Essays

A Poet Who Delivers Dreams to Your Doorstep

During the day Mathias Svalina writes the dreams. At 2am, he begins to deliver.

Mathias Svalina delivering his envelopes filled with dreams (photo by Sarah Vasquez)

There’s a haunted quality to a city at night. After the bars close and crowds clear the streets, a lone cyclist on an ’85 Raleigh Kodiak pedals past, a stack of pink envelopes in his backpack. Inside each is a custom-crafted dream: 100 to 300 words printed on card stock. Every night for a month, Mathias Svalina, a poet from Denver, traces the same delivery route, covering 25 to 45 miles before dawn.

The location changes from month to month — Svalina has visited Marfa, Tucson, Richmond, Austin, and San Diego so far — but the basic structure is the same. During the day he writes the dreams. At 2am, he begins to deliver. At the home of each dream recipient, Svalina tucks a pink envelope inside the doorframe. Why pink? “It’s my favorite color,” he told me.

“My idea is that people would open their front door and a little pink envelope falls out of the door to the ground,” he said. “They pick it up, and there’s a small piece of paper with a dream written for them.” Svalina finishes his route around dawn, stops for a cup of coffee, and then sits with his laptop, crafting a fresh batch of dreams for eight or ten hours. Then he sleeps (at a friend’s spare room, tent, hostel, dog sitting gig, or spare space at a gallery) and wakes up for the next round of deliveries.

(photo by Sarah Vasquez)

Svalina’s years-long exercise in formalism started in 2014 as an escape from academia. After his course at University of Colorado was undersubscribed, he left his job as an adjunct poetry professor to create a life that combines his favorite things: cycling long distances at night, and writing surrealist dream poems by day.

“I was trying to think of something that employed my actual skill set, which is writing weird stuff all day and biking around cities,” Svalina told me. “I came up with the idea as a joke with a friend, and the next morning reconsidered the joke — and thought that maybe I could actually do it.”

Four years later, the Dream Delivery Service has become a self-sustaining operation. Dream recipients can subscribe to a month of dreams for $45, with an extra $3.75 for nightmares­­. Far-flung dreamers can subscribe via post. Svalina donates 10% of all subscription fees to Planned Parenthood in the state where he is based that month.

Day 26: February 9, 2018.

You are walking around the city at night & see a small cocktail bar that looks inviting. You step inside & the entire place is full of people you don’t want to see, disliked co-workers, exes, that weird dude who used to follow you around. They are all there. And as you walk in, they all look up & see you. You can’t leave—that would be weird. But you don’t want them to recognize you. The host says Hello! Welcome! And then, to disguise yourself, you respond in a heavy Cockney accent Oi! ‘Ello! Ahm jus popped in from ‘cross the pond! Immediately, none of the people you don’t want to see can recognize you. The host guides you to the bar, where you order & cocktail. The cocktail, when it arrives, has a living plant in it, the roots dangling over the ice. And with each sip of the cocktail the flower grows, until, with your final sip, the plant blooms into a wide, beautiful sky-blue flower. Then later you are at Home Depot looking for a new set of windows to install into a house you just bought on an island somewhere. All the windows are too much, too ornate, too delicate, too dark. And finally you realize that on this island windows are superfluous, a waste even. Then you are in your house on the island, the ocean breeze washing over you like a calming caress. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the world that is permanently bad, you realize.

(photo by Sarah Vasquez)

As the project has progressed, the dreams have taken on a life of their own, evolving into a form of performance art. “I feel like the least interesting part of the process,” Svalina said. “I’m just this worker bee.” (This is just his humility talking — anyone who has spoken to Svalina can tell you how fascinating he is.) For him, the interesting part is what people do with the dreams.

Day 27: February 10, 2018.

You want to buy a Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner sounds like exactly what you need. But when you look them up online the prices are outrageous. You could buy a new car for what a Roomba costs. But then you see an advertisement for an off-brand robot vacuum. It’s only $20. Why not? You order it & when it comes you set the robot vacuum cleaner up & press start. Immediately the robot vacuum zips away, speeding between your legs, & disappearing. You stand there, still holding the instruction manual in your hands. Um, hello? you say. There is no response. You look through the house, trying to find your off-brand Roomba. You open a closet door & find a deep canyon. Funny, you think, I don’t recall a canyon in this closet. You descend into the canyon. Around you, canyon wrens alight & fly by, singing little songs to echo off the canyon walls. You hear the buzzing of your off-brand robot vacuum. You follow the sound until you reach a dark corner. The off-brand Roomba is vacuuming the bedrock stone into itself, carving out more & more canyon. So that’s where this canyon came from, the robot vacuum made it. While you’re impressed, this seems like enough of a canyon for your house already. Hey! you say. The robot vacuum turns & stares at you with its sensor. It speeds toward you & zips by you, & up the canyon & back into the house. You chase after it & find it in the kitchen, banging repeatedly against the edges of some cabinets. The refrigerator & freezer doors hang open. The vacuum has eaten everything from inside them, even the condiments.

