Svalina’s prosey poetry collection, I am a Very Productive Entrepreneur, consists of sixty-seven pages of insanely successful insane business ventures (while they only seem successful, they are definitely insane). To identify part of the scope of the book, I think its poems comment on American culture, impulse, consumerism, and social desires (like popularity, self-image). Each poem (or call them flash fiction pieces, if you need to) begins with the phrase “I started this one business.” Svalina’s book explores the practicality and execution of fictional businesses that perform concrete and large-scale (though fairly impossible) operations, like installing padlocks in clouds and building skyscrapers in your likeness. Other businesses of his perform smaller actions, more dedicated to purely abstract personal needs, such as one business that “acted like everyone was perfect,” that “left long blonde hairs on the pillows of single men,” and that “made music nobody knew was music.”
On my first read of Entrepreneur I experienced seven or eight deeply sad moments of realization: that there is so much hollow love in business-minded culture, where the businesses are run by people who do aim to help others, to spread joy, to provide opportunities for others to succeed, but one realizes that a product or a service cannot fix people when they are broken or just plain bothered by things from their past. These businesses are launched by entrepreneurs offering paregorics for the burden of contemporary America. They offer help for your senses, for your loved ones, even for your memories, though I don’t mean to say this book is an exercise in therapy—Svalina’s work shows you what makes you sad, but it doesn’t diagnose. It points out those aspects of society that are hollow, or those things in life which remind you of your own unfinished emotional business.
“I started this one business that gave the parents of deceased children a glassful of sugar-water each morning,” writes Svalina. “We could never make the sugar-water sweet enough” (p. 17).
The effect of reading a whole book like this, for me, was a result of hit-or-miss personal resonance. I found myself, every ten pages or so, feeling really stunned or perturbed by the content—but not surprised. When I read through it again, I found that I was being similarly affected by different poems. One of the best things about the book is that it finds so many ways to get into your head and make you consider your position with regard to each of the fictitious businesses that are trying to make your life better, but so often proclaim what they can’t do or can’t do very well for their customers. These businesses are flawed, they offer incomplete satisfaction, and they’re run by people who are equally flawed and incomplete. “How does a grown man seek help for something so simple?” (p. 67)
I think Svalina’s project is about our desires for concrete, buyable solutions to our problems. And his exploration shows us how self-interested we are. We’re so self-interested that we’ll buy anything that supposedly will make us better or happier—we’ll buy things that explain our memories to us, that tidy up our mistakes, our car crashes, the deaths (physical and emotional) that we’ve observed. These poems do, perhaps, demonstrate our ability to create solutions. They point out our narcissism, our obsessions, and our loneliness in order to offer solutions. Or, maybe they show us that it’s worth it to try and solve our problems only to fail, so that we take our desires, our pains, our obsessions seriously. We should. They’re important.
“I started this one business that put a stopwatch on everything…It was up to the client to decide what to do next” (p. 16).
Daniel D’Angelo is the poetry editor at Phoebe.