Strange Lights: A Micro(inter)view with Matthew Rohrer & a Portfolio of New Poems, curated by Lisa Olstein

Matthew Rohrer’s poetry collections include Surrounded by Friends (Wave Books, 2015), Destroyer and Preserver (Wave Books, 2011), A Plate of Chicken (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), Rise Up (Wave Books, 2007), A Green Light (Verse Press, 2004), Satellite (Wave Books, 2001), and A Hummock in the Malookas (W. W. Norton, 1995), which was selected by Mary Oliver for the 1994 National Poetry Series. With Joshua Beckman, he is coauthor of Nice Hat. Thanks. (Verse Press, 2002) and the audio CD Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches at New York University. Tupelo Quarterly’s Associate Editor, Lisa Olstein, recently had a chance to ask him a few questions about his work.

Lisa Olstein:  How did this project begin? What drew you to this particular practice at that particular time?

Matthew Rohrer:  I’ve always been interested in dreams and dream journals, but this specifically hypnagogic thing sort of just suddenly seemed to be the right thing to do. I was definitely looking for something to get lost in, something to work at for a long time, and started noticing that I would hear all these different voices as I fell asleep. I did some looking into it and found out that it’s a stage of sleep called the Hypnagogic stage—it’s there between waking and sleep, on both ends of the night. Apparently a lot of people see images, but I’m one of the people who hears voices. And they were so loud, so insistent, I decided to keep a journal of them. What I loved about them, when I figured out how to train myself to wake up from this stage and write them down, was how mundane they were. You’d think they’d be super hallucinatory and surreal, but what ultimately drew me to working with them was how boring most of them were, and how they didn’t sound like anything I would ever write.

LO:  What were the specifics of the practice you developed?

MR:  It took me awhile to get so I could wake myself up from this stage, and I kept a notebook and pen on me. I basically fell asleep with them on my chest. Some nights I could come in and out of this stage a couple times, but lots of nights I’d just wake up in the morning realizing I hadn’t been able to do it at all.

Then when I gathered 100 of these phrases, which took me more than a year, I wanted to do something with them, but wasn’t sure at first. The more I looked at how silly they were, or just bland, the more I realized I should make them be the main thrust of the poems, so that I’d have to deal with them, rather than just be able to fold them in somewhere – that seemed too easy. So I decided that they would each be the opening line of 100 poems.

LO:  What was it like to move off the spur of the near-sleep language? Did it feel like a collaboration?

MR:  It was not that hard, frankly, because yes, it felt exactly like a collaboration. And I think that’s partly what drew me to this project, because the voices sounded so utterly Other, I had this feeling that it was going to be like collaborating. I’d done a lot of that with Joshua Beckman and missed it. That was what was at the heart of a bunch of poems I did a little later that were collaborations with Basho and Issa and Buson. So I definitely thought of these as collaborations. Someone (who knows who?) gave me these lines at night and then I had to finish the poem.

LO:  What did you discover in these poems?

MR:  Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure it was one big thing. One thing I discovered was that I could do this pretty easily. I mean, it wasn’t hard at all. I wrote the 100 poems so fast – that period is actually kind of a blur – I have very little recollection of the writing of them, I almost felt like it was trance-like. It wasn’t really—I was awake to write them. But something about taking these lines seriously and at face value allowed me to just plunge into a world where I could kind of say anything. And also I wanted to try to be true to the feeling of each different phrase.

I also re-discovered my love of having fun while writing poems. That that act can and maybe should just be an act of pure exciting love. I know that sounds lame a little, and obviously I’ve written lots of other kinds of poems, but doing this, collaborating with some voices from out of the night, and just accepting whatever they say as the starting point for my poems, it was just so fun, honestly that’s the feeling I remember most. And it makes me sad to think of people writing poems and not having fun doing it.

LO:  How do you usually make your way to first lines?

MR:  That’s a good question, because it’s often hard, I walk around trying out a phrase, a phrase will come to me or something, and when I say it in my head enough that I feel how it’s moving, then I can sit down and try to see if stuff can come after it and stick to it. I really almost never have an idea for an opening line – or even for a poem, really – and then try to go from there. I never have a plan for a poem. I think maybe that’s what I love so much about collaborating, is that I am not working in my usual way. I’m given something to react to, to work with, to build off of.

