With Jess Stark and Emilio Taiveaho

Tuesday, Nov. 12, 8 p.m., free

Nightlight, Chapel Hill

On Friday morning, I woke up before first light and found a pale pink envelope tucked inside the screen door of my house. It had no postal markings or return address, only my first name written in small block capitals on the front and “1/30” written on the back. Taking it inside as my kettle started to steam, I lifted the flap and removed a slip of paper dated “Day 1: November 1, 2019.” This is what it said:

You are in the mountains. With wide, old-fashioned showshoes on your feet, you are tromping across a wide expanse of clean white snow. You come to a copse of aspen trees that are, despite the heavy snow & the winter period, covered with bright green leaves & that flutter musically in the breeze. As you step into the shade of the trees, the white-barked branches curl down to you & brush your cheeks & shoulders. You reach your hand up for a high-five & a branch leans down & high-fives you. On the other side of the trees lies another wide expanse of clean, white snow. But in the middle of the expanse, a small line cuts through the snow. You snowshoe over to the line, leaving a thick trail behind you. You reach the line. At first you don’t even recognize what you see: a metal tab connected to a line of small bits of metal leading out in a straight line. It’s a zipper. You reach down for the zipper tab & pull it. The snow on both sides of the zipper opens up like unzipping a sleeping bag. You unzip the snow further. You spread the two sides of the snow open. Beneath the snow you find fresh, green grass & vibrant wildflowers. Beneath the zipped up layer of snow it is still spring.

This dream was written by the poet Mathias Svalina, who still receives his election ballots in Denver but has no fixed address. For the last several years, Svalina has been traveling the country with his Dream Delivery Service. Subscribers within a four-mile radius of his temporary base—which, for the month of November, happens to be Durham; he’ll also read in the Paradiso series at Nightlight on November 12—receive one dream per morning for $45. Subscribers beyond the radius can get them in the mail for $60.

Svalina, sitting over a beer at Fullsteam after a long morning of deliveries and day of writing, says that his dreams are “brief surrealist stories or imagistic narratives, not exactly trying to capture the essence of dreams, but to write in the way that we tell each other dreams.”

An established figure in the small-press poetry world, Svalina is the author of several books and an editor at the influential Octopus Books. He taught poetry for years at The University of Colorado Boulder. But while he remains on the Octopus masthead and has a new book slated for publication by next year, delivering dreams has mostly overtaken his writing and his life. 

Svalina starts making his daily bike rounds by no later than 3:30 a.m. After delivering until dawn, he finds coffee, and then writes for eight to ten hours a day. A good day might produce twenty-five dreams. He estimates that he has written about twenty thousand of them.

Here’s an obvious question: Why? One answer is that Svalina felt he was in a rut with his surrealist books, a style of writing he enjoyed but wanted to use in a more open-ended way. Another is that he wanted to live a different life than that of the relentlessly publishing academic.

“I found a thing I could do, and it’s really, really niche,” he says. “I started because I was broke. I was adjuncting, and the class I’d lined up for the summer disappeared, and suddenly, I realized I had no actual skill set from fifteen years of teaching. The last three years, I’ve been nomadic, mostly camping, traveling by bike as much as I can. I found out as a middle-aged dude that that’s my thing. Biking in the desert and mountains is when I’m happiest, and my second-happiest is when writing as much as possible.”

As such, Svalina isn’t interested in letting Dream Delivery Service turn into just another poetry project. He says he used to delete them all after giving them away.

“I knew if I kept them I would one day be like, The Book of Dreams,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that.”

In subsequent dreams I received, I was a child embarking on a train journey, a person playing basketball with a backpack full of air, and the principal of a dog school. Though all of these dreams were chosen for me at random, most of them also seemed to fit—the first one especially resonated with me, a sun baby who grieves through the darkest months.

Svalina’s dreams are a bit like prose poems and a bit like horoscopes, sites where we are primed to seek personal meaning and thus find it. Receiving them in the morning casts a pleasant spell over the day, as they mingle with the dreams you actually had.

The dreams Svalina peddles and pedals are nice dreams, though they can be melancholy or mirthful, ordinary or strange. He says that Trump hasn’t showed up in a single one, though Obama still shows up.

Does he give people nightmares, though?

“It’s $3.75 more for nightmares,” he says.