Jennifer Denrow is the author of California (Four Way Books, 2011). Her chapbooks include How We Know it is That (Horse Less Press, 2014) and From California, On (Brave Men Press, 2012). Her writing has appeared in journals such as Gulf Coast, jubilat, Alaska Quarterly Review, Octopus, and Poets.Org. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Denver and is the recipient of a fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mathias Svalina is the author of The Depression (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2020), The Wine-Dark Sea, (Sidebrow Books, 2016), Wastoid (Big Lucks Books, 2014), The Explosions (Subito Press, 2012), and multiple other works. He is the coeditor at Octopus Books and lives in Denver, Colorado. Svalina has operated a Dream Delivery Service since 2014. He hand delivers poems to subscribers within a 4 mile radius of his home base in each city and delivers poems by mail to every other subscriber.
Literary Conversation 2 Transcript
Roger Green: Okay, welcome back. I am Roger Green, I’m the general editor for The New Polis, and this is the second in a series of literary conversations on The New Polis. I’ve been writing—last year especially—a long series on the ways that philosophers use literature. I particularly reread Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, and I’ve been kind of critical of the ways that philosophers take a kind of utilitarian approach to literature itself.
So, I want to have more literary material and literary aesthetic discussions on the website, and what I’m doing is, I’m interviewing authors, writers hopefully who know each other’s work a little bit. So, today we are with Jennifer Denrow and Mathias Svalina. We’ve all known each other for several years. So, thank you guys for being here.
I have questions that I sent you. I’m asking people rather dense questions, but that’s just to kind of skip over the pleasantries of like, what got you into writing or the traditional interview stuff. People can look up your names and your background and what else you’ve published and all that on their own, and I always write a little piece after these.
So, I thought we would jump right into your work, but just before we started recording you guys were talking about how you write, so maybe we could just jump back to that for a minute. Like, how you physically write …
Jennifer Denrow: I just write in a book with a pen and then when I fill up the book, I just get a new book. Sometimes people send me books and then I just write in those and then I just get a new one after it’s done.
Mathias Svalina: What happens between the book’s physical existence and the version that becomes something that you send as a file?
Jennifer Denrow: Oh, you mean when I put it into the computer?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, what kind of transformation, or not, usually happens?
Jennifer Denrow: Oh, usually I write in a book and fill it up and then I look back through the book and put some things into the computer, but not everything. Sometimes I only fill up about 20 pages and then I’ll do it, but sometimes I fill up the whole book or sometimes I fill up two books. And then I look back through them and then I choose things. It’s like my time to choose things.
Mathias Svalina: How do you feel like your choosing happens?
Jennifer Denrow: I just feel like I choose them if I like what it’s saying but if I don’t then I don’t choose it. So, sometimes if I fill up one page I could only really just like one word or maybe one line. Sometimes I just write something down and then I type it up on the computer. Like, with California, that’s what I did. I just wrote it down one day in a book and then I just typed it up into the computer. And I didn’t be choosy there, I just typed it all up. So sometimes I just type everything, sometimes I’m making choices.
Roger Green: You make choices spacing it out on the page then when you’re …
Jennifer Denrow: No, usually I write it down and then I put that onto the computer. So, the spacing is like how I write it.
Roger Green: Oh, that’s great.
Jennifer Denrow: But sometimes it’s not. If the page is too little or the book is too small, then I have to make the lines longer, but if it’s a big book then I have to make them smaller.
Mathias Svalina: I think I’m interested in seeing between the book and what becomes the file, because your work is so often, to me, this sort of stumbling onto astonishments or collecting phenomena, which is very different from how I approach writing. I’m curious if there’s a lot of excising or a lot of adherence to whatever came first.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like there is—I don’t know—but sometimes there’s not, but sometimes there is. But you like to write on the computer.
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, I mean, I tend to write things that … I think at least six of the seven books had a structural project to them or a repetitive form, and so I mostly have one file and right on the computer and stay inside of that form repeating over and over again, and writing usually two or three times more than what becomes the final book and then just cut out what seems boring.
Jennifer Denrow: Do you write on Word Document?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, I guess it is Word. Yeah.
Jennifer Denrow: Do you even save it to your computer or send it to yourself?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah.
Jennifer Denrow: But how do you know if it gets lost? Oh no, Mathias, I think you’re frozen.
Roger Green: Hopefully he’ll come back. But it was good because you said, “how do you know if it gets lost” and then he kind of got lost.
Jennifer Denrow: Oh yeah, that was a good ending line. And he looks kind of cool with that line, thinking about it. If someone gets frozen and you’re recording it does it record them as frozen or do they get to be regular?
Roger Green: Well, when you put the video back in, it shifts to whoever’s talking.
Jennifer Denrow: He’s gone!
Roger Green: Yeah, hopefully he’ll come back. I don’t want to read his poem without him hearing it. Oh, there he is.
Mathias Svalina: Sorry.
Roger Green: That’s okay.
Jennifer Denrow: Mathias, you got frozen.
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, you did, too.
Jennifer Denrow: I did?
Roger Green: So, Jen, you were asking Mathias if he’s afraid of work getting lost on the computer.
Jenifer Denrow: Oh right. Yeah, if you compose in Word how do you then keep it? Do you send it to yourself?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, I mean, I back things up, and I must say, I don’t think I’ve lost any big chunk of thing before. It doesn’t scare me—I don’t really care as much about the product I’m making as the time and energy of trying to fill out that product. So, I think that’s why I like doing the drain thing. Every day I just start dropping over again and I try to exhaust myself every day, and then start again the next day and do as much as I can.
Jennifer Denrow: Do you feel like exhausting yourself is a really important part of your process?
Mathias Svalina: I think it’s more about my mental health than it is about anything aesthetic. The process of writing that stuff keeps me at a much more stable place than when I’m not doing it. So, I think most of my writing has followed whatever is psychologically attractive to me rather than following conceptual goals or ideological goals.
Roger Green: That’s super interesting to me because your work, like in America at Play, you say at the beginning of that book that it’s a constraint exercise and that seems to be something that you gravitate to—or I am a Very Productive Entrepreneur does the same kind of repeat thing over and over again. But it reminds me of the Oulipo writers or Exhausting a Place in Paris—which is a different kind of thing—but there’s a kind of ludic quality to your work, there’s a kind of playfulness and then there’s the kind of moment where you’re tired from playing too much, like when you’re a kid and you don’t want to walk fucking home from the park because you’re just dreading the field because of how far it is. But that kind of emotion seems to erupt for me when I read your work.
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, I like forms and in undergrad I studied mostly medieval and renaissance literature, and the stuff that I love more than any other stuff is the Elizabethans, who are almost universally pretty shitty people—I mean, like Spencer who is so beautiful at every single line also devised a game plan for genocide. But that mode of repetitive formal controls and then trying to find a way to untie them through repetition and uncontrol them is appealing to me. So, finding a form and then doing it, like 300 times, because the first 20 might be some good ideas, but then once you run out of ideas you have to keep going at it. Then, for me, I find myself getting more interested in the uniform.
Roger Green: Okay, this is great. I didn’t know that you were into that period, but I’ve been teaching intro to literature this summer and I did more than five hours of lectures just reading through Macbeth for my students because like, how do you like read along? But I want to look at a couple of things in The Depression, partly because I did like an early modern poetry lecture and then I read this book and I was thinking of Shakespeare’s Sonnets when
I read The Depression this week.
Mathias Svalina: Well, Wastoid it’s based on the Sonnets.
Roger Green: Oh, it is?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, that’s why there’s 154 of them.
Roger Green: Oh yeah. I need to re-read it.
Mathias Svalina: They’re not in order though, they don’t correspond to the order of the Sonnets and I’ve forgotten the conversation.
Roger Green: Yeah, so there are images, there are things that come up, like the white Firebird comes up multiple times.
Mathias Svalina: Yeah that was my first car.
Roger Green: But then you talk about nature a lot. So, I want to read this poem, it’s on page 33 of The Depression, and it says:
Nature found itself in a dictionary, but then the dictionary fell apart & nature, like all the other words, got meaningless & free. A piece of nature was loved by a human, who wrapped that nature up in a poem. When that human died other humans laid down asphalt over the nature & made trails through the nature & surrounded the nature with walls neutralized all the animals that climbed over the walls. This space was named Nature Park or Nature University or The New Nature. But then the asphalt cracked & walls cracked & animals swarmed The New Nature, & they too, soon enough, will find something to destroy with their love. (33)
Mathias Svalina: That’s uplifting.
