MEET MATHIAS SVALINA, POET AND DELIVERER OF DREAMS
By Colin Dabkowski
News Arts Critic
Every day in May before dawn, Mathias Svalina rises from his bed in a Main Street hostel, packs his bag with 37 pink, hand-addressed envelopes and sets out into the sleeping city.
On his 1985 Raleigh Kodiak bicycle, he pedals past potholes and winds through dimly lit parkways. Sometimes he stops to admire the spiders, foxes, rabbits and deer that crawl across the city's streets and paths at night.
By now, about halfway through his monthlong project, Svalina has mostly memorized his stops: anonymous apartment buildings and single-family Victorians; businesses tucked into urban plazas; and a metal factory on Ohio Street he reaches after a nightly ride along the Lake Erie shore.
At most of those addresses, one of Svalina's clients lies sleeping as the Denver-based poet deposits a short poem through their mail slot that he wrote the previous day. Or he wedges it in their door so that it falls to the ground when they open it.
For a cool $45, each client gets a different poem every day of the month delivered by their own weaver of dreams. (Thirty additional subscribers outside a 4-mile radius get their dreams by mail.) The poems are written in the impossible language of dreaming, each one its own surreal, self-contained narrative about things that could only take place in the human subconscious.
On a recent ride through Buffalo, as his bike clattered across the Metro Rail tracks near the KeyBank Center, Svalina made an off-handed comment about the effect those tracks can have on bikers.
Later that day, a poem emerged: "It is morning. The sun is just about to peek over the buildings of the city & you are riding a large tricycle around an unfamiliar warehouse district. You ride over a set of train tracks, which bump & jostle you. The train tracks jostle you so hard that a baby begins to grow in your belly."
The narrative continues, getting stranger and stranger, until it ends with the image of a smoke-spewing train and "the bracing sound of its whistle cutting through the dark."
Near Front Park, Svalina spotted a fox and pursued it down a winding bike path until it disappeared into a nearby waterfront neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses.
At a house on Jersey Street, distracted by a reporter's questions, Svalina accidentally deposited the wrong dream through the mail slot. So he wrote an email to his subscriber to apologize. The subject line was "Dream Error."
But errors like this are an essential of the process.
"I just get trapped in my own sort of bubble of whimsy," he said. "Sometimes I feel like I live in a rejected Miranda July movie."
Svalina, 42, began his unorthodox poetry-delivery service in Denver about two years ago.
A former academic who continues to publish books of poetry, Svalina came up with the project on a whim after realizing that his adjunct teaching gig at the University of Colorado in Boulder had dried up.
"I suddenly realized I had no idea how to pay my rent for three months, and came up with this as a joke," he said on a recent morning at Tipico, a coffee shop on Fargo Avenue. "So that led to trying to figure out ways to do more biking long-distance and bike camping, which then led to trying to do this project in different cities, to sort of integrate these things that actually make me happy."
Things that make Svalina happy include biking long distances, writing surreal poems and exploring new cities.
Things that don't make Svalina happy include academia, desk jobs and living in houses.
His life in the last few years, he said, has been about "figuring out that actually I feel better when I'm in a tent in the middle of the desert. That's where I feel like I belong."
So he bikes, writes, sleeps in tents and explores the streets in cities like Austin; San Diego; Tucson, Ariz.; and Buffalo, occasionally stopping to prop up his bike on lamppost, trudge up some steps and deposit a strange dream narrative before anyone inside wakes up.
Then he sets himself up at one of Buffalo's many coffee shops — Public Espresso is a favorite and a client, providing Svalina with free coffee in exchange for a month of dreams — and types away. On a typical day, he'll write 20 to 30 pieces. And he always makes sure, at least a couple of times per month, to write a separate dream for each individual subscriber.
For 37 subscribers in Buffalo, Svalina's ritual has become a daily source of fascination, and even comfort.
Christine Slocum signed up for the service after seeing it advertised by Just Buffalo Literary Center, which brought Svalina to town. She has made it part of her family's morning ritual. After she gets her kids ready for school, she reads the day's dream to them over breakfast.
"The economics worked favorably to justify some impulse patronage. And I thought it would be cool for my kids to see, to expose them to different types of art," Slocum said. "It has definitely made the morning more whimsical than it was before. The thing that's actually very hope-giving to me is that this is a very interesting business model. I thought it was cool that he found a way to use his work by going directly to people without having to go through a publisher."
After Svalina finishes his month of dream deliveries in Buffalo, he will spend a few weeks as an artist-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institution. After that, he said, he hopes to develop his project into a large-scale attempt to deliver poems to all the residents of select small towns.
"There's a little town in Colorado called Leadville; it's the highest incorporated city in America. I've been fantasizing about doing that there," he said. "I'm trying to put all of my energy into the things that I can do well. I'm not going to claim that I'm the greatest or most profound writer, but I can do this kind of writing. Part of this project is seeing how far I can take that."
©The Buffalo News, 2018
Photo by Mark Mulville/Buffalo News