Posted in Literature
September 22, 2020

Forms Of Enchantment – Literary Conversations, Part 2 (Jennifer Denrow and Mathias Svalina With Roger Green)

The following is republished from The New Polis, and is the second of a four-part series. The first installment can be found here. The video version can be found here.

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: 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 

the bread. 

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. 

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