Roger Green: Yeah, yeah. So actually, when I was reading it, I was like, oh this is like the Book of Nature, which is a big theme. I’ve always thought that if I was smart enough, I would write a history of The Book of Nature.
Mathias Svalina: From Pliny?
Roger Green: Yeah. Well, and not so much Pliny but I was thinking of The New Organon or Sir Francis Bacon. That kind of moment of moving things towards automatons and the early modern period, and where nature becomes this kind of thing that people read like it’s a book—like nature becomes a text.
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, which is an old medieval trope.
Roger Green: So, then there’s a sacred forest that shows up later on in the book. I’ll just read it:
In the sacred forest people throw parties for gods & the gods show up looking clean & lustrous. The parties blaze & everything nevermores in the blaze, no one a woman or a man in the blaze, no truth or devotion in the blaze. Drums clang & twist the dancers & forest delirious. Or that’s what I hear, anyways. I am not allowed in the sacred forest. Each time I try to sneak in I am caught. That could be fine, I could live a sneaker’s life, but I am the sheriff of this town & I must exert control. I am waiting outside the sacred forest, hoping some god will make an exception for me, holding this sack of corn, dressed in white, face painted with symbols I don’t know how to read.
Mathias Svalina: I don’t know, I don’t remember what I was doing when I was writing that. I was trying to cheer myself up, I think. But when I was editing it, I was really trying to think of it as fables and think about what kind of what kind of lessons I wanted to pass on through the fact of this mode. But I don’t really like lessons. I think I wanted them all—or mostly all of them—to not reach their goals.
I like the kind of surrealism that comes out of the Eastern European stories, the really short stories, the really tiny ones, fable style, moral, the end.
Roger Green: So, it seems like you do this, but you’re consciously working in a surrealist vein, you would say?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, I mean that’s the only way I can really do anything, that’s just how the world appears to me.
Roger Green: I asked you guys some questions in email and I can write them into like my writing piece—so I don’t have to repeat them all here—but I was really interested in how there are a lot of elements in both your work that seem to resonate with forms of enchantment and maybe forms of states of exception. But I had asked you in an earlier question about the surrealist project, like this early book by Julien Levy, Surrealism, claims that there are politics to the movement. So, there was a quote I gave you guys by Pierre-Olivier Lapie on the surrealist insurrection, from 1935, that seems to think that surrealism is aesthetically aligned with Soviet politics at the time.
So, I wondered if you think of your work as participating in that political aspect of things. I mean, you mentioned Spencer and genocide, and I think there’s definitely a deep ethical thing going on with that.
Mathias Svalina: What do you think, Jen? have you place your writing in relation to larger ethics or politics?
Jennifer Denrow: I mean, I don’t know if I do. I just think that … Okay, this is what I think, or this is what I feel that I think: at some point in time, I think how to know became so weird and so industrial and so economical, or so related to something like progress. And I don’t feel like I can know good. Or, I think about knowing more as intuition or feeling.
So, I don’t know if it’s related to this, it’s probably so different because I don’t think this is some kind of thing like what you’re talking about. It’s not, I don’t think—I mean, I don’t feel—like surrealism is … I mean, I do have some feeling against the rational because it doesn’t make sense to me. But I’m not sure if that’s enough to connect it to a surrealist ethic.
I don’t know, maybe the enlightenment—I don’t really know, politically or historically, at what point in time or maybe it’s always fluctuated about how to know—I just feel like how I know things is not related to knowledge or something. I don’t know, I just feel like I don’t know how to know. So, I don’t think that’s really surrealist, but I can’t really describe what I think, but I feel like it’s something like that. What do you think?
Mathias Svalina: I think that when I think of the surrealist tendencies of your work, they’re more like Francis Ponge’s approached with surrealism and that sense where, if you look very closely at what appears to be the rational, the controlled, the useful versions of knowledge, and you keep looking at it intently the inherently irrational is going to surface as well so that you can’t just focus so much on uses of language or trying to control specific facts or trying to turn things into objects.
But I feel like in your writing, with its sometimes constellating, or scattering, or arrivals of astonishing things, pushed up against sometimes mundane things or personal reflections or collaging that sometimes happens in different kinds of experiences, it makes sense what you’re saying about that resistance of the use value or going into a more immersive or inclusive kind of knowing, in which a fact that could be employed doesn’t have a primary importance nor does an image of a familiar beauty or an image of familiar constructs of profundity.
So, I’m thinking like about your new chapbook, in those poems you’ll have a line that is very direct about representing personal experience, and then the next line might be a seemingly disconnected image, and then the next line might be a more prose style sentence structure that’s more thinking about something.
And the ways that those are all sort of—I said constellating already—but the sense of like projecting the nodes of attention and then that attention is revealing surrealism. Because aesthetically, I don’t like much of the French surrealists. So, I have a hard time identifying with them personally. Oh sorry, Jen. You were saying something I like.
Jennifer Denrow: No, I like how you just said that because I do feel like when I’m writing I’m trying to get as close as I can to what’s in front of me to understand what it is because I don’t feel like I have enough of a framework from any place else to make me feel confident in what that is, which is always what I’ve written. I’m just trying to write into my understanding of a thing.
So, what you just said makes sense. When you’re talking about form, it’s so interesting, because you’ll use the form hundreds of times and I think for me I can look at the same thing like a thousand times just to try to figure out the difference or like is there a difference or what that difference is. So, I think there is—in both of our work—some kind of an obsessiveness with repetition or just sustained attention, like what you were saying.
But I was gonna say, I was writing down all these quotes from your book and I was just thinking about it in terms of how we think about surrealism, which I think if someone just hears that term that has not studied surrealism, or doesn’t really know surrealist art, or is not an academic they just think of the strange and the familiar merging—maybe that would be like the way that a lot of people think about it. But I was just thinking about how so much of your work is like a problem with knowing, or with how to know. Maybe it’s not that way for you but it is for me, when I read it.
And I feel like that’s really a big part of my work, too. And then, also, what something is. Like on page 88 of The Depression you say, “he could not stop being a ruin,” or on 94 you say, “keeping itself a lake,” or on 109 you say, “finally becomes what he is,” or the one I said earlier, “in 1982 I was 1982.” And then you have this amazing line on page 81 that says, “knowing makes things unsustainable.”
So, I feel like, when I read your work, and it could just be because this is my own way—this is just me putting my own construct onto your work—but I feel like there’s this really uncertain sense, like everything is unstable or there’s this instability in it. Which, I guess, when thinking about surrealism there is something that I relate to instability or shiftingness or something. So, I don’t know. I’m just talking now.
Roger Green: So, I just imagine like some critic in like 20 years or 30 years, some graduate student, is working on poetry from the period and is looking at your work. Like, I’m reading a book on the French New Wave right now, because I’m teaching the French New Wave, and they’re trying to say, well, what was the new wave. And they might look back and be like, well, you know it was like the first two decades of the 21st century, and, everybody’s talking about like post-truth society.
And, I don’t think of your work, either of your work, as being anything like what people mean by the poetry of post-truth or something. I feel like there’s something anchoring, and maybe it’s in the way that you’re using the absurd or surrealism, but your work feels much more ethical to me—both of your work. So, the question of how you know—I like how you’re talking about that.
Mathias Svalina: I think, what I’ve seen in Jen’s work, a lot of the time, is this sort of—I said it already, but—an attempt to record an experience of a phenomenological mess, in the sense that it’s all a mess—so without any taxonomies or categories. To me that comes back to that silly stuff in Shelley, and so many other people, that the only way that one can ever really know the workings of another’s mind is through art and the attempt to record, with some iteration or construct of veracity, what it feels like to be that person at this time.
So, I feel like I’m dropped inside of a mind that is not my own. I’m very viscerally in the regions. And, I directly connect that to maybe Brendan Behan. Sort of writing, attempting to put it all in and not have categories of the poetic or the unpoetic and not have categories of hierarchies of which phenomena, which experiences are more worthy of being recorded. That’s very much not what I do, I try to write to erase myself.
Jennifer Denrow: You try to write what, Mathias?
Mathias Svalina: To erase myself.
Roger Green: That reminds me of what Jen was saying, a few minutes ago, about repetition because there’s a way that California—when I read the “California” poem—California is not utopic to me. And that is really, really important to your work, that it’s not and in the same way—I just finished an article on Walter Benjamin—it’s not messianic.
