Literary Conversations 2 – Jennifer Denrow and Mathias Svalina (Roger Green)

Jennifer Denrow and Mathias Svalina in Conversation with Roger Green of The New Polis

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.

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,

In Philadelphia,

*

Death’s headquarters,

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.

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