September 1, 2011KR Conversations

Mathias Svalina

Mathias Svalina is the author of one book of poetry, Destruction Myth (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010) and one novel, I am a Very Productive Entrepreneur (Mud Luscious Press, 2011).  Mathias Svalina published “Behind the Sheets of Shuddering Cellophane” on the KROnline.


KR: Is there a story behind your KR piece(s)?  What was the hardest part about writing it?

MS: I wrote this piece while my father was dying of cancer. The hardest
part was living through this. As far as the piece goes, I tried to
write about this situation without falling back upon familiar tropes
of grief, to both feel grief, which is categorical & in a sense always
cliché, & to identify something unique to my voice inside the grief. I
worked on the poem for about six months, reworking the order, the
phrasing, a lot of things that probably no one but me would notice.
However, I don’t consider that difficult, per se. To my mind, almost
all poetry is a product of cultural ease & luxury, including my own.

KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?

MS: The most influential internal factor on my creative process is
believing that what I write has some value, that people would be
better off somehow after reading a book of my work. That might sound a
little glib, but it’s a question I struggle with every day. Why bother
writing & reading poems, entertaining ourselves, in a civilization
that is caressing & exploiting & entertaining itself into its own &
global ruin? Why does one deserve to be alive & doing what she or he
does? Some days I’m convinced that I’m wasting my life in a community
of affable dilettantes, that writing is an act of cowardice. Some days
it feels incomparably crucial to express our engagements with the
world through poetry, that there is something instructionally
relational & inherently salvational to poetry. Other days I wonder if
I should buy a small pet turtle.

KR: Nicole Krauss said in a recent Guardian column that “We’re programmed to do the ‘easier’ thing… People no longer have the concentration to finish things; we skim along the surface, and it’s miserable.” Do you see this absence of ambition in the literary audiences of today?  How do modern attention spans affect your writing?

MS: I’ve always been resistant to nostalgia, by which I mean I do not
share Krauss’ opinion. I don’t think that the contemporary digitalized
mode of reading & communication is easier, but that it is merely

As far as literary audiences go, I see a range of reading engagements
that I imagine reflects the range of engagements that have been
relatively consistent over time. Many readers certainly go for the
surface, but it’s not as if all of Ruskin’s peers thought at his depth
either. Writers like Justin Taylor, Johannes Gorranson & Ann Boyer
have, in dramatically different ways, demonstrated a depth of reading
that I find impressive & inspiring. And beyond people who write for
public consumption I’ve encountered a lot of readers’ reactions to my
own work, over drinks, through emails, in classrooms, & other venues.
I’ve been consistently honored by the depth of engagement that readers
have shown in thinking about my books.

But my real problem with this quote is the misery. Books are
entertainment. I don’t think there is a more or a less correct way to
engage with entertainment. If the “surface” engagement gives me the
aesthetic event that I’m looking for then I feel that the work was a
success. What is important is how a reader incorporates the experience
of the event into their lives, into their thinking, how they are
affected by the work.

In regards to this poem, I think lyric poetry is a work of glancing
attention, of embedding & infecting the consciousness of the reader.
For a lyric poem to succeed I think it must feel instantaneous &
somewhat indecipherable, yet continue to open up inside the reader’s
experience. So I’d say that thinking about attention span affected how
I wrote this piece, but it’s an approach to attention span that is
generic rather than a response to a perceived change in audience.

KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

MS: I’ve learned that there is no such thing as inspiration.

KR: When we publish, whether in print or online,we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant.  What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper-fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?

MS: The digital age has already affected our thinking about poetry. With
the flood of poetry being published right now in journals (& I forget
whose idea I’m ripping off here – sorry stranger) one can be said to
be simply reading poetry when one reads online, divorcing the writer
& even the individual poem from the reader’s experience. On a free day
I might read over 200 poems while checking out journals online.
Sometimes I’ll keep a link, sometimes bookmark it (often to never
return to the page), but more often then poetry flows through me. This
is my experience of reading poetry in journals & I don’t think I’m
unique here. I doubt many people will read my poem on this website &
remember it, even if they did like it.

I don’t think a forgettable work of art is inherently less important
than the work that sustains interest. There is nothing more moral or
important about listening to Coltrane rather than Katie Perry, about
reading Brenda Hillman rather than Michael Connelly. Both are
entertainment. I have a good friend steeped in high theory & the best
of contemporary poetry, yet he claims that his moral view (a highly
admirable one) is primarily influenced by Robert Jordan’s fantasy

I disagree with the idea that we should hope our art should endure.
All utterances die. It’s implicit. It takes some works of art longer
to die but they all will. I think people should make art with that
mindset rather than working toward some cinematic fantasy of