So, on page 15 of California it says:
Instead of going to California I make my husband a ham and cheese
sandwich to take to work. He doesn’t like the way I place the cheese on
When he leaves for work I sit in a quiet house.
I told him I couldn’t have this life.
This wasn’t me living here.
I was living in California.
He said cruel things about having me committed.
He brought the ring from the cabinet and tried to put it on my finger.
I said no.
I said I can’t be married right now.
He said this happens every year.
Now, there’s a way to read that in this very like Yellow Wallpaper kind of feminist, mad woman in the attic kind of thing going on there, but I think that’s a totally reductive way to read the “California” poem. It’s not that that’s not in there, but like when you say, “I was living in California” in that line, in the middle of that poem, the whole rest of the poem—if you read the rest—is like this person who wants to go to California.
So, I feel like California keeps changing what it means even though it’s repeated. It’s unstable in the ways that Mathias was maybe getting at.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, you know that song that John Prine wrote before he died, that says (singing):
The lonesome friends of science say
“The world can end most any day”
Well, if it does, then that’s okay
‘Cause I don’t live here anyway
I live down deep inside my head
I just love that song because I do feel like it’s like that, I just kind of live places in my head, as we all do. I mean, I think everyone does that, but I’m just like you know …
Mathias Svalina: It’s like prince said, “I live in my own heart, Matt Damon.”
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah! Yeah, I do think it’s funny because Jesse was telling me that … what was he saying? I can’t remember but he said something. Anyways, yeah, I know. Well, all of that’s true though, that page you just read. That wasn’t something I pretended, that really happened, and I did feel like I was living in California in this one way. So maybe I was.
Roger Green: It is funny because I remember you won that that award that year and the woman called you to give you the award, to tell you that you won, and she said I hope you get to California.
Jennifer Denrow: Oh yeah, I forgot about that.
Roger Green: And then from California on you don’t actually end up in California and now you’re in Portland.
Jennifer Denrow: I know. This freezing thing is happening again. What happened? You froze, or maybe I froze.
Mathias Svalina: Are you back?
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah
Mathias Svalina: We said really, really smart shit.
Roger Green: No, I was saying that it’s interesting because, in the From California, On book you’re not in California. You’re not living in California now because you’re in Portland. So. there are these—I mean, you just said it—very autobiographical moments in the text but there’s some sort of slippage there as well. Maybe it’s what Mathias was saying about not having hard categories between these things.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, it’s funny, I wrote something last summer about California. I feel like just every year, maybe, I’ll write a California thing. I was in California—maybe it was a couple summers ago—we were in San Francisco for the summer and I wrote a long poem. So, maybe I just keep trying it out because I feel like if I keep trying it out—I don’t know—it can still be a place I can go, or something like that.
Mathias Svalina: Does the mythos of it change every time you write about it?
Jennifer Denrow: I guess it has changed from that initial thing because initially when I started writing about it had more of a … well, I guess that’s not true. I was going to say it had less to do with the place and more to do with the place where I was, but I think it’s like that every time. It’s always just about escape in this way or something or imagining an escape place. I mean, I do this, too, like daily, you know. I just have these imaginary places I always go in my head.
Roger Green: Of all of my friends, no one can get obsessed with a song and repeat it over and over again, like you. No one I know listens—and I know a lot of musicians, right—no one listens to that same thing over and over and over.
Jennifer Denrow: I know. Actually, I see Wren doing it and I’m like oh gosh. She just watched this movie, Feel the Beaton Netflix, and then she watched it like every like morning for two weeks straight. Which is what I used to do as a kid. I used to watch that movie Dream a Little Dream with Cory Haim and Corey Feldman.
I mean, lots of movies in my childhood, but that one stands out particularly because I would watch half of it before I went to school and the other half when I got home, and I did it for months. And then I made my friend get her video camera and we recorded the whole opening scene in the basement. And we got clothes and did our hair.
This is so funny because we’re reading—actually Mathias, this relates to something I was going to talk about with your work and dreams, but—Jessie’s holding like a book club for the book Horizon …
Mathias Svalina: The Barry Lopez book?
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah. So, he’s always talking about going into museums and like spending hours sitting in front of a wooden boat to get to know it. And we were talking about one of these passages—because it happens throughout the book where he’s doing this, where he’s like going in and he’s kind of obsessively spending time with a piece of art or something like that—and I think it was Dixie who said god, who would do that? that’s obsessive and I was just thinking oh really that makes total sense to me.
So, I think I do feel like if I can look at something long enough or hear it enough or I can go to the same space in my mind every night when I go to sleep—if I can do it over and over and over again—there’s something in that that’s helpful to me. Or, I don’t know, maybe not helpful, maybe actually detrimental. But, anyway, it’s just something I do, and I’ve done it since I was little.
And now I see Wren doing it and I’m like, oh crap, she’s gonna have that same problem. But yeah, I can definitely look at a thing, listen to a thing, watch a thing a lot of times.
Roger Green: So, you were saying that you wanted to talk about Northern Exposure.
Jennifer Denrow: Oh yeah.
Roger Green: So, you both are re-watching that. I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager and I really loved it, but what is it with Northern Exposure?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, I remember you telling me that you would watch it every night when you’re going to sleep, so it would end on the DVD menu and the little loop of the theme song and that would just be playing all the time around you. I don’t know, I was thinking about that. I’m currently watching it as a kind of self-medicating while things have been bad. It’s partially just nostalgia it was the only thing on tv that I was excited about when I was like a teenager.
So, sort of like calling back to seeing the references or ideas that were in play in it. It’s a funny fantasy world.
Jennifer Denrow: Mathias, are you watching it like streaming It, or how are you watching it?
Mathias Svalina: No, it’s like it’s not on any streaming service but they just reissued the DVDs. So, I bought the DVDs and then bought a tiny portable DVD player. So, I sit in this garage that I live in and watch a seven-inch portable DVD screen of a show from the early 90s in lieu of psych meds.
Roger Green: What is comforting about that show for both of you?
Mathias Svalina: I think for me, I mean there is the nostalgia thing. Ideologically, I hate nostalgia but, you know, it’s hard to resist. It’s that fake small town where an unlimited number of ideas or concepts can try to play out. So, it’s never like a show in which, I mean there’s like a romantic through line and this and that, but like the shows would kind of pop in with some slightly pretentious reference to Hume and then try to play it out in the small town where there’s like the super conservative dude who was, despite being super conservative, not evil.
And they would sort of play that against the kind of hippie-ish Art of Motorcycle Maintenance guy and the tropes in between. So, it has the repetitive structural form that is in like any Law & Order show or anything like that. Every plot beat is sort of perfectly set and everything resolves safely at the end but it’s like slightly off-kilter ideas. Rather than just a murdered body, and then you have a red herring, and then you find the killer, and then you chase the killer, it has the same sort of narrative idiocy with just like slightly elevated concepts in it in this fantasy world. And, it’s a totally white fantasy, too, of Alaska where all of the Native Americans and a few people of color are there to push forward the white storylines.
Also, it’s just pretty, as somebody who’s beguiled by fantasies of the natural world—I find that pretty helpful. But I think also this is something like an arbitrary leap of faith, like once you’ve decided whatever bullshit it is that comforts you, then you like watch it on repeat and it comforts you.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, I love everything you said. I was going to say, just thinking about your work, that what it also has is a lot of dream sequences where dreams happen and then they’re all of a sudden in these alternative versions of their lives, which are always so great. I think we were probably all around the same age when it came out, it came out in like 90 or 91 or 92 or something—early 90s. Yeah, we were all teenagers.
I just loved like the imagination of it, really. And it’s still my favorite show because of that. I think it’s pretty, too. The town, even though it’s in Washington, it’s supposed to be in Alaska and I’ve always had a dream to go to Alaska.
Roger Green: So, it kind of feels like there’s a kind of reverse engineering of like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and—I don’t know if you guys know that book—a reverse engineering of the American small town. But I like what Mathias was saying about the underwritten white supremacy in it. The way that Alaska functions as a kind of frontier.
And that’s not to reduce the show to only that. I mean, I think that having a Jewish doctor out there in the middle of that is kind of doing some complex work. For whatever reason, I’m thinking of the episode where Chris, from the morning show, is trying to get a long-distance degree and he’s dealing with the poem, “Casey at the Bat.” Do you guys remember that one?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, we hit that one, rewatching it.
