Matthew Rohrer Interview
Let's start with the most pressing matter: Have you ever written a poem or part of a poem in your sleep? I don't mean, like, dreaming something that would later be used in a poem, but actually, in dreamworld, sitting down and writing a poem...has that ever happened to you?
Yes, definitely. But usually I can’t remember much of it when I wake up. But the feeling of writing – that’s there. Once I remember writing a poem in a dream and reading it to someone in a bookstore in the dream and it was just hugely grand and the ending built and built until it was too much to bear, and the person listening was reduced to a kind of ecstatic wonder.
But then when I woke up I could remember the end, and it was basically like:
While doing some research for this interview, I found this painting of Samuel Taylor Coleridge on wikipedia. It seems like Coleridge is on some sort of hallucinogen here. I read that Coleridge became an opium addict at some point in his lifetime, but his pupils, mouth, and general facial expression in this painting, to me, seem specifically suggestive of a hallucinogen. Any comment?
Well, that’s very funny but as far as I know which is basically having read 4 biographies of him that he never took hallucinogens or really had much access to them as I suspect most British people didn’t unless they were sailors. But he DID get involved in some serious experiments with Humphry Davy when Davy discovered nitrous oxide. They did literally liters and liters of it in Davy’s lab. There are beautiful scenes related in Richard Holmes’ amazing latest book THE AGE OF WONDER. Holmes also wrote the 2 volume biography of Coleridge. The 2nd volume of which is sad from beginning to end.
It seems like a lot of your poems take place in the summer, and, when I brought this up to you in person, you told me that "A Plate Full of Chicken" was written in like 6 or 8 weeks in the summertime. Is the summer your favorite season? Do you write more or feel more inspired in the summer? I assume you teach less in the summer, does this have anything to do with anything? Are you looking forward to this summer, do you have any special plans?
It didn’t have anything to do with teaching, because it was only in the last 3 years that I taught regularly enough for summer to have any meaning in that way. I guess I do like summer a lot, especially in New York with a small apartment you start to go crazy in the winter and in the summer you feel like you have an enormous backyard. Especially in Brooklyn. But having said that, I really hate being hot and am often really miserable in the summer. That’s where the poems in A PLATE OF CHICKEN came from, largely – a feeling that I was so miserable that I was going to stick it to the heat by showing it that I could turn its malevolent oppression into something useful. There’s also a long poem in RISE UP that I just looked at again recently that’s all about being extremely miserable in August New York heat.
You have a new book coming out on Wave soon. Is there a release date yet? I'm pretty sure I remember the name, but I don't want to screw it up. What is the name?
It’s called DESTROYER & PRESERVER and it should be out next spring.
In preparing your new book, or, really, any of your books, how do you know when you're done? Do you impose any sort of limits on yourself, or do you just go until it 'feels right'? Is this where having an editor helps?
Yes, having an editor makes all the difference for someone like me. I write a lot, and for instance for this next book I printed out everything I wanted to consider since my last book, and it was 560 pages. Obviously most of it was bad. But still, that’s a lot of pages. And so the way my books get put together is basically after enough time has passed I look through what’s there to see if there are any themes or likenesses that become apparent. And then Matthew Zapruder who’s such an amazing, intuitive editor takes a look at what I put together and comes back with another version of it. I guess kind of doing the same thing –looking for themes or things he wants to call out or rearrange.
Conversely, where does the book start? Is it in the realization that you have a more or less consistent group of poems sitting around or do you write poems with a book in mind?
Well I think a lot of poets write much less than I do, and probably write a lot more carefully, or revise more, so that at any given moment they have a smaller but much more solid body of work that is heading towards their next book. I think if you write more slowly like this, and are doing more careful work along the way, then the idea that you have a book going is much easier to see much sooner.
Something that I've been stealing from your poetry a lot recently is the use of a non-narrative sort of list of things that suddenly breaks into a more focused narrative. For example, "Sharp" from "Rise Up":
Music all day on the stereo. And the rain
in the streets, it's like I'm with friends.
It is hard not to pour a glass of wine in the morning.
I am raining. A red-tailed hawk settles
on an old antenna behind the house
and looks right into my eyes
while I'm on the phone with Ellen. Ellen
I say slowly, I'm sure you will succeed
in your endeavors. Those are
not the words I planned to say.
I was still awakening from a dream of the distant war.
Or, conversely, a narrative thread that 'devolves' into a non-narrative list. For example, "Abbot" from "A Green Light":
Other people's rules amuse me.
It's nice to be kissed without asking
for it. And dream of taking the exit off the freeway
to Buddhism. Anyone who breaks
stupid rules is a hero.
But what of a man
who willfully separates himself
from sex for the rest of his life?
There is something wrong
with him. He is like Yellowstone
Condors of eternal vigilance.
Only from a great height can he be forgiven.
I guess my question is this: how do you balance narrative and non-narrative? Logical progression and non-sequitur? I realize that there is probably no solid answer to this, that if you could definitively answer this question you would have discovered 'the secret of poetry' or be delusional or something, but do you think you could discuss how you construct a poem on a line by line basis?
I don’t think I can do that line by line. I could walk you through the poems you cited but for some reason I don’t feel like doing that. I don’t know that knowing the specifics would answer the question. But I think it’s basically that I am always very aware of a sense of balance in a poem. I just really think that there is an invisible scale beneath every poem you write, and that if you are attentive to what you’re doing and what you’ve written, that you can tell if it’s tipped too far in one way, and if that’s useful or not. Sometimes that can work, of course. And I guess the 2 sides of the balance are those things you mentioned: narrative and non-narrative. I guess it comes from my own reading. I tolerate a lot of jibber-jabber if I feel like I am also being spoken to directly and sensibly.
But it’s more complicated than this, because there are ideas or emotions that a poem can sometimes best express in a non-linear way. Linearity, when done really well, can be great. But there are just some things that linearity can’t express that well – maybe I don’t mean “linearity” but narrative. And so there are moments that demand something else. That’s where the balance comes in. Because even in the most narrative, personal, confessional poems, there will probably be things expressed that really need to be expressed non-narratively, non-personally, non-confessionally. So the balance is off in a confessional poem that never transcends that one mode. And the balance is off in a poem that is only expressing the ineffable something that the something is doing with the notion of whatever. Sometimes people explain their poems that way and it seems very sad. And imbalanced.
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AJW is the author of numerous poems and short stories, both online and in print. He makes collages here. He is from Wilmette, Illinois. He is an Eagle Scout.
Pop Serial 4
Pop Serial 3
The Broome Street Review (print)
Juked, Juked 2
NYU Prize Thing
HRM Literary/Arts Journal
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People I've Interviewed:
Matthew Rohrer again
Michael Earl Craig
Harriet Alida Lye
in alphabetical order
Her Royal Majesty
Timothy Willis Sanders