Svalina recently mailed a month’s worth of dreams to a subscriber in Denmark. She received the batch while in the hospital, giving birth to her first child. When she came home, she opened the dreams and read them to her baby.

(photo by Mari Cleven)

Another subscriber works on ships that travel to Antarctica. He returned home and found a mailbox full of dreams, and decided to throw a late-night party at which his friends sipped whisky and read them aloud. Out in the world, the dreams — which start as solitary, ghostly fragments of a surrealist dreamscape — become their own entity. They are not quite a book and not quite a letter. They become places for people to gather. The tiny paragraphs are quiet but social at the same time.

Day 31: February 14, 2018.

Everything you remember also remembers you. The weight of so many things remembering you is unbearable. You walk through your day crushed by memories, feeling so much memory’s ox that you begin to chew methodically a non-existent cud. The only place where memories do not reach is South Dakota & so you, as so many have before you, immigrate to South Dakota. There are so many people in South Dakota that they have pushed the edges of South Dakota out & now South Dakota takes up most of America. Still, South Dakota is not large enough. When you reach the border of South Dakota you find a wall of bodies pressing right up to the border, which has been drawn in white chalk on the ground. You smile politely & try to push yourself into the crowd, but the massed people make no room for you. There’s no space, a small man with too many fingers says. You’ll have to wait until it grows. The memories are very heavy today & you really want to get inside South Dakota so you can finally relax. When will it grow? you say. There’s no telling, the man says, holding his palms together & tapping his fingers against each other like two dancing centipedes. Just then there is a rumbling, a gurgling, like a great belly in distress, & the chalk like on the ground begins to quiver & convulse. Quick! the fingerful man says. Get inside! The chalk border to South Dakota swings out like a loose string & suddenly you are inside. You fall to your knees, suddenly unburdened by the weight of memory. A small man you’ve never seen before with dozens of fingers lifts you up from your knees. Do you remember me? the man says. No, you say. Good, the fingery man says, I do not remember you either, & I will not forever. You wander the crowd, looking at faces, calm in the weightlessness of being finally, blissfully, only yourself.

For Svalina, dream logic can make more sense than the aesthetics of the real world. “It’s a lot of work for me to keep my mind in the world of rational cause and effect,” he said. “When I’m writing inside of a surrealist structure, I allow myself to be purely myself. The things that I have to tamp down all through the day can come out.” A friend once described Svalina as a “strangeness machine.”

In recent years, the project has expanded to include artistic collaborations of all stripes. In November 2017 Svalina was artist-in-residence at Understudy, an experimental arts space in Denver. He hosted open mic nights at which people told each other their dreams, and considered the similarities between them. The closing event was a dream feast full of surreal dishes like slow-roasted football and baseball mitts served on a bed of iron dumbbells, paperback sandwiches, and floating onion rings.

(photo by Mari Cleven)

Svalina’s next journey is to Buffalo, New York. In May, he’ll host dream-writing workshops at the Just Buffalo Literary Center, in collaboration with Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center. After Buffalo he’ll be writer in residence for the first week of the Chautauqua Institution, then he’ll bike to Brooklyn to deliver dreams there mid-July through mid-August. In October, he plans to work alongside visual artists in Denver to create a series of hand-bound art books, incorporating words and images, that will be entirely conceived, made, and constructed in one day (Svalina will sew the bindings). He’s also looking for an installation space to create a card catalogue of dreams indexed by topic: birds, bones, calendars, seashells, staircases, creeks.

What started as a solitary activity has become decidedly social and interactive. Svalina’s goal, when he collaborates, is to “step outside the furniture that’s already in my head,” to “find new stuff, new nouns, new signifiers, new images.” In the future, he’d love to take his hybrid form to Berlin.

The bicycle, Svalina told me, will always be central to his creative process. Being self-propelled, in tactile contact with the outside world, contrasts a useful counterpoint to spending eight or ten hours staring at a computer screen and writing. Svalina finds that the first few hours after deliveries are his most creative. When he hits a dry spell and the images don’t come, he looks to art books, finding inspiration in Julie Mehretu’s layered abstractions and Lee Bontecou’s alien, gothic sculptures.

Svalina’s advice for multi-year creative journeys — aside from not getting hit by a truck — is to choose one mode of creation and press down on it, until it thickens and condenses, then “blow it up and try to make it social, or make it interactive, or make a whole different structure.” There’s freedom in formalism. Constraints create space for play and improvisation.

To view more of Mathias’ journey and process, check out the video below by Mari Cleven.

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