Roger Green: And he keeps losing his dissertation defense, basically, but then he takes the guys out to like play baseball. Chris is like this utopic liberal type of fantasy character—was that who you meant by the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance guy?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s like highly machismo masculinized, and yet also inclusive and queer friendly and multicultural friendly, at least in the attempts of the early 90s NPR culture. So, he’s like both a chick magnet and also trying to introduce complex ideas to the small town. So he is, I don’t know, a Dionysian like fantasy figure.
Roger Green: So, I do what you guys do but with Twin Peaks, which is like another show from that same time period, and I was thinking about how it is almost always all white people in David Lynch. The other night I was watching it and I was like huh, it was just a moment that maybe needs more unpacking.
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, there is something about David Lynch’s version of the surreal that is definitely not mine.
Roger Green: Oh, interesting.
Mathias Svalina: It seems almost pointless to talk about surreality or the absurd because there’s no useful, working definition of it that actually applies across it, that includes both Cortázar and Breton and, you know, indigenous myths and all the different iterations taking the impossible seriously.
I feel like it sort of gets lost. And I do it constantly. I just slip casually between concepts of the surreal and the absurd. I always kind of identify it by the ones that I don’t connect with. So, like Joyce Mansour, yes and then so much else, no.
Roger Green: Jen, were you going to say something there?
Jennifer Denrow: Well yeah, I was just going to say, Mathias, when we were reading this book—I’m bringing up Horizon again—I was thinking about you specifically in this and thinking about the impossible. But he’s talking about dreams in this section—have you guys read this book, the Horizon book?
Mathias Svalina: Only a portion of it.
Jennifer Denrow: Well, in one of the chapters he’s talking about the Thule people, and he’s just wondering about their dream life and what their dreamscapes were like because they slept for so long as a way to survive. So, one thing he says is that,
The challenge in addressing the utility of our dreams is not whether to reject them outright in an effort to privilege the sort of logical truth the rational mind offers us, it’s to picture a conversation between imagination and intellect. One that might produce an advantageous vision, one the intellect itself cannot discern and which the imagination alone is not able to create.
So, when I read that I was thinking about you, Mathias, in your poems and your dreams and how your poems are like your dreams, or are your dreams, or are our dreams, and how you have created that bridge between imagination and intellect in a way that allows us to occupy that space. Because what he’s saying here is that dream life changed when clocks—not clocks—were invented but basically industrialization and then we had to sleep eight hours and it messed with our dream rhythms and stuff.
And I think about your poems inhabiting the impossible in a way that connects us back to that, maybe earlier, way of knowing or communicating. I don’t know, that’s what it feels like to me when I read your work. And, when I was rereading The Depression today, I just was thinking about that so much, how you allow us into that kind of intimate space, or it feels intimate to me.
I mean, to hear you say that writing for you is to like erase yourself or abolish yourself—what did you say? That it’s to like get rid of yourself?—is so interesting because it feels so generous for you to open that up for the reader. Maybe you don’t feel like that, but I do feel like I’m going inside of what your mind is doing, or like how it’s putting things together, or creating dream worlds, or creating these worlds that you can enter into.
So, I don’t know, I was just thinking about that when you’re talking about like the impossible or I guess when I think about absurd or surreal and what you’re saying about a working definition and how I think about your work. It is kind of related to dream. And I mean, obviously you run a dream delivery service, so you think about dreams in that way, but I don’t know if you think about dream logic or dream life or like dreamscapes in your other poems.
They feel related to me, the dreams and your books of poems. So, I don’t know maybe they don’t to you.
Mathias Svalina: No, I mean they do, but the dream stuff definitely came out that repetitive serial surrealism. I really envy writers, poets and others, who function with like an essayistic approach of trying to present ideas that are well thought out and as much as possible confirmed. That doesn’t necessarily mean factually confirmed, either.
Even some who gets sort of loosey-goosey phenomenological, say Jorie Graham, you know, who is definitely doing a Wordsworthian thing, like trying to present a theme and then like undergird that theme, even her prayer stuff. I don’t know why I’m picking her as an example, but I always envy that sense of believing, when I read a poet that I want to believe the vision or vector that they’re presenting is true, because my mind doesn’t do that in any respect.
So, the writing I do, whatever components of it are working from my personal experiences and personalities and personal memory, I’m always trying to write beyond and stop myself from understanding what I’ve written. And I always think of it as like a massive curve that is always approaching a line but infinitely never reaches the line. And my job as the writer, with the kind of writing I do, is not to present a confirmable feeling or confirmable state, but to leave—hopefully—if it works—fruitful disconnections, so that, in the kind of cold read, boardwalk fortune teller way, something meaningful happens that is beyond me.
But then it’s also through the repetition of form that those ways of trying to leave meaningful gaps and meaningful disconnections become rhetorical tools as well and become modes of either obscurity or modes of openness. And I think that’s the stuff that, when I was like spending a lot of time reading myth and a lot of time reading the traditions of, especially, the European fable that I was really attracted to where the arbitrary or the meaningless tries to make sense.
So that an ice cream made out of living rabbits, if it’s prevented in a deadpan enough way and the reader is willing to, has to be taken seriously and sort of attempted to be understood. That’s the more the more attainable world to me than a world in which I can understand how things making sense and I can present my understanding of how things make sense to other people, either in a sort of an essayistic way or in the traditional capital R Romantic aesthetics—artist feels a thing, creates an object, transfers feeling to that object.
I don’t know where I’m going with this, but that sense of dream logic I think is sort of tied up in that—trying to rationally present irrational gaps. Or maybe not.
Jennifer Denrow: I think that feels true to me. I can’t remember what you said early on about how you’re not reaching for that truth or something, but your poems feel true.
Mathias Svalina: That’s not my fault.
Jennifer Denrow: No, just the emotion of them feels so true, and maybe that’s what you open, placing those things next to each other. Or, like the man with the gardens growing out of his feet. I don’t know, they feel true to me. I mean, not like there’s a guy walking around with gardens out of his feet, but the image you’re using to express the feeling of the end, or of dying, or trying to stay alive is really powerful.
So, I guess because I’m someone who prefers emotional truth to like other kinds of truth your poems do feel true to me, or they feel real. I don’t know, maybe I’m saying that wrong. Anyway, that’s how they feel to me.
Mathias Svalina: Do you feel like your problems have a visionary aspect to them, for you as a reader of your own work?
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, well they feel, to me when I’m writing them that I’m trying really, really hard to see something, and that feels meaningful to me. I don’t feel like it’s like I’m looking for a particular answer or like visionary in that way of like visions, but I do feel like it feels like a worthwhile attempt for me to engage with that imagination space.
And I could just do it forever. I mean, now I hardly write because I’m teaching a lot and Wren, but when I do get time—it’s hard for me to write when other things are going on, I really need like no one around and I like to be really alone and I don’t have a paper to grade, I just like to have nothing and then I feel like I can really go into that space.
But the writing, for me, is the most important part and the most valuable part. So, I don’t really read back over them too much. I guess sometimes I will if I’m typing them up, but just like being able to be in that moment of the writing is important. I know that’s important to you, too, because the writing of it and the overwriting and the volume of the writing is the activity that’s important for you and then you just kind of let it go, either by deleting or sending them out and not keeping copies.
Roger Green: Something in the way that I’m reading your work: so, we were talking about northern exposure and a little bit about nostalgia, and nostalgia, it means homesickness, and it was like a disease that colonizers got, like melancholy as well. And I’m interviewing a guy in a few weeks on the concept of melancholy, but I wonder—just to re-hit back onto the white supremacy thing for a minute—I wonder sometimes if part of whiteness is that ability to narcissistically reflect back on to oneself, one’s own homesickness.
So that nostalgia, as an aesthetic idea, ends up being something that supports white supremacy. And I’m always trying to ask, myself and other people, to question where white supremacy is in the things that we love. It’s so easy to point to neo-fascists or to the cops or whatever and, yeah that’s going on, but what is the stuff that’s sustaining me in that way.
So, I think this is why I’m really drawn to both of your work because I think that there’s something about the dream element, something about the absurd element, and something even in I am a Very Productive Entrepreneur—Mathias’s book, which would seem like, this is the capitalist subject, I am very productive, I’m producing all of this work all of the time, but—there’s something dismantling that’s going on.
