Posted in Literature
October 6, 2020

Forms Of Enchantment – Literary Conversations, Part 3 (Jennifer Denrow and Mathias Svalina With Roger Green)

The following is republished from The New Polis, and is the third of a four-part series. The first installment can be found here, the second 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: 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 seemlike, this is the capitalist subject, Iam very productive,I’m producing all of this work all ofthe 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.

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