Mathias Svalina's discrete flights of absurd fancy

By Harriet Staff


Interviews abound! Right now, you might set your eyes on this one: HTMLGIANT's Christopher Higgs interviews poet Mathias Svalina, whose new book of prose I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur (Mud Luscious Press) is hot off the wagon. The press wagon. Anyhow! Christian Hawkey said of the book that "the quixotic entrepreneurial spirit of individualist American capitalism is revealed as an inherently poetic construct, one that rests on theater, liminality, imaginative drive, contradiction, & failure." Fine praise from a fine character. Speaking of character:

HIGGS: A question about character: One way to read I.A.A.V.P.E. is univocally, which is to imagine that all of the entries come from the same speaker. Another way to read I.A.A.V.P.E. is multivocally, which is to imagine that each entry comes from a different speaker. Is this ambiguity deliberate, or have I missed an obvious clue embedded in the text?

SVALINA: I’d rather not say too much on this, as that ambiguity is important to me & I don’t think my reading of the book is superior to anyone else’s reading. But I see him as one character. One who has lost a child in his recent history. I feel like this trauma is part of why he is driven to start all these businesses, to fill the space left by the death with any attempt to divert energy.

While there are personal elements that emerge out of the book, I wasn’t trying to make a complete picture of the speaker emerge. I didn’t want this to become a traditional narrative embedded in the form. Instead I wanted the form to dominate the character. So the multivocal quality is deliberate because the different businesses demand different voices. An entrepreneur is many people in one, an actor of capital. And so he is exuberant at times, elegiac at others, but mostly he is talking about business. He is very productive.

On the other hand the speaker of the book could be seen as me, just Mathias, attempting novelty & diversion as I carry my dead child through the world.

Higgs and Svalina also talk structure. What was it Alan Davies said about structure? "The structure of words is their nascence." (He also said a lot of other things.) Here, structure gives way to talk of genre:

HIGGS: A question about structure, which is also a convoluted question about how you envision the differences between fiction and poetry: Reading I.A.A.V.P.E., I didn’t get a sense of the narrative progression one typically finds in a work of fiction; rather, it felt like a book of poems in the way that a book of poems is often a collection of self-contained units. To put it another way, I.A.A.V.P.E. doesn’t abide by an Aristotelian (beginning, middle, end) structure; rather, it presents a catalog of entries that could conceivably have ended sooner or gone on forever. But then again, it doesn’t feel like a book of poems either. (This is where I think the idea of experimental literature comes into play: that liminal object, neither poetry nor fiction in the conventional sense.) I’m curious to hear your thoughts about these distinctions, about the differences between poetry and fiction, perhaps what fiction can do that poetry can’t, and vice versa. Especially in regards to I.A.A.V.P.E. Did you simply wake up one morning and think: today will be the day I do not make line breaks?

SVALINA: Like a book of poems, I wanted these to function both as discrete flights of absurd fancy, yet to cohere into a larger argument. In that respect I see the book as poetic. But when I was writing them I didn’t think of them as poems. Nor did I think of them as fiction. I called them business plans, which obviously they are not, but I wanted a separate genre for them. I feel affinity with books like Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories, Galeano’s Book of Embraces, or Viscount Lascano Tegui’s On Elegance while Sleeping more than a book of prose poems, though. These are narratives, the book functions as a field rather than a progression.

I tend to be working on at least two projects at once & one of them tends to be terse, personal & imagistic, while the other tends to be these absurdist genre explorations. I wrote this book alongside another manuscript called the Hosanna Mansions, which consists of direct emotional experiences of how I was reacting to my father’s terminal cancer. The more personal works have become more poemy – shorter lines, more dependence on figurative language & poetic devices – while the more absurd works have drifted away from poetry. Instead I look for an alternate structure to control the rhetoric: game instructions, descriptions of businesses, spells, mind-in-a-vat philosophical puzzles, etc. So it was a gradual move away from line breaks toward finding something that has its own internal architecture in the way that a traditional poetic form does.

Enjoy the entire interview here.

Originally Published: August 25th, 2011
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