And so, because of music, I always translate this into the idea of the aesthetics of innocence. Like, what is indie rock, what is in some ways white supremacist about indie rock and the ability to perform innocence? And there are some people, people like Daniel Johnston, who I would say perform the aesthetic in a different way than maybe after the strokes come along. So there’s probably different gradations of like indie rock or indie aesthetic.
We don’t have to talk about music, I’m just really interested in that idea of innocence, the narrative of innocence that white people tell themselves all the time. They find ways, myself included. I use the term Euro-Christian for whiteness, but I’m not trying to exclude myself from that. But I do think that your work, respectively, could be misread as trafficking in innocence and I don’t think that it is.
Mathias Svalina: Definitely, for the more, sort of surrealist, fabulous stuff that I write, I intentionally write in the sort of narrative structure and usually pretty linguistically banal stuff. So, it’s at the extreme for the dreams. Each one starts off like, you’re in an ice cream shop, you’re in a forest glade, you’re in a castle, in just the most simplistic approaches to narrative. And then trying to keep things, in a storybook manner, open to whoever is the reader, regardless of background, allowing for their presence and what they bring to it.
But obviously I’m also limited by pretty obvious borders of my imagination. So, I think a lot of the innocence that I try actively to work through and refuse as a tool, those kinds of problems are there to try to strip away specificity. Which then the flip side of that is stripping away specificity, and no longer placing things in a real world, and no longer actively challenging the overall problems.
I mean, I could spend all day talking how bad my writing is but I think that that flip of using innocence, or using a simplistic approach to narrative and image exits it from a public conversation, or exists it from holding a mirror back up to the society and what vision can do. But also, there gets to be the point as a writer where it’s like well, this is the shit I can do.
And I would never go around talking about myself as a great writer, or even a particularly good one, but I can do these couple things and I can do them at least like C+ level, so that’s what I do. And as I try to write outside of the boundaries of what I’m already sort somewhat adept at, that is when I’m like, oh yeah, I have certain limitations.
Even doing that thing for the Museum of Contemporary Art—taking the dreams—rather than writing a dream for an individual subscriber and they’re the one to get in the mail, as this sort of full synthetic transaction, I did a thing for the Museum of Contemporary Art where I did 30 dreams around Denver that are located in spots and people go to the spots and call up the audio tour and hear the dream that I’ve written for that spot.
And immediately, because I’m no longer in this playground, the sandbox of pure imagination, I had to contend with what locations of Denver I was trying to present, what visions of Denver’s sprawl and gentrification and white supremacy and this and that I was tapping into or ignoring. You know, how to speak surrealism and speak nonsense back to places that have historical and cultural importance to people.
So, it created a whole different process of thinking through the ethics of a public surrealism, rather than a private service. Which I oftentimes think of the books that I write, the dreams that I do, as being focused on creating small intimacies, where trying to create a more public things very different. And I found that having to pick and choose between those simplistic images more carefully or more concertedly than I do when I’m writing the dreams or writing the material surreal stuff, where I’m like whatever happens, happens and then it’s played out and let’s see what illogical end we can get today. I don’t know if that answers what you were saying, exactly.
Roger Green: I know, just because I’ve had some discussions over at MCA Denver—and I love people over there like Adam before he left and Sarah Baie—but discussions around race and whiteley spaces of the museum and particularly when Arthur Jafa had a video installation there a little while back. But it sounds like there’s a lot of dissent in your approach to those public spaces. That sounds quite political to me.
Mathias Svalina: Well, I was talking it through with somebody who was helping me with editing, and I wanted an innate presentation of a vision of Denver that is not presented by the scene very frequently. But I also didn’t want it to be part of the work because I didn’t want to be seen as … so often white artists end up bragging about doing the barest fucking minimum. So, trying to catch up or check my own limitations, while also not holding up the fact that I did a little bit of checking of myself as a bragging point.
And I wanted to continue to do the thing I do but figure out how it felt more ethical when culturally placed and replaced within the city. So, I don’t know, if this felt more like I was just trying to contend with my own innate limitations and work, at least slightly, beyond them rather than being sort of an activist with it.
Roger Green: Yeah, but that’s such a different way than the Andy Warhol kind of factory capitalist aesthetic, does traffic quite a bit in nostalgia in a sense. I mean, just that Campbell Soup can, for example. There’s this great album that Lou Reed and John Cale did in the 90s where all of the songs were made from Andy Warhol’s diaries, and from their memories about that, and there’s this song where Lou Reed’s singing with Andy yelling at them, saying the most important thing is work, the most important thing is work. But the importance of work in the way that you just characterized it is really different, I feel like, than the Andy Warhol way.
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, I’m not interested in any vision of an artist being supposedly entitled to do whatever they want without thinking about their basic political principles. Which is nothing to brag about and not something that should be this fucking crazy approach. But I’m also not a complex thinker, I’m not a theorist I’m not able to understand sociopolitical complexity in any way that I think I can say something useful about progressing a public argument or public discussion.
My bread and butter is just writing weird shit and that’s the thing I can do because that’s my life. But it doesn’t, in any way, exit me from, or forgive me of the innate errands that I run for race and gender and class and all these other things that, just by being I’m benefiting from progressing those hierarchies of oppression that I ideologically oppose.
I did just fucking quote one of my own poems.
Jennifer Denrow: You did what?
Mathias Svalina: I just quoted one of my problems about “running the errands of race and gender.” That’s a line from a poem in this book I’m working on. So, even in my moment of trying to parse out a level of ethics, I’m narcissistically citing myself.
Jennifer Denrow: No. No way. Well, I do think that—thinking about white supremacy, and innocence, and the problematic nature that white people have with their imaginations, and their ability to slip into the imaginative realm, that everything’s fine or getting better, or whatever all the imaginings that white people have done forever and still do and will probably always do, and how as artists or poets or whatever our main working tool is the imagination—I understand that that’s really problematic, but, Mathias, I feel like you’ve totally disengaged from this system, in my eyes, that supports all of these things that are …
Mathias Svalina: But it’s also because of my privileges, my many privileges, that I’m able to. I know I can trust having ten dollars in my bank account and biking across the country. I can trust that because, as a straight white dude, I get to have the fantasy that things work out. And that underscores the whole bullshit that I do.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, I know. I hear what you mean, and this is a problem for me that I have been maybe trying to solve since I started writing. Which is, I feel like the luxury I have of going into my imagination to trying to see things, and the space that I have to do that, it’s not good. It’s not good in terms of it not helping right any wrong, it’s not helping, it’s not active in a way that it needs to be. There are a lot of problems with it.
And I try in other ways in my life to live inside of those actions, but I do feel like in writing I’m part of this huge problem where I’m just this white person that kind of goes in my mind and thinks about things. And even though I try to write into moments of wonder or astonishment or bewilderment or I try to be up close to that feeling, that’s doesn’t seem like a worthwhile cause in the eyes of justice in the world. So yeah, it’s really hard.
Mathias Svalina: On the other hand, as an artist you gotta play the hand you’re dealt. We’re all able to do the things we’re able to do.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, no, I like that. I think that’s true, too.
It’s funny because when you wrote that in those questions, Roger I never really thought of my work as innocent, but I guess it is. And I don’t know what to do about it other than continue to think about what I can do about it, and hopefully, at some point in time, do something. In other places in my life, like teaching, I don’t feel that way. I feel like there are more things that I’m able to actively do in my professional life that hopefully help, and not harm, people of color.
I feel like in my writing I don’t do anything. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time and I don’t have anything really articulate to say about it other than it’s like kind of horrible to have this relationship with my imagination that I have.
Roger Green: Just to be clear about the questions that I asked, I don’t necessarily think of your work as innocent or trafficking in innocence—that’s some term i’ve just been using today, “trafficking in innocence.” There are moments like this, in California on page 11, where the speaker says:
When I went to the backyard I said to myself, this doesn’t look like California, and nothing in my life does. And my husband says he’ll have to deal with this forever.
I want to go so bad I clench my fist hard in the air.
I push my finger into his chin and cry.
It feels like this, I say.
I need it this bad.
So, there’s obviously oppression going on with this character in relation to her husband but then there are these moments that are really sensual, like that touching his chin or blowing into his mouth at one point, or talking into his mouth—this character wants to go to California and her husband says no and she’s like well, can I talk into your mouth then. He lets her, but then says that it tickles too much, right.
