“The beginning of a darkness that descends”: A Conversation with Matthew Rohrer, curated by Kristina Marie Darling

rohrer-author-photoMatthew Rohrer is the author of several books of poems, including Surrounded By Friends and the forthcoming novel-in-verse The Others, both published by Wave Books. In November 2016, I had a chance to ask Matthew a few questions about experiments with received forms, improvisation, and collaborative texts.
Kristina Marie Darling: First of all, let me just say that your books are a delight to engage with. I recently re-read A Hummock in the Malookas and was struck by the thought-provoking relationship that you construct between the poem and the book-length sequence. One piece sometimes blurs into the next, so that the reader isn’t sure where one ends and the other begins (I’m thinking in particular of “inside the egg something is laughing” and “the world just before the at ease”). I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between the individual poem and book as a whole. Which do crystalizes first for you? Does the concept drive the individual poems, or do the individual poems allow you to discover a unifying structure?

Matthew Rohrer: Thanks! The truth is the poems inform the structure, all the time. I write a lot – I write lots and lots of poems, sometimes several a day, and often they are versions of the same thing – and I don’t worry about this while I’m doing it. I know by now how it works and the way it works is I write a lot and just a few make it; so if there’s an image I really want to play around with, I won’t worry about doing it in several poems because the chances of them all making it to the final cut are super slim. I had 540 pages of poems to work with for Destroyer and Preserver but it’s only about 80 pages. So I know how few are going to be finished poems. But with that first book, there were probably more of those overlaps or lead-to-the-next-poems, as you point out, and that’s largely a product of my having written that very quickly.... that was my MFA thesis, essentially, and all of those poems were written in less than a year. So the same thing applied — I was quite taken with some images or methods of writing and just kept doing that, and sometimes they would appear in multiple poems. But for instance, with Destroyer and Preserver, I only came up with that title at the very end, as I was ordering the poems for the book. The idea was to call it Army of Giants. Which a part of me still wishes I had. But in ordering