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.
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.
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.