A man of his words ped­als per­son­al­ized prose po­ems

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Gra­ham Am­brose

At 1 a.m., Mathias Svalina rolls out of bed and dresses quickly. He doesn’t have much time. The streets of Den­ver will be empty for only a few more hours, and he has a long jour­ney — 35 miles, on bike — to reach his cus­tomers be­fore they wake up.

He has slept only three hours, but he can’t skip work — not to­day, or any day. He’s the only em­ployee at the Dream De­liv­ery Ser­vice, where he holds mul­ti­ple ti­tles: founder, con­tent cre­ator, mar­keter, sales­man, courier, pub­lic re­la­tions di­rec­tor and res­i­dent dreamer.

Svalina, 42, is a pro­fes­sional poet who bikes the nearly three dozen miles ev­ery morn­ing to hand-de­liver per­son­al­ized prose po­ems to pay­ing cus­tomers. For a sin­gle $45 pay­ment, sub­scribers of the ser­vice wake up to

a new and unique “dream” — rang­ing from 50 to 300 type­writ­ten words — on their doorstep ev­ery morn­ing for a month. (Night­mares cost an ex­tra $3.75.) Svalina de­liv­ers the dreams him­self, ped­al­ing more than three hours to Den­ver res­i­dences in the quiet predawn.

“I’m try­ing to find the logic of dreams, when the in­ex­pli­ca­ble is com­mon­place,” he says. “I want it to be fun and spritely and cryptic, like an ex­tended for­tune cookie.”

Dur­ing the day, the poet spends four to eight hours writ­ing the sur­re­al­ist dreams. In the first ser­vice month, in the sum­mer of 2014, Svalina had 108 sub­scribers. He ini­tially promised each one a unique let­ter ev­ery day.

“Pretty soon, my friends sat me down for an in­ter­ven­tion,” he said. “I got no sleep and was in bad health, and they told me it was OK to re­use dreams now and then.”

Now he av­er­ages be­tween 25 and 40 unique let­ters each day. On Sun­days, ev­ery sub­scriber re­ceives the same dream, al­low­ing the over­taxed poet to catch up on sleep. His cur­rent de­liv­ery month, which runs from June 20 to July 20, serves 33 sub­scribers, about half of whom live out­side Den­ver. Svalina mails those cus­tomers their dreams for an ex­tra fee that cov­ers postage.

Svalina, who has con­ducted 11 ser­vice months in half a dozen Amer­i­can cities since the in­au­gu­ral run in Den­ver three years ago, has gained na­tional recog­ni­tion for perfecting his un­ortho­dox daily sched­ule into a rou­tine. Al­though he still strives to cre­ate a unique dream for ev­ery cus­tomer, some days sap his time, stamina or cre­ative en­er­gies. On the Au­gust day when his mother needed emer­gency surgery, Svalina could will him­self to write only five.

Dur­ing a ser­vice month, he sticks to a pre­cise pre­planned route that varies lit­tle from day to day. The rigid reg­i­men of­ten pre­vents him from ex­plor­ing the host city, de­spite com­mit­ting hun­dreds of hours to nav­i­gat­ing its streets and serv­ing its res­i­dents.

“It be­comes a very in­te­rior vi­sion of the city,” he says. “In a way, I’m in this very closed ver­sion of the city, which re­peats ev­ery day. So I learn to get ex­cited about mi­cro de­tails and events — the pot­holes, bro­ken glass, dead an­i­mals on the side of the road.”

When Svalina’s chronic rest­less­ness boils into full­blown wanderlust, the poet-en­tre­pre­neur takes his tal­ents to the road, bring­ing dreams wher­ever friends and in­sti­tu­tions will have him. In Rich­mond, Va., he lived in an an­ar­chist col­lec­tive called the Fly­ing Brick. In Tuc­son, he lived in an old fire sta­tion above the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art. A vi­o­lent light­ning storm nearly killed him in the desert out­side Marfa, Texas.

“There I was, the only thing on the hori­zon, on a nice thick piece of steel,” he says. “I just started laugh­ing, man­i­cally, un­con­trol­lably. I fig­ured if the story of my life ended with be­ing struck by light­ning while bik­ing in the dark in the desert, well, that would be pretty le­git.”

The de­mands of de­liv­ery month pre­vent the sur­re­al­ist from do­ing what he loves most: read­ing.

“The hard­est and most dis­ori­ent­ing thing was that I didn’t read for a month dur­ing the first de­liv­ery,” he said. “I found that to be re­ally stul­ti­fy­ing.”

His in­spi­ra­tions in­clude Borges, Kafka and Kate Bern­heimer, a con­tem­po­rary writer of Amer­i­can fairy­tales. Now, Svalina carves out a half hour for daily read­ing and even lis­tens to au­dio­books dur­ing rides with a sin­gle ear­bud.

He has had a num­ber of ac­ci­dents but never landed in a hos­pi­tal, al­though his bike is un­rec­og­niz­able after years of surg­eries and trans­plants. A me­chan­i­cal break­down in the re­mote desert of west Texas left him at the mercy of the only bike shop within hun­dreds of miles, which fixed his de­funct crank set with an ill­fit­ting spare.