I mean, I guess you could read something like that as innocence, but I see a kind of sweetness around that that gives a kind of reality or a kind of dimension to the character that isn’t just like yeah, I’m this this unhappy wife who wants to go to California and my husband won’t let me, kind of thing. So, I guess that’s why I’m trying to tease out.
I don’t think of either of your work as necessarily trafficking in innocence. I don’t think of it as supporting a liberal order of things, or certainly not a liberal progressive order of things. So, it’s not messianic in that sense. It’s not trying to save the world, but there’s this kind of guilt or something that’s operating around that.
So, what I’m sort of interested in is figuring out what it is that the work is doing. Because there used to be a time where you could say, surrealism in the 1930s is communist because the proletariat needs the space to be able to dream in that particular way. But that’s a really different kind of dream space than being an entrepreneur or getting a business degree.
Mathias Svalina: I think when I heard innocence about Jen’s work, what I took from that was the—even in the part that you read, you know, I clenched my face, I did this, I did that—simplistic, but not as an insult, but just a pared-down approach to the telling of complex or fraught events so that there’s something in the tension between an almost like childlike reporting of what happened in a moment and the very complex, and adult, and very fraught thing that’s being reported about. That’s what I see as a tool of narrative innocence in Jen’s poems, where the most complex things are told in maybe the least complex ways so that it requires, or conjures, a multiplicity in the moment.
Whereas, a more controlled approach to presenting the fraught situation would be to tease out the nature of the psychology there, tease out the nature of the trauma there and present that in more sort of taxonomical way or a more understood way. Which, I don’t know if that’s responding to what you’re saying about this sense of like the messianic goals of the surrealists as a clique or a group with a manifesto and shit. I could feel like that work of poetry, of asking a reader to play along and understand however small they may be, however minute or discreet or qualified, understand that the heart of lyric poetry is also like part of that tension between complexity and simplicity that I see in Jen’s stuff
That’s not big, it’s not messianic. You can’t tease out the politics of the lyric because it’s not about a public display or public structure making. The lyric is about reformulating internalized experiences with another. Which then leads to a sort of immediate jump of like, ergo it’s like not making the big change or something, and then just sort of shitting on ourselves that both Jen and I did.
Roger Green: What were you going to say, Jen?
Mathias Svalina: Yeah, sorry I steamrolled you.
Jennifer Denrow: No, I loved hearing you talk.
Roger Green: What you just said about the lyric, by the way, that was amazing.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, that was so good. I just think too, this is also maybe linguistic, that going back to your question, Roger, about a post-truth poetry or what poetry is doing now. I do think, Mathias, I feel this in your poems, and again this could just be me feeling it and not your intention at all, or not part of your process or what you’re doing, but I do feel like there is this sense that everything is so much now, everything is so much like the media, all the information, the language that accompanies all of this.
Again, I feel like I do this, too, and maybe I’m just putting what I do on thinking about what you do, but I do feel there’s something in your language that pushes against that. I mean even like that poem, “The uncomfortable-able,” the way that your relationship to language is pushing against the system of language that has been created and is so problematic—how language just sort of fills us all the time.
So, maybe there’s, not a simplicity, I don’t mean that or an innocence, I don’t think of it like that I just think of it as direct. These words are more direct, it’s like they’re trying to maintain control or sanity by opposing the superstructure of like language that does nothing but serve itself. I’m probably not saying this right, but I feel like there’s something linguistically happening in your poems when I read them.
When I think about my poems that’s just like kind of pushing against trying to over complicate something for the sake of having it be over complicated and take more words. Do you know what I mean? Why do things have to be so complicated?
Mathias Svalina: As Avril Lavigne said.
Jennifer Denrow: Oh, that’s true. So, I don’t know if that’s related back, Roger, to this question. I don’t know, it feels linguistic to me, too, this conversation you know of what’s happening.
Roger Green: Oh, certainly. I mean, I’m somebody who is committed to trying to think about what some sort of recovered concept of the literary might be after this kind of neoliberal takeover of literary studies in general. And my friend Carl [Raschke], the co-editor, wrote a piece on The New Polis this week and he was saying that neoliberalism is sort of given birth, in theory, by poststructuralism and people like Foucault in the 60s and 70s—then of course there are racialized elements going on there as well.
But part of that hope of the post-structuralist moment was to be able to try to detach from things and to see things as movement itself—there is no center, that kind of thing. It was about trying to speak at the level of the apparatus, as Althusser would say. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” is one of his essays. Roland Bart was trying to do this too, where it’s like I don’t want to change around the words on the menu I want to change the menu itself.
And so, the French New Novel, Writing Degree Zero, all of that kind of stuff was trying to do that. And I don’t think that we are in that moment anymore. I think in America everything becomes utilitarian. You can use it to make money like in your job so that you do some material approach to, maybe, gender in the 18th century and you make a living doing that sort of thing, and it doesn’t really address on ongoing questions around gender.
People just like professionalize a particular way of looking at things, of which I think, I don’t want to be part of that. But I think that that language does sort of change over time and I talked about this with Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom a few weeks ago, and Steven said something that came to mind when you guys were talking. Steven was like, “yeah, I’m not trying to write a tour de force, I never want my book to be a tour de force.” And I totally understand the resistance to that kind of capital order, the resistance to success, I guess.
This is part of the small press world, as well, the economics of it. But I do think that it has to happen at the level of language or langue, in Ferdinand de Saussure’s sense of the term.
Mathias Svalina: In addition to other levels, too. It’s like, if I were any fucking good at anything else, I would also be doing that. But I can do these small things, so if I try to do those consciously and try to put my practice out into the world consciously, I hope that that is at least moving in the right direction. And I think that that thing Steven said immediately resonated, that sense of not only what it means to write a tour de force, to write the great book.
The great novel is always a structure. It’s never just one artist making a book. It’s got to be a structure of marketing. It’s got to be a structure of capital that allows for the printing. And there are people out there that I want that for. I want you know Colson Whitehead to continue to write tour de force novels because I think what he’s saying is important. What he’s saying is important, he’s an amazing writer, I want him to have all the big house marketing and all the like big house support.
But the level of language is one way for understanding and change. The level of street activism is another. So, trying to find what you’re capable of affecting and then affecting it seems important on an aesthetic and ethical level.
And I feel, from my positions of privilege, limiting what I try to affect is also important. Consciously, not trying to buy into systems of prestige, systems of using art as a steppingstone for being middle class, or something like that. While also, at the same time, I’m benefiting from living on the margins of the art capital world.
Jennifer Denrow: Do you want me to read this part of your poem? I love it and I was thinking about it when I was talking last time. But it says on page 52:
I was running out of words each week, each week more & more. First I’d run out on Fridays, which was okay because I could spend the weekend wordless & avoiding others until I got all my words back on Monday, just in time for work. But then I ran out of words earlier and earlier in the week until I could only stay wordful through Tuesdays by acting austere & silently judgey. The doctor recommended a lung & throat replacement & I had her replace my lungs & throat with a book. After the surgery everything I said became a fact & all I could do was say things.
And it goes on it’s an amazing poem. But I just love that, the way that words work in your poems.
Mathias Svalina: To me that’s my attempt to explain the phenomenology of depression. That’s just very straightforward, like when I know that depression is rising up again and that’s as straightforward as I can be.
Jennifer Denrow: Well, I thought that, in terms of like metaphor, there’s this amazing thing, “I’m cooking a meal in a lightless kitchen. All the spices taste the same. None of the flames are hot.” That feels to me the same way as what you just said. That feels like a very straightforward, like this is what this feels like.
Mathias Svalina: That was the goal of that book, just try to write fables that, through my aesthetic attempted, say what living with depression, hope, life is like.
Jennifer Denrow: When you at the beginning of this book “I must look at every part of me to remain a fixed thing.” I love that. I just wanted to tell you that. This book is amazing, it’s so good, Mathias. I really love this book.
And those photographs! Can you tell us about the photographs? I mean, I know you and John Pack are friends, but did you go through a catalog of his work and choose ones, or did he send you ones and you wrote to the photographs?
Mathias Svalina: We came to the book with separate piles of stuff and then sort of fixed them together. He’s a professional photographer and he’s been making photographs since the 90s, so he’s got this huge cache of photographs and when I asked him and he said he’d do this book with me, he read the book and came back with the photographs that he thought fit with it. Then I sort of responded by editing the fables back toward them and then he picked more photos and took out some. And so, it’s sort of a back and forth rather than a collaboration, in the sense of making it sui generis together.
