than a progression.
I tend to be working on at least two projects at once & one of them tends to be terse, personal & imagistic, while the other tends to be these absurdist genre explorations. I wrote this book alongside another manuscript called the Hosanna Mansions, which consists of direct emotional experiences of how I was reacting to my father’s terminal cancer. The more personal works have become more poemy – shorter lines, more dependence on figurative language & poetic devices – while the more absurd works have drifted away from poetry. Instead I look for an alternate structure to control the rhetoric: game instructions, descriptions of businesses, spells, mind-in-a-vat philosophical puzzles, etc. So it was a gradual move away from line breaks toward finding something that has its own internal architecture in the way that a traditional poetic form does.
While I find discussions of it interesting, I don’t got much truck with the word “experimental” in literature. I find it’s usually code for a genre rhetoric. I tend to find the urge to bring the language of science into the practice of art to be somewhat wanting. I don’t consider this book in any way experimental, as there was no hypothesis, no finding. While there is plenty of writing that does do this kind of experiment, NH Pritchard was one I really adore, I feel like much of “experimental” writing works in a mode that results in an expected telos. Which is not to say it’s bad writing – I love a lot of that stuff deeply – but there is no experiment to it.
I’m much more interested in the absurd & how it reflects the daily life that I experience, how experiences like these can feel true & reflect the way the mind works with the material world. In that these are more like lyric poems than experiments. I try to capture something that feels true to me about my life as a human being living amidst a civilization’s collapse.
HIGGS: Hot damn! I love your response to the idea of experimental literature: “code for a genre rhetoric.” What you say about the relationship between the absurd and the material world, about wanting to capture something that feels true to your life experience, reminds me of Robbe-Grillet saying all writers believe what they are writing is realism. Can you locate certain moments, events, experiences, materials that put you on this particular artistic pathway? What is it about the absurd that resonates with you so strongly?
SVALINA: I have a similar quote from Oppen at the beginning of a manuscript I’m working on, which is called It Seems Sad That on the One Hand Such Exquisite Creatures Should Live Out Their Lives and Exhibit Their Charms Only in These Wild, Inhospitable Regions, Doomed for Ages Yet to Come to Hopeless Barbarism; While on the Other Hand, Should Civilized Man Ever Reach These Distant Lands, and Bring Moral, Intellectual, and Physical Light into the Dark Recesses of These Virgin Forests, We May Be Sure That He Will so Disturb the Nicely-Balanced Relations of Organic and Inorganic Nature as to Cause the Disappearance, and Finally the Extinction, of These Very Beings Whose Wonderful Structure and Beauty He Alone is Fitted to Appreciate and Enjoy: “I write about things which may be abstractions to many people. I do not write about them if they are abstractions to me.” Sometimes I feel like all we can do as writers is try to capture the experience of our minds in relation to the world.
I try – not that anyone should care – to make a distinction between surrealism & absurdism in my writing, as I view surrealism as an illogic of rules, yet still controlled. It speaks of a functioning world (It’s lawful neutral in AD&D terms). Absurdism is an anarchy of meaning. Rules exists, meaning exists, completely dislocated from valid authority (chaotic neutral). I see myself as an absurdist both as a writer & in my ideology.
When I try to identify the absurd in everyday life, I find every thing bearing the weight of absurdity. What seems right about the absurd is both its representation of the crushing pain of existence but also the silliness of the case. In front of me there is a broken music box sitting atop a copy of Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. I’m typing on a computer that functions in ways that are almost infinitely capable, yet also silly, comprised of elements ripped from the earth at an irreplaceable rate, many of them toxic. And I continue to write for a niche audience despite the complete degradation of the earth through the tools of my writing. The 21st century condition is more-so one of absurdity than at any previous point in history.
HIGGS: You mention a few books that share an affinity with I.A.A.V.P.E., but I’d also be interested to hear about other affinities: music, movies, art, comic books, magazines, etc. that might illustrate its wider zone of influence/inspiration.
SVALINA: Some of the affinities are pretty obvious: Calvino, Borges, Aesop, Kharms, etc. As far as contemporary writers, there are a lot of working in obsessive serial forms right now. I don’t like every book like that (don’t we all find the work so close to our own unsettling?) but some are excellent, like Adam Peterson’s My Untimely Deaths. (As a side note, are these repetitive forms predominantly a male aesthetic right now? I can only think of Jenny Boulley (thanks to Julia’s brainstorming) as working in this mode & getting published for it. I wonder about the gendered nature of this aesthetic.)