“It’s my only bike, and a real Franken­stein, with an ’80s frame and mis­matched parts,” Svalina says. “It’s a mess of a bike, but I love it.”

His mea­ger in­come from dream de­liv­ery buys his food and fixes his bike, which plows through the el­e­ments. Svalina has no reser­va­tions bik­ing through rain, snow or wind, but he’s lim­ited by his bi­cy­cle. Oc­ca­sional break­downs can de­rail a day’s de­liv­ery sched­ule and cost a pretty penny.

“The ser­vice doesn’t pay well,” he says, laugh­ing. “Be­ing com­fort­able with ab­ject poverty is im­por­tant for the pro­ject.”

For a man whose lone source of in­come de­pends on bar­ing his sub­con­scious via per­son­al­ized, hand-de­liv­ered let­ters penned in the sec­ond per­son, Svalina re­mains some­thing of a mys­tery to even his most loyal fans. Most cus­tomers of the Dream De­liv­ery Ser­vice have never met the found­ing dreamer, whose in­vis­i­bil­ity gar­ners com­par­isons to clan­des­tine heroes of comic books and folk myths.

“It was like the tooth fairy ev­ery day,” said Julie Carr, a Svalina friend who teaches cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Colorado at Boul­der. “But bet­ter — be­cause you didn’t have to lose a tooth and dreams are bet­ter than quar­ters.”

Ja­son Wardell lives in Den­ver and started re­ceiv­ing daily dreams last July after his wife signed him up for the ser­vice as a birth­day present.

“It’s a dream­like thing Mathias is do­ing, like some­thing that’d hap­pen in a real dream,” Wardell says. “It felt like I was a mem­ber of a se­cret so­ci­ety. The let­ter just sort of man­i­fested on the door, and I would read it on the way to work and think about it for the rest of the day.”

Wardell, who stud­ied English in col­lege, wants to help lo­cal artists will­ing to pioneer cre­ative and un­con­ven­tional projects.

“As a gift for a lit­er­ary­minded per­son, I can’t think of any­thing bet­ter,” he said. “I didn’t re­ally know that some­thing like this could ex­ist un­til my wife or­dered it. And now I think there should be so much more of this cre­ative out­put. I would love to see more things like this in the world.”

Wardell has never met Svalina, who es­ti­mates that he in­ter­acts with less than a quar­ter of his cus­tomers, ei­ther in chance, early-morn­ing en­coun­ters or through mu­tual friends.

His re­turn to Den­ver rep­re­sents a home­com­ing of sorts. The tran­sient lit­er­ary, who sub­sists through couch surf­ing, sees Colorado as a home base.

“Den­ver has been very kind and sup­port­ive to me,” he says. “It’s hard to leave Colorado once you get ad­dicted to be­ing this close to the moun­tains and all the built-in, stu­pen­dous, sub­lime beauty ev­ery­where.”

That aes­thetic sense per­vades the dreams, which con­tain bizarre sur­re­al­ist nar­ra­tives that lack straight­for­ward mean­ing. Al­though the spe­cific con­tent of the po­ems of­ten veil the per­son­al­ity and pathol­ogy of their cre­ator, Svalina finds a fit­ting out­let for self­ex­pres­sion in his vi­gnettes.

“Our dreams are al­ways weird and in­ex­pli­ca­ble. You get an ini­tial set­ting and a pro­ces­sion of nar­ra­tive without log­i­cal cau­sa­tion or emo­tional clar­ity or ris­ing and fall­ing ac­tion,” he says. “It’s just open to what­ever comes next. That’s how my mind works. It’s hard for me to be a nor­mal per­son who pays bills and waits at stop­lights. It’s nor­mal for me to be weird and to think this way.”

Mid­way through the ser­vice month, Svalina is weary but mo­ti­vated from his dou­ble life: bik­ing through the de­serted streets of the sleep­ing metropo­lis by morn­ing and writ­ing fu­ri­ously to meet dead­line by night. At 1 a.m. — rain or shine, dream or night­mare — he’ll start the 35-mile rou­tine all over again.

“I’m tired,” he ad­mit­ted, “but it’s the kind of tired that comes from lov­ing what I’m do­ing. So I’m into it.”

“I want it to be fun and spritely and cryptic, like an ex­tended for­tune cookie.” Mathias Svalina, on how he wants his cus­tomers to view his work

Pho­tos by Gabriel Scar­lett, The Den­ver Post

Mathias Svalina has a big hand in de­liv­er­ing dreams – type­writ­ten, per­son­al­ized prose po­ems – by bike daily to sub­scribers in the Den­ver area.


Mathias Svalina’s de­liv­ery route “be­comes a very in­te­rior vi­sion of the city,” he says. “So I learn to get ex­cited about mi­cro de­tails and events — the pot­holes, bro­ken glass, dead an­i­mals on the side of the road.” »

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