Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mathias Svalina

Mathias Svalina is the author of one book of poems, Destruction Myth (Cleveland State University Poetry Center), one forthcoming book of prose, I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur (Mudluscious Press) & numerous chapbooks. With Zachary Schomburg he co-edits Octopus Magazine & Octopus Books.


I’ve been through this
before in my imagination,
since you were never predicted
to live this long.

The ambulance.
The hospital.
The white cotton gloves
left on top of the coffin.

that it’s the body twisting
itself to death
rather than simply
turning off
as the doctors
all of my prepared
expressions are useless.

I’m left
like the amateurs,
wondering what
makes the trains sound
so beautiful
in the distance
in the twilight.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem in 2009. I think I was at The Tea Lounge in Brooklyn, because I wrote a lot of the manuscript that it comes from at that place. The manuscript is a record of my reactions to my father’s cancer and his impending death.

The title of the poem is a reference to a Larry Levis poem, of course. It is a poem about his dad. As for the content of my poem, my dad had a congenital heart defect and throughout the years we always assumed he would die as a result of this. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer it seemed odd and surprising that this ailment he’d been born with, that we’d always assumed would be the death of him had been displaced by cancer.

There are few things less surprising than the fact that the people we love die and yet it doesn’t keep us from having the reactions that we do. The poem is trying to get in that space somewhere, a poem about my dad’s death and a poem about the presumptions and cliché pretensions we have about epochal emotion-points in our lives.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

While I’d hesitate to tell this to a creative writing student, this poem was probably written in about five minutes and I think I have changed maybe a handful of words since then. I’ve changed a few pieces of punctuation and one or two words since the version that is on Blackbird, which is slightly different than the one above. So while the final tinkering might have taken a few years (and it might not be over) the essential poem was written in minutes.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe that inspiration is ubiquitous and therefore unimportant to my writing. All one has to do is see a tree and then see something else and one has inspiration. Any juxtaposition is inspiration. Though, as I said above, this poem came quickly to me. If that is inspiration then I believe in that, but I think I’m begging the question there.

I have a harder time with the second part of the second question. Part of the phenomenology of being a poet at this point in the art’s history is that one enacts a belief that one's time is better spent writing a poem than reacting meaningfully against the horrors of human oppression. Which I think is wrong. I don’t think this poem had a lot of struggle to it, or whatever "sweat and tears" means in relation to writing poetry. In my opinion, writing poetry is fundamentally not work and never struggle. When I hear people claim that they struggle over poetry, that poetry is "work" it sounds like the language of a piggy bank to me.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I wanted this poem to be plainspoken and directly connected to my real life, which is something I don’t do normally. I wanted it to sound like a poem written by someone who loves William Stafford. Any revisions I have made have been to try and make it more plain and clear.
I wanted it to be in a rhetoric of "honesty," which doesn’t really have anything to do with "honesty" in the sense of telling the truth, but more like "honesty" in the sense of paving the streets when they need to be paved.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I think it had been about two years. I wrote the whole manuscript in 2008 and 2009. Then my dad died and I did not look at the manuscript for a while. I sent one batch of poems from it out before he died, and this was to Blackbird. They were the first journal to publish poems from that manuscript.

How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I think this one "sat" for about a year. In general my practice varies. Often when I think something is "done" I usually go ahead and send it out. Sometimes it gets taken immediately, sometimes it sits around, sometimes I give up on the poem or forget about it.

But I write a lot of stuff. Some of it I send out rapidly, some of it, conversely to what I said above, I hold back. As I mentioned before, since this manuscript was emotionally important to me and written in a way that I typically don’t have much interest in, my reaction to it was different. I think I’ve only sent out maybe three batches of poem from this one.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

This poem is as close as I can get to factual in a poem, which is not very factual. My view of reading literature doesn’t allow much space for facts. Literature doesn’t have a truth value. Which is essential to its uses and failures. I don’t think anyone who reads this poem would know anything substantial or true about me, but they might know something about the poem.

Is this a narrative poem?

Nope, just a little meditative piece.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading a lot of Jay Wright and Boccacio when I wrote this, as far as I remember, in addition to the thousands of poems and hundreds of books one is constantly in the process of reading or coming to an understanding of at any moment when you’re a poet. I think I was modeling the approach to information in this manuscript on Wright. This poem is a direct response to a kind of thinking about how a writer goes through commonplace steps of their lives, as evidenced by Levis’s poem about his father and any number of other typical white guys writing about their dads. So Levis is, as he so often is, an influence.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Usually I write imagining how my friend Zach or my girlfriend Julia would react. But with this manuscript I think I was writing to someone who wouldn’t be interested in most of my poems.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I showed this manuscript to my friend GC. I think he was the only one I showed this poem to. I regularly share work with a variety of friends. Their reactions are interesting and instructive, but ultimately, their reactions are usually less important than reading the poems out loud to myself and trying to gauge my ear’s reaction.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Most of my poems are either in an absurdist style or a tersely imagistic style. This one is closer to the latter, but attempting a more direct clarity of emotional intent, a more closed control of the meaning-making. It’s also about Mathias John Svalina, which my poems usually are not.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It was finished. I had a specific, though limited, goal for it and I think I accomplished it so I considered it done.


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  2. Gorgeous, heartfelt poem! I love the merging of risk and simplicity. There's a lot of familiar, relatable feeling here for anybody who has ever dealt with loss (or found themselves consider a loss to come).

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