Interview by Laura Minor
Mathias Svalina is the author of four books, most recently Wastoid from Big Lucks Books. His book The Wine-Dark Sea is forthcoming from Sidebrow. His collaboration with photographer Jon Pack, The Depression, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms. He lives in Denver & is an editor for Octopus Books. Twitter: @MathiasSvalina
Laura Minor: Your voice in Wastoid has a tonal quest for not only understanding, but also resolving the love/lover vehicle. Your keen sense of history, myth, and culture is present, but there is a vulnerability and a tenderness in this book that must have pushed your process further. I went in with a dull conception, and it was disturbed by what I felt to be a distinctive and virtuous examination of something poets are generally afraid to write … the word love. High love. High language. High lyric. Get the moon & the stars in there and let’s go. Did reading the Elizabethans help you reclaim this language?
Mathias Svalina: I’m not sure I intended to reclaim anything—maybe this was the only rhetoric that fit where my mind was? Maybe I’ve all along really wanted to write in this mixed mode of vaulted & low rhetoric & needed to find a back-door into it? Maybe it’s just another white dude in a tradition of white dudes thinking he needs to tell the world how it really is?
There is a lot of high diction in the book, but there’s a lot of dumb stuff in the book, too. I think I tried for a flattened field of both banal & intriguing, rarified & stupid: That kind of energy keeps me going.
The Elizabethan poets are what make me continue to love poems as poems; the music & the technical skill of Spenser, Donne, Shakespeare, etc. continue to amaze me—at the same time the ideology & the social oppressions that they represent repulse me. There’s something appealing in trying to make sense of that spectrum between loving & despising, between valuing & trashing, especially in a book on eros. I am drawn to the general Romantic bullshit of art wanting to ask metaphysical & ideological questions. I don’t, however, think art is a place of answers.
Sonnets immediately invoke themes of love and desire. In the tradition of the form, were you intent on obscuring the subject in praise of the lover, i.e., to conjure its name is to face it?
Yes, the tradition of the sonnet is all tied up with the western notions of love poetry & that was definitely at the heart of this book. The basic rhetoric of the sonnet is dialectical & often love is seen that way as well. Which is pretty fucked. Maybe I wanted to hit the same beats in each poem to do some sort of anti-dialectical idea of love? Additionally, the lover in much love poetry is so obviously objectified that I wanted to play with that to the point of making lovers objects & other weird stuff. Maybe?
I don’t know—I don’t really think about concepts when I’m writing. I do what I can to make me feel like I am a human & deserve to be alive that day. That might be why I like the kinds of formalism I often fall into (creation myths, game instructions, business plans, spells, etc.), that the form becomes the operative mode & the vehicle for the ideology rather than the content. Certainly, I think about this stuff when I’m editing & revising. I must, right? But to be honest I don’t recall my choices with this book. I know I wrote it. I know I like parts of it still. I feel like to answer these questions well, I’d have to theorize my own book & I am a really bad scholar or critic.
Did this book begin as an exercise, a litany of “my lovers,” which you expanded into individual poems?
The book grew into an exercise, actually. I was rereading the Elizabethan poets after a particularly demoralizing break-up, thinking this poetry I love could in some way assuage the crushing pain of existence. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets for the whatever-hundredth time & thinking how these words in these orders are so lovely to me, so viscerally beautiful, but the actual advice & thinking of the poems is unhelpful & at times idiotic. So I decided I would poem-for-poem correct the advice given in Shakespeare’s sonnets.
I don’t recall when I fell into the routine/form of opening “my lover” but serial forms appeal to me. And the “my lover is X & I am Y” structure seemed to me to fit the argumentative rhetoric of the sonnet—it’s the basic reason I think of the poems as sonnets. Since I’d started that as a goal I knew I had to have 154 of the poems & so I spent the next few months working through Shakespeare’s sonnets in a variety of ways. Then after I had a first draft out I messed up the order of all the poems so that they would not correspond directly to the numbers that have been applied to his sonnets.
You mention at the end of the book that the title is derived from a Nebraskan metal band, Wasteoid, and the lead singer, Jeff, who unfortunately died while you were working on this manuscript. Was using Wastoid as the dominant trope a nod to the despairing presence of self and ‘other’ just beyond reach?