In contemporary art, I feel like Julie Speed’s screaming series bears some relation to what I was going for. Jake Gillespie’s work is a important influence on my style. Something about the ideology of Julie Mehretu’s work relates, though not the aesthetics. David Shrigley has been a big influence on my thinking about what a discrete piece does in relation to a whole & how to integrate humor & the profound. Somehow, & this obviously isn’t contemporary any longer, I see the fields of Hogarth’s pieces as related, or the fields of
Music-wise, I’m not sure. Maybe Bach’s fuguing exploration bears resemblance? David S. Ware’s plaintive searching? Zorn’s less skronky work? Sunburned Hand of the Man? Music is hard to talk about, since it’s as close as I get to faith.
HIGGS:The manipulation of bodies plays a leading role in this book, from putting stereos inside people’s heads to putting stone wells inside torsos, from growing hearts in greenhouses to the narrator selling parts of his own body to the highest bidder. What is it about mutilating or changing or enhancing the body that interests you?
SVALINA: Hmmm. I hadn’t even noticed that as a theme until you pointed it out. Thanks!
I haven’t thought this through before, it seems to me that one of the primary themes in our culture is the body as contingent. From the half-human, half-animal trope that is common in a lot of surrealism right now to the state of medical enhancement to the wide world of post-humanism studies. As “the natural” becomes more & more firmly embedded in its quotation marks, the body becomes a thing of play, whether pharmaceutically, decoratively, digitally, or through good-old cyborg means. Anyone starting a business right now would have to tap into this market.
It seems interesting that the book tends to mix the manipulation of the body with somewhat old school technology, rather than micro or nanotechnology. He’s using the body’s reformulation as a reification of authenticity rather than as a transformed novelty.
I’m just kind of brainstorming here. What do you think, Chris?
HIGGS: Yeah, that seems right to me: “one of the primary themes in our culture is the body as contingent.” I see this theme being manifested everywhere, from the recent intensification of vampire/werewolf/zombie narratives in popular culture to the surge of “animal studies” and “posthuman studies” in academia. The once stable notion of the human has come undone, and this undoing seems to fascinate many people, myself included.
This reminds me…a while back Amy King alerted me to a panel she moderated on race and poetry at the Boog City Festival. You were on that panel, and one of the interesting things you said has stuck with me, you said, “I want experimental poetics to destabilize the myth of the center.” I like that idea very much, and it seems particularly relevant to our discussion here. The myth of the center is also the myth of the human and the myth of business. The entrepreneur, being the conjunction of the human and business, serves to expose the myth of the center. But then, in the absence of a center what remains? More specifically, using I.A.A.V.P.E. as a case study, what remains when the center is revealed to be a myth? Is this revelation a form of nihilism, and if so what value does nihilism provide? Perhaps I’m mistaking absurdity for nihilism, but nevertheless I’m interested to learn your perspective on the value of destabilizing the myth of the center as it relates to I.A.A.V.P.E.. As a concept, it seems ripe with potential.
SVALINA: Well first off, I feel caught using “experimental” when I’ve here poo-poo-ed it. Aw heck.
I feel like I don’t have an intellectual basis for distinguishing between absurdism & nihilism. The closest I can say is faith, which is always a cheap way out for structures of thinking. On bad days, yes, it is centerless & therefore without the ability to take a moral stance, only see the dissolution of all things. On better days it seems to me like a rhizomatically self-constructing experience of the world. If there are no stable models of meaning then all meaning must be eternally becoming. And therefore all ethics is relational.
I think this factors into the book as the speaker’s inability to make sense of the world, of loss, of the meaning of his businesses. From my perspective the relative value of meaninglessness, of following the creative urge to its conclusion seems to me to reflect this urge toward a constant becoming of creation. Absurdism has to have a lightness as well, an ephemeral drift to it, which implies that if the tide had been at a different pull, if Obama had smoked a cigarette that day, then the experience & the text would be different. Yet absurdism is a response to inherent tragedy: the crushing pain of existence.
I’ve been thinking lately about why absurdism is funny. I think the answer to that, whatever it is, is somehow the key to thinking about all of this.
HIGGS: That brings up one of the real strengths of the book, which is how deftly you mingle humor and fantasy with horror and sadness. Does this constellation come to you naturally, or do you struggle to align these forces?
