Hanging Out With the Dream King

Mathias Svalina delivers slivers from the oneiroi to your front door

Delivering dreams at the break of day.
Delivering dreams at the break of day. (Photo courtesy of Sarah M. Vasquez)

“Here’s how the project works,” says Mathias SvaIina, a man who recently bicycled from Marfa to Austin. “I take about 40-50 subscribers per month and write dreams for them every day of that month. Then I’ll bike around before dawn and deliver them by hand, usually leaving them on front doors. For subscribers out of town, I mail the dreams every day.”

Of course, no, we’re not talking about actual dreams here, citizen. No one’s implying that we’re entering into some eerie David Lynch/Kelly Link/Neil Gaiman territory in the midst of a daily routine.

But neither are we, ah … listen up for a minute, okay? Let us be frank with you?

A person like your reporter, a journo working at The Austin Chronicle – or working at any printed altweekly or robust website or media outlet – a person like that? They get a shit-ton of pitches per week, tell you what. Usually nothing as unexpected as a Dream Delivery Service, usually something much more commonplace.

(Usually, tbh, along the lines of “Hey, wow! Lemme tell you about this terrific! new! band! That plays music! And sings songs! That all the cool kids like! Whoa, amirite?!” Like that.)

But even the weirder stuff we get pitched, it’s usually not worth crowing about. Sturgeon’s Law, after all.

So in taking the time and effort to pimp this thing of Svalina’s, like we’re doing here, we’re spurred by one important fact: What he does is really good.

That is, it’s pretty neat to begin with, having some dude deliver little prose-poems or bits of flash-fiction to your doorstep every single day for a month. It’s an IRL experience that works the same sort of charm that’s what, in part, makes Austin’s own Typewriter Rodeo such a popular project.

But it would be a lousy thing indeed if the, ah, the product itself was mediocre. If some sorry motherfucker who can’t actually write worth bupkis was offering this service.

But mediocrity is not a problem that Mathias Svalina has. Look, here’s a dream, one of the more nightmarish ones, right now:

You are a villain. You do villainous things. But you are unsure what villainous things you do. You approach a stranger from behind on a dark street & slip a steel pick into the back of his skull. The stranger crumples before you like a dropped marionette. But no, this is not the kind of villainous thing you do. You find a loved one & throw acid in his face, but it does not feel right. This is not what you do. You try bombing a church, robbing a bank, ripping the heads off newborn animals, but none of it is you. All the while the memories of those you’ve killed build up in you. Though you lie safe & warm in your bed, you feel the visceral click as their necks crack in your hands, watch the black blood pool on the marble floor. It is horrifying to you, the way you must do things you would never do to learn you would never do them.

So, yes. That sort of thing – and sometimes much less dark, thankfully; sometimes downright silly – on paper, once a day, at your doorstep, for a month. Or you could even buy the service as a gift for someone else, right? There’s an idea.

But –

Brenner: Mathias, why do you do this odd thing? As opposed to just vacationing endlessly on a beach in Belize with all the megabucks you surely earn as publisher of Octopus Books?

Svalina: This is going to come as a great shock, but the world of indie poetry publishing is not the glittering jetset party that the mainstream media would have you believe. It’s more of a zero-sum labor of love. But actually, part of doing the Dream Delivery Service has been a process of trying to build a job-like thing out of the odd skillset and passions I have – which is to say that I can write a lot of weird stuff every day, and I love biking around cities in the pre-dawn murk. The writing in the Dream Delivery Service extends from the kinds of books I’ve been writing, most of which are serial surrealist projects, surrealist creation myths, surrealist business plans, a collection of instructions for impossible children’s games, 154 surrealist failed-love poems, et cetera. That’s the way my mind works. A good friend once called me a strangeness machine. So I write 20 to 40 dreams every day during Dream Delivery Service months because I can, because it’s a thing I can do. And it makes me feel good to do it.

Brenner: And then the delivery – on a bicycle?

Svalina: I wake up at 2 or 3am and bike around the city until dawn and deliver dreams to people’s front doors. It creates, I hope, a special reader/writer relationship – more intimate than a book, while also anonymous and cryptic. It also seems like a funny way to do the project, with way too much work for very little money. That’s my kind of job: improbable, absurd, and foolish.

Brenner: And are the dreams personalized at all? Like, to each individual subscriber? Surely you can’t achieve a level that granular, that’d be crazy.

Svalina: I wish I could be that awesome, but no. If I know the subscriber I will sometimes drop some personal information into the dreams to more tailor them to that person. Sometimes I’ll reiterate and expand on a particular dream-image or event for a single subscriber, so that there is some connection between multiple dreams over the course of the month. More often, though, I’ve never met the subscriber. I write the dreams purely from my imagination, delivering them arbitrarily and hoping they’ll connect to the subscriber on some weird and archetypal level. I’ve had surprising responses: Subscribers I’ve never met telling me that a dream I wrote was a dream they had actually dreamed before, subscribers relating how a dream was oddly prescient. I ascribe these to the power and relational intimacy of reading. Either that or I’m like super magical. But I think that relational intimacy is a big part of the project. Receiving a dream that’s addressed to you every day on your doorstep or in your mailbox personalizes the dreams. The way I think of it, they are, when you subscribe, your dreams; I just happened to be the one making them up & writing them for you. I optimistically begin every day trying to write a unique dream for every subscriber, but on my average day I’d say I run out of creative juice after about 25 dreams and then some subscribers dream the same dreams. On my best days, though, I do write unique dreams for each subscriber. I’ll be honest with you: I feel pretty cool on those days.

Brenner: And a final question: If you could engage this Dream Delivery Service for a month for yourself, from any living writer in the world, who would it be?

Svalina: Good question. In fact, I couldn’t narrow it down to one – so here’s my top four: A bear. The sci-fi writer Nnedi Okorafor. The Merriam-Webster twitter. A baby bear.

Oh, hell yes. Not much better than dreams from a baby bear. Still, dear reader, we’re suggesting that what this Mathias Svalina himself will provide to disrupt your mind’s routine? It’ll be more than sufficient unto the day. Also, note: The man will be talking about the project in person at Malvern Books this Friday night.

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Dream Delivery Service, Mathias Svalina, Dreams in Austin, Cycling from Marfa, Octopus Books, How poetry distracts from our headlong plummet toward an eternity in the void

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