Yes, certainly. Though I never would have thought that before reading you say that. This woman I knew in Nebraska one night referred to me & a few friends as wastoids. It always stuck with me. I’m ok with being a degenerate or a dirtbag or a loser, but somehow being a wastoid made me feel bad. And continued to make me feel bad. I think that might be why I called the poems “Wastoid”? I know it had something to do with the band too, but I’m not sure what. I don’t really recall the moment I decided to title them all “Wastoid,” but it must have felt right, probably for some of the reasons you talk about. Waste, being wasted, wasting away, time-waste, the splendor & terror & joy of attempting to de-self the self, etc.: All of that is caught up with the idea of love for me.
The other in love is different than “the other” in a poem in the way that I is different when I get in a bike wreck from “the I” in a poem. I think one vision of an ideal way to live could be to exist without any projection of & onto the other, but pragmatically—especially saying this as a white cisgender man—that ideal is unattainable, a struggle to attempt every time one thinks about something more than one’s data plan. But also, this is a book about grief. And grief, like love, is phlogistonic.
Wastoid treats transcending from the transformative, from a world of ordinary objects, from a perspective where everything moves in a dream. It’s been called dystopian, and I sense that in its tirelessness. Though, it does have an exhausted-at-the-edge-of-the world sense of emergency. Rather, an intimacy is steadily gained here in the anonymity and repetition, something born in the voyeur of a cosmos, watching over the earth and its conditional beauty, the temporal impermanence of love and lovers. Which of these (key words) meant the most to you, or drove the patience, humility, and fortitude of this project?
Wow, those are a lot of kind sentiments. Thank you. Exhaustion feels like maybe the right keyword here, that sense of repeated failure that then necessitates another surely doomed attempt, that asymptotic relationship we all have with silly things like ideals & sublimities. The repetition was clearly the driving force of the process, that notion that with any important conceptual idea—love, gender, race, truth, looking, stuff, etc.—there are an infinite number of potential understandings. Like any word can be a metaphor for love. And animal can represent suffering.
I think that’s one idea that I love from the rhetoric of medieval fabulism, that all things can point at all things, that the imaginative engagement is the meaning, not merely the meaning-making. And so we’re exhausted. Aren’t we always exhausted? Even when we’re happy or content or mindless or resting. We exhaust the world; the world drains us of itself. It’s a constant process that we must try to maintain or theorize or acquiesce to. And so maybe I wanted this book to give itself over to that exhaustion.
At times the book reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s film, Dreams. Perhaps it’s the magical realism he used to create dreamscapes from his actual dreams. There are 154 sonnets in Wastoid, and each one is a different dreamscape containing some combination of death/rebirth, artifice/nature, love and love-confusion. But the Wastoid dreamscape throws a can of beer at your head, taunts you with a Playboy, and drives your Toyota into a 7-11 as a way to renew these themes.
Oh! I remember first seeing Dreams when I was young—I think in my early 20s?—& thinking, Yes! Finally this! & making all my friends watch it with me. There’s something about how the dream scenarios are taken seriously, even mundanely, that I deeply responded to. It’s different, I think, than the deadpan strangeness of Latin American magical realism or the understated, assumptive weirdness of the folktale or fable.
It seems to me that Kurosawa is working with how the rhetoric of filmmaking that produced what we think of realism was used to produce dreams. But then the rhetoric is stretched. I’m more thinking most of the mountaineering dream in the film than, say, the Van Gogh one, & how the sound of the breathing in the high altitude is the primary element that separates it from realism. How that breath takes on all the meaning. Exhausts the scene of its narrative or context. That’s what I love, when the absurd is found in the ordinary; at first it’s Where’s Waldo-esque, but then you realize there’s nothing but Waldos & Waldos all the way down & there are also Diderots & Enyas. It’s hard for me to find a place of differentiation between what I know to be empirically real & what I think of as aesthetically absurd.
Home Depot is a hotspot of absurdism. The idea of a theme is absurd. Taxonomies & the mindset that allows for categorization are absurd. I don’t understand how to understand what I’m supposed to assume everyone understands. I mean I do: I function; I pass; but barely & without coherence. Only in poems can I be the voided check I think I am.
What guides you to take risks, either in content or form, in your poetry?