Because the book came out and then COVID happened, this is the first time I’ve ever had to explain anything about the book in public. We we’re going to do a series of events, first in Brooklyn—he’s lived in Brooklyn since the 90s—projecting the photos in sort of public spaces, like on the streets, and reading and just having like a list of where we would be, and that would be the event, and if anybody felt like being there they could.
Then we’re gonna do a flip side of that, of travel for like a week in the southwest mountains and go to ghost towns and project the photos and read them and just have a list of like here’s where we’re going to be, if anybody wants to fill up and camp feel free and if not, we’ll just do it for the ghosts. So, you have his city lifestyle and my traveling lifestyle represented in the events. But instead, COVID happened.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah. Damn, that would have been so cool.
Roger Green: It speaks about what both of your work, at least in my reading, is kind of doing is that that the work speaks to the state of emergency, or the state of exception, in a way that isn’t saying necessarily, this is what we need to do right now, it’s not saying that it has the answers but it’s about sustaining a way of being in the midst of emergency.
And that gets politicized in all sorts of ways to like the state of exception and Giorgio Agamben and all of that sort of stuff. But there’s something inhabited about the language that you guys are doing that touches me, anyway.
Jennifer Denrow: Yeah, just like if we can see better. I do feel like that is part of what I’m trying to do, to see better. And if we can all do that—see better—then it would be better. We just have to like resee everything in a better way but, again, it’s idealistic, like that doesn’t seem to be a good enough answer, to just like resee things.
Mathias Svalina: Not unto itself, but it’s a useful tool, a useful practice.
Reflections on Literary Conversation 2 (Roger Green)
In what follows, I contextualize some thoughts reacting to the above video discussion. The writers begin by discussing the composing process itself and the mediums they use for writing. Then we move into discussing form. Svalina in particular focuses on the uses repetition and the exhaustion of ideas.
When I read the work of Jennifer Denrow and Mathias Svalina, I think very much about the aesthetics of innocence. That does not necessarily mean that I see their work as innocent. The more I think about it, the more I feel a kind of congruency in their respective work with respect to the Absurd. When combined with the elements of exhaustion, we might read a certain emotion or idea of innocence that has itself been exhausted.
Denrow has spent a lot of time with Samuel Beckett. Svalina’s work is often surrealist, which begs questions of the contemporary surrealism and politics. Both Denrow and Svalina are active in the small press publishing world, just as are Selah Saterstrom and Steven Dunn, who participated in Literary Conversation 1 last month.
We know, for example, that early surrealism often explicitly aligned with leftist politics. Andre Breton wrote,
Whatever reservations I might be inclined to make with regard to responsibility in general, I should quite like to know how will be adjudicated the first misdemeanors whose surrealist character is indubitable. When surrealist methods extend from writing to action, there will certainly arise the need of a new morality to take the place of the current one, the cause of all our woe.” (in Julien Levy, Surrealism 49)
Similarly, Pierre-Olivier Lapie (who would later be briefly involved with the French ministry of Education, 1950-51) wrote,
If surrealism turned toward Moscow it was, one might say, because it hoped to find in the Revolution that support which is indispensable for the expansion of poetry; the possibility, in the leisure secured for man by the liberated proletariat, of living with that personal activity which, for lack of a better word, we still call poetic. The transposition of the surrealist act to the political plane has had, on the contemporary youth, the result of bringing them to recognition of the U.S.S.R., to the consideration that in theory the Soviet regime is a livable regime, perhaps the only one. Surrealism has taken the first step which others, Gide and Malraux, have followed. (L’ Insurrection Surréaliste, January 1935…in Levy 53)
Svalina says he gravitates more toward Eastern European surrealism. As I say in the video, I asked Denrow and Svalina the following questions.
1. To the extent that people might describe your work as surrealist or perhaps absurdist, how do you feel your work engages (or not) with the political motivations expressed above?
2. Must (or has) surrealism as an aesthetic change its desires in the wake of the USSR?
3. What is, for you, the relationship between the imagination and absurdity?
4. In liberal culture, innocence has often been thematized around the character of the romantic, liberal child. This is the child of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile. The character shows up in the imaginations of Tom Sawyer and Anne of Green Gables. The “innocence” of youth is to be preserved from the corruption of the adult world and “citizenship.” Some readers might regard the voice of Jen’s California as “utopic” and Mathias’s I am a very Productive Entrepreneur seems to comment on this as well. Does an idea of innocence pervade your work? Jen, does it take innocence to feel each horse? each tree?
5. For Oulipo writers using constraint-based techniques, which seem to inform Mathias’s America at Play. The ludic qualities are followed by kind of exhaustion, or perhaps that moment when a child’s laughs from tickles turn to tears. One thinks of George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975). Is the America of this book the America of George Floyd’s murder, of numerous iterations of “I can’t breathe”? How so if so?
6. Wine Dark Sea alludes to Homer, we also have Creation and Destruction Myth…A times mythological language can have a minimalist quality to it. Do either of you feel like you’re actively dealing with a linguistic register og myth in your or each other’s work?
7. I’ve sometimes characterized Jennifer Denrow’s work along the lines of being a literary parallel to the music of Built to Spill. We are, all three of us, roughly from a generation that saw the rise of “Indie Rock,” which to be sure had earlier predecessors in songwriters like Daniel Johnston. Is such a characterization meaningful to you? Does it resonate? Do you feel like music informs your work?
8. For me The Depression feels like Mathias Svalina’s strongest work to date (and I generally like all of his work). The book importantly deals with aspects that I see as “enchanted.” In Jennifer Denrow’s work too, the landscape often feels enchanted and on both of your work there is a tendency to hover “in the middle” (as Jen says in her forthcoming book) and resonate in an ambiguous space of inside and outside. How do you see enchantment at work in your own work?
In discussion, an implicit answer to the last question developed through a a conversation about epistemology. Denrow says, “This is what I think, or this is what I feel that I think, is that at some point in time…at some point in time…I just think ‘how to know’ became so weird and so industrial and so economical or like so related to … I don’t know… something like progress…” She says, “I don’t feel like surrealism is…I mean I do think like I do have some like, feeling against the rational, because it doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m not sure if that’s enough to connect it to a surrealist ethic.”
“Mostly when, I don’t know, maybe the Enlightenment I don’t really know politically or historically at what point in time…or maybe it’s always fluctuated…about how to know. I just feel like how I know things is not related to knowledge,” says Denrow.
Referring to her work in relation to Francis Ponge’s poetic focus on material things, Svalina says,
If you look very closely at what appears to be the rational, the controlled, the useful versions of knowledge and you keep looking at it intently, the inherent irrational is going to surface as well, so that you can’t just like…so much of like, uses of language are about trying to control specific facts or trying to turn things into objects, but I feel like your writing, with it’s, sometimes like constellating or scattering or arrivals of astonishing things pushed up against sometimes mundane things or personal reflections, or collaging that sometimes happens in different kinds of experiences, like it, yeah, it makes sense what you’re saying that, like, the resistance of the use-value of knowing, into a more sort of immersive or inclusive kind of knowing in which a fact that could be employed doesn’t have a primary importance, nor does like an image of familiar beauty or an image of familiar constructs of profundity, so that you can have…I’m thinking like in your new chapbook in those poems you’ll have a line that is very direct about representing personal experience and then the next line might be a seemingly disconnect image and then the next line might be a more prose-style sentence structure that’s thinking or something, you know, in the ways that those are all sort of, you know, I said “constellating” already but the sense of projecting the notes of attention and projecting the nodes of attention and then that attention is revealing surrealism.
I generally refer to this phenomenon of in betweenness between knowing and not-knowing that is embodied in image and attention as “enchantment.” Translated into the critical language of political theology, it parallels notions of ‘postsecularism’.
Here I am playing the part of translator because, dare I say, the divide between discourse on critical and cultural theory in the U.S. and aesthetic works has been effectively dismantled by a discourse on the so-called “death of theory” on the one hand, and a continued allegiance to the necessary mental rigor to understand largely French (but more broadly European and postcolonial) intellectual thought, which dominated literary and political theoretical discussions (and higher education discourse) throughout the twentieth century.