SVALINA: Thanks! I have an urge to simply say “naturally.” But part of that is I don’t think there is “struggle” in writing, nor “work,” nor “effort.” I think those are misused metaphors of physical labor.
But there is both the way that this mix comes out of the way my mind works. I’m a severely chronically depressed extrovert, so I tend to make a lot of jokes & try to please people while also having no faith in any meaningfulness or validity to our experiences. It runs in the family. One of the first things my dad said to me after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer was a joke about how surprised he was that it wasn’t his heart.
Yet there is a rhetoric to it as well. To balance the silliness of sentiment you need some displacement. So a ridiculous set piece can allow broad sadness to function in a way that an autobiographical poem might belittle the emotion. So there is definitely something calculated & deliberate in this mingling.
HIGGS: For the life of me, I can’t figure out how to best formulate a question that might get you to say something about how you conceive of the relationship between art and politics, given that I.A.A.V.P.E. is about a businessman living as you’ve put it “amidst a civilization’s collapse,” thus calling capitalism and contemporary America into the foreground. Maybe it’s simply this: what is it about capitalism and America that interests you? Do you feel an obligation to any specific political or social issues?
SVALINA: I’m something of a pragmatic anarchist. I don’t believe in the fantasy of my ideal, so I end up siding with liberalism often because it seems like the only morally stomachable game in town. I side this way despite my deep distrust of the government’s constraint of the individual’s actions, thoughts, identity, etc. I don’t see how conservatives & liberals differ in regards to those constraints. So I guess in a word, no, I feel no obligation except that I try not to impose myself on anyone else in any way & I try to be aware of the ways that I am a or represent (as a straight, white, male & therefore a beneficiary of & a representation of American oppression) a hierarchical imposition.
Capitalism is inherently a system of control & oppression so that wealth accumulates in the few & the many live either without what they want or mollified by drugs, religion & entertainment. If you’re reading this, then you’ve heard this all before. Capitalism & by extension civilization (since capitalism is only the latest incarnation of the unremitting model of the few oppressing the many & exploiting the environment) is an absurdity. All civilizations collapse, but we must not say so. We have to extend the fantasy that eternal exploitation of resources, environmental & human, can continue to expand & benefit those who do little to no actual work. It’ll be interesting to see what the next incarnation of civilization looks like, if I live that long. It’ll be interesting to see what follows civilization.
I don’t know if I’m saying anything relevant to the book here, or just blowing some armchair-radical hot air. But somehow all of this gets me around to the point of the politics of the book. It’s, I think, similar to the response to the above question of where do I see the absurd. I think we live in a pathologically sick culture in its exploitation of humans & the environment, but we call it progress, or modern. We are all living inauthentically & the only valid way of understanding this, in my opinion, is via the absurd.
HIGGS: Who is your audience? Do you think of an audience when you write? For whom do you write?
SVALINA: I figure there is something between 500 to 1000 people who care about what I write. Call this an audience, call it a community, it’s what I imagine out there. However, when I write I’m not sure I think of an audience. I know I’m aware of a potential audience, as I don’t do much journaling or writing that is unintended for public eyes, but writing for me is a more meditative act. Editing, on the other hand, is more fully aware of the audience. Mostly when I edit I picture how Zach Schomburg & Julia Cohen will react. I try to think of whether they would laugh at the parts I’d want them to laugh at or be affected by other parts. I think I’d be satisfied if they were my only two readers.
HIGGS: Imagine you’re reading a review of I.A.A.V.P.E. What would make you smile to see acknowledged? What would make you frown?
SVALINA: I have an on-going masochistic fantasy of writing a tremendously eviscerating review of my books & trying to get it published under a fake name. It would point out all the errors I see in the work & the other writers I’m ripping off & in general deconstruct the book so that the reader of the review would have no choice but to realize that my writing is a fiasco. So I guess that would make me smile. I don’t think this is a healthy fantasy.
Beyond that little bit of narcissism, though, I think if someone saw this as a joking book I might frown. To me it’s funny, but it’s also a very sad book. Desperate even. I meant for it to be light when I wrote it, but it didn’t really turn out that way.
I would smile if someone acknowledged that the final piece in the book was based on a joke that my friend Forrest Norman made in high school about starting a tv station called BTOTV, which would feature those two hits from the band BTO on constant rerun, because there might be a chance that someone would want to hear them throughout the day & therefore one could always rely on that station to provide that service. However, even he forgot about this joke, so I doubt any reviewer would be able to acknowledge it.
Tags: Mathias Svalina