I don’t think my work has much that’s unique or risky to it. It’s more of, to me, a way of cultivating the little buzzing gnats of peculiarity that each of us have & trying to bring that to the forefront. Poetry is the thing my mind does with language to attempt meaning beyond utility. It seems like I can do this sort of absurd-serial thing in a way that feels like I’m actually getting to something. Even if the something is a reassuring nothing. Maybe something we try to do in art is make new nothings. Make use of nothing. Show how nothing should be revered & loved alongside something.
I recently read Keats’s letters, and the themes of emptying one’s self in order to examine the self and nurture it kept resurfacing. Does this equation for poetic immortality ring true for your process?
I don’t know; greatness & immortality & emptiness in this seem so Platonic to me, such conceptual frameworks. I really don’t understand that Romantic notion of the artist being separated from the “normal” person. Everyone is normal, even the ones labeled genius. No art is made outside of a normal self & their position.
Maybe I’m being too literal in reading “emptying.” Maybe willfully belittling the idea. But I don’t want to agree with that idea of the artist as somehow separating from anything. Separation never happens unless it’s paid for.
I like writing stuff. I like how words sound & how sentences keep making new ideas. I don’t think writing stuff or reading stuff makes a person inherently different or better or X-er or Y-er than anyone else. I get confused when writers or artists talk about some inherent radical ethics or politics to making texts or art. Obviously, there are tons of artists & writers & musicians who are radical, often radical merely by choosing to make their voices heard in a world that wants to silence them out. I think most of my favorite living artists fit this. But writing or making art is not a uniform politics, or ethics, or metaphysics, or psycho-metaphysic: It’s not reducible. The art works, to me, from the moment of engagement. And how we make an engagable thing & how we engage a thing is my view of how the abstract stuff works. It’s in the choices & the repositioning. It’s always being reinvented.
Maybe the desire in my experience that comes closest to the Romantic desire to be great or immortal is the desire to not be an asshole. Which happens in the moments & the choices. And it is probably just as much a Platonic self-delusion as theirs is.
When I read your book, I found myself wanting to try to quantify what you were doing conceptually. Here’s what I came up with: Brave + Knowledgeable Guidance (The Elizabethans/form) + Community (in this case, I would say poetry friends) + Truth & Beauty + Emptying of Self + Focus & Solitude + Muse & Liberty = Wastoid.
… What would you change?
To me it’s maybe more like this: Desperate desire to hold onto something + embarrassment about my love for the aesthetics of Renaissance poetry considering its fucked ideologies + trying to make Zach laugh + love only exists in instantiated form + obsessive need to keep producing to distract myself from the present + Arby’s references = Wastoid.
Lastly, I fell in love with these poems. And, I think it’s because you’re in love with poems and poetry. Are you in love with poetry more than ever before? Would you kindly leave us with some parting words about process and what works for you?
Thank you! I’m glad you liked them. I have been in love with poetry since I was a teen—though at the same time I have very little idea what “in love with” means in this context—& I’m glad that love in some way comes through in the work. And thank you so much for these thoughtful questions.
I think what works best for me is throwing things away. Writing them out as fully as I can & trashing them. I’m teaching an online course about establishing a daily writing practice right now & one thing I like about this class is the discussion of how to develop the skill of throwing things away. I think there was a time when I had to try to convince myself that art had some inherent importance beyond the fact of its existence, whereas the fact of its existence is so bewildering all by itself that I don’t know why I needed more. And for the most part any work of art is equivalent to any other—like if not Gilgamesh but Gilgamesh 2 had been rediscovered in the 19th Century would it be any less fascinating? Art, like most things, is disposable. And keeping that forefronted in my writing process works for me. Or at least it does right now. Or did. Or it might.
Laura Minor is a writer and a singer-songwriter who received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, only to be signed by Hightone records one year later. After choosing a life of poetry over being a professional musician, everyone thought she was crazy (but we all know it was the coolest decision ever). Her poetry has most recently appeared in Spring Gun Press, Bicycle Review, Trivia, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Sixers Review, Lungfull, and the inaugural issue of Mantis/Stanford University. She was a Teacher’s College Fellow at Columbia University, the recipient of the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Award, and a finalist for Steel Toe Books & Pudding House Press. She is currently working on a third record (forthcoming in spring 2016), while she finishes her debut book of poems as a doctoral candidate in poetry at Florida State University.