While we have a few persistent “stars” in the theory world, such as Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žizek, Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway, to me I see more congruence between the literary work of Svalina and Denrow and the work on possible worlds in anthropologists such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marisol de la Cadena, and Elizabeth Povinelli
At an artistic level, I entirely reject the thought that American writers produce depoliticized material. Rather, the literary establishment in the United States has broadly embraced neoliberal goals in its material production of the literary, which has created and identitarian feedback loop that (mis)aligns notions of liberal political “progress” narratives with target-market approaches to identity. In such contexts, people settle for reading, for example, Octavia Butler as a Black Woman of Color rather than as a revolutionary thinker commenting on the political-theological situation in the U.S. in a way that was necessarily articulated through her socially positioned and specifically embodied perspective.
In other words, the literary establishment and the neoliberal institutional structures frame U.S. reading cultures’ readings of (for example) celebrated African American writers such as Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jesmyn Ward as African American first (which wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in and of itself) and stop there in a self-congratulatory multiculturalist gesture toward “inclusivity” dogmatic to a liberal virtual imaginary of apparently “infinite capacity.” This is especially a problem in Literature departments at universities, which are often shrinking due to a lack of enrollment and thus have a difficult time producing appropriately new courses to deal with the aesthetic trends of current literature.
To be sure, I am not complaining about the attention that these writers of color receive, for indeed they are often writing with possible worlds in mind that I believe too often get reduced to a “progressively liberal” agenda. Nor am I simply using them as a foil against Svalina and Denrow as eurochristian writers.
In one of the most memorable moments of Coates’s Between the World and Me, he writes about a white man who tells him he could have him arrested, simply for sticking up for his son. This real world is to most white people an impossible world. They might only encounter it in a kind of imaginatively enchanted way. Beloved in Morrison’s Beloved is no Jacob Marley, nor is thirteen-year-old ghost of a dead prison inmate without important racially inflected illustrations of disembodiment.
I employ these widely recognized African American authors at the moment to make a point about differing forms of enchantment. To take a musical example from Afro-Futurism, one might think of Sun Ra’s visits to Saturn and his return to talk to Black American youth in the film Space is the Place and a lesser-known poet as an example. In his poem meditating on Sun Ra, “Leaving Saturn,” Major Jackson writes of a possible world,
If what I’m told is true,
Mars is dying, it’s after
The end of the world.
So, here I am,
Here to save the cosmos,
Here to dance in a bed
Of living gravestones. (50)
We might think then, not simply in terms of “enchantment” as a universal category, but rather as an analytic from which we might see different articulations of “possible worlds,” for eurochristian enchantment may differ from African American enchantment or Pan-African modes of enchantment, or perhaps even what we might read as Native American forms of “disenchantment,” as in the materialist-focused work of Tommy Orange echoing and reformulating Gertrude Stein, Joan Didion, and Radiohead in his recent masterpiece, There There.
National book awards have in mind civically-religious articulations of national life. They tell their own collective narratives about what their judges deem to be important works of literature, and of course, awards sell books. With due respect to such important books, the aesthetic array of what is happening in literature is much more varied. While generally adore many recent major award winners, what if Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio had won the National Book Award for poetry in 2014 instead of Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night? What kind of aesthetic permission would that give to the arbiters of what is sayable at the national level?
I have in recent years been attempting to utilize political theology discourse (including its resisters and critics) as a way to inquire into and look at the current work of the literary. This has largely been a rejection of the liberal politics of recognition. In such liberal politics of recognition, it’s simply enough to “recognize” and “include” marginalized perspectives into an already extraction-based mode of thought. Such universalizing aspirations also persist within the political notion of the secular as a space of neutrality and “universal” human rights.
Yet we might look to various expressions of enchantment to relieve us of the eurochristian expressions of Simon Critchley’s call for a “faith of the faithless” and Badiou’s too narrow view of modernist poetry in The Age of Poets. This is not to deny some superb readings of poems by both Critchley and Badiou. Rather, it is to question, as I have done in previous posts on Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, the use-value that philosophers place on literary works to advance their arguments.
Here, I would say that the recent work of writers such as Jennifer Denrow, Mathias Svalina, Steven Dunn, and Selah Saterstrom, with whom I have been having literary conversations, might offer us better ways to think. Similarly, in university literature courses, we need the creatively critical heuristics not to reduce writers to didactic representations of identity categories but to read their aesthetic importance to our lives. We need to read both Fred Moten’s poetry as well as his critical theory.
The very modes of literary production in the U.S., in other words, have depoliticized the critical insights of writers (eurochristian or of color) by relegating them to a neoliberal marketing system which gives the largely middle-class readership self-assurance of their intellectual nature by feeding how “woke” they are on issues of race, ethnicity, gender expressivity, sexual orientation, social class, religion, nationality, age, ability or disability–all categories employed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities under the general frame of Inclusive Excellence.
This is not so much a rejection of the aspirations intended here as much as it is an anti-racist and Critical Race Theory-informed rejection of liberal politics of recognition. We need the analytical tools to hear and see aesthetic nuances in literary works and the expressions of possible worlds more than we need to celebrate singular authors who have become, through mass attention, embodiments of what Michel Foucault long ago called the “Author Function.”
The absent-presence of the sovereign author that gave way through Roland Barthes’ articulations of writing “zero degree” and the “birth” of the scriptor-reader after the “death of the author” persists in the twenty-first century literary establishment in the United States, as well as in the knowledge-factories of university curricula. Even following Marjorie Perloff’s important work on The Poetics of Indeterminacy and more recently on Unoriginal Genius, we need better language for receiving and analyzing aesthetic works.
Too often, “enchantment” gets read as a celebration of the liberal-capitalist entrepreneurial spirit. For surely we might see in the explosion of superhero films, vampire movies, and epic fantasy films modes of enchantment we might culturally analyze, following Bruno Bettelheim’s overly Freudian articulations of The Uses of Enchantment. Like the 1970s emergence of the New Age focus on the ‘self’ and ‘self-growth’, neoliberalism’s flattening effect relegates all enchantment to the “imagination” of the subject. We will have to do better than that.
Stuart Hall, among many working in the field of cultural studies, attempted in his late essays to resist the relegation of “the subject” to the liberal “individual” by focusing on the articulation more collective social tendencies. But his work on culture through and Afro-Caribbean and Marxian trajectory also had to become self-critical of the very notions of “culture” itself as a category of thought.
The sociologist Max Weber characterized modern life as being “disenchanted,” though informed in the West by Calvinist social formations. In this, he was not universally correct about “modern life” but nevertheless onto something with respect to deep cognitive framing. The problem is that when we take “cognitive” framing to the level of “culture” we are dealing with multiple interpretive frames, not just the measurable statistics based on social scientific questionnaires and pre-prepared languaging.
As useful as frame analysis is, what’s more important than the mere potential for positive or negative framing is an emphasis on intercultural or transgenerational cognitive frames. These frames have less to do with “identity” as a chosen belief or as a corporately determined marker (as in a census or a job application) than as modes of inherited comportment.
“Whiteness” or “white privilege,” as only one example, is a mode of transgenerationally inherited comportment. It is informed by what George Lakoff classifies as “deep framing” as opposed to “surface framing.” What Aristotle determined as “artistic” (heuristic) proofs versus “inartistic” (facts) proofs becomes a contested binary in this context.
How could any conception of deep cognitive framing not always already present itself as an “artistic” proof? In other words, and more reductively, one might ask perennial questions about whose narrative creates “history,” for certainly both narrative and “history” congeal within displays of power and the ability to transfer the narrative apparatus of that power. But what I am trying to get at amounts to something more important than reductive statements like “history is made by the winners.”
Instead of employing literary works as evidence of metaphysical claims about what is “really going on,” then, we would do well to explore notions of the literary beyond both its “secularization” away from classist and elitist notions from the 1960s through the “culture wars” of the 1980s, as well as beyond Marxian-materialist approaches to literary study too easily domesticated into liberal politics of recognition. Analytics of differing forms of “enchantment” may help us better assess the crucial differences in worldview expressed by various writers in conversation about possible worlds rather than thinking of ‘culture’ as a static-transcendent entity that can be intentionally transformed by representation alone (which of course is no rejection of attempts to be more inclusive of historically marginalized worldviews). But worldview is not identity.
I am heartened by the ways that the writers I have been conversing with talk to each other about the nuances of language and thought in their respective works. There is much more to say about what Mathias Svalina and Jennifer Denrow are saying above, but for now I’ll leave it to the reader / viewer to attend to such matters.
Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.