LO:  Was it Pierre Reverdy who said that a poem is a machine made of words designed to produce a poetic state of mind, a reverie? What connections do you draw between the aesthetics and logics of dream states and those of poems?

MR:  You know, I was thinking of this the other night watching something on the computer which I can’t really remember what it was anymore but I was thinking: there’s such a clear sense of when something imaginative is based on dream-states, because the underlying machinery of it all, the machinery of its movement, is imagination-based. And we all understand that, it’s a human thing, a way the human mind works, even though each of ours is different. And when you see someone trying to make a dream-sequence or whatever and they’re idiots, you can tell they have no sense of how human imagination moves. They try to make it so “weird” or “spacy” – but it’s easy to tell when it’s just some tyro who thinks he has to freak people out, or when it’s genuinely from the imagination.

That was a long way for me to get to say that I think the same is true of poems — there are poems that move strangely, but when it’s actually a strange movement powered by the machinery of the imagination, you can tell, and you can usually follow along. But when it’s one of those poems trying to be surreal – just about 100 years too late – or trying too hard to be weird, it’s obvious when it’s not working. I think you can tell when a poem is moving genuinely or is being forced to be weird. And I think we can tell this because we all dream.

LO:  Locating themselves at an intentionally stranged intersection of language and consciousness, it seems these poems might be seeking to disrupt normative patterns of thought and expression. Was this a motivation?

MR:  Maybe not overtly, but I guess that’s what I always want to do and what gets me looking for new forms and new methods all the time – to disrupt the thing I would otherwise just keep doing. I think we should all be doing that.

LO:  Are you interested in other sleep and dream related interventions or traditions, such as lucid dreaming, dream journals, dream interpretation, trance-states, hypnosis, etc.?

MR:  Yeah, for sure, I’m pretty certain there’s something going on in dreams that’s really important to all of us. I wake up each morning with a sense of having experienced fully some real emotions, and inhabited real spaces, and this is coupled with a really palpable sense of loss. I worked really hard to teach myself to lucid dream, which is a thing you can apparently do, though I had a very hard time with it. I end up doing it accidentally a lot, but wanted to control it. Supposedly the trick is to go to bed telling yourself you will look at your hands, and hold them up in front of your face. If you can do that, it’s supposed to center you in the dream-space or something. I did it once, it was extremely hard to hold up my hands, it was like a spiritual and physical impossibility. And when I finally held them up, they glowed all psychedelic colors and an enormous fanfare blared and it woke me up.

LO:  Are there schools or traditions of procedural or chance operations that influence you in general or this work in particular? Have you undertaken other procedurally-generated projects?

MR:  Yeah, I’m interested in OUPLIP and aleatory methods like collage and do that a lot. Sometimes overtly and sometimes just as a way to get out of a bind in a poem. In a poem that’s otherwise a “real” poem. I mean, 90% of what I would ever publish is not chance-based, but there’s chance aspects to 100% of what I write. Whether that’s in how the whole poem is made or if I just need help with a line or finding a transition and use some chance way of generating that. I assume everyone does this, just like I assume everyone is having fun writing their poems, but maybe that’s not true.

LO:  Give the current state of politics and discourse, do you feel like accepted modes of logic, discourse, interpretation, and assessment are failing us or that they’re tools that we desperately need to engage more scrupulously?

MR:  That’s a question for Gwen Ifill (RIP GWEN!) maybe, but sure, I think people’s inability to actually think clearly and critically is endangering the lives of the rest of us. I don’t believe that if we all just wrote poems we’d be ok. I mean, Radovan Karadzic who was a Serbian general and mass murderer wrote and published avant garde poems. And children’s books! But I do believe that people are only encouraged by mass culture to think in the lamest of all possible ways.

A Portfolio of New Poems by Matthew Rohrer

Lisa Olstein is the author of four poetry collections and two books of nonfiction: Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (Copper Canyon Press 2006); Lost Alphabet (Copper Canyon Press 2009); Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press 2013), Late Empire (Copper Canyon Press 2017), Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press 2020), and Climate, a book of epistolary essays co-written with Jule Carr (Essay Press 2022). Dream Apartment, a new collection of poems, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2023. Her honors and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Lannan Residency Fellowship, Hayden Carruth Award, Pushcart Prize, Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and Writers League of Texas book award. A member of the poetry faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, she currently teaches in the New Writers Project and Michener Center for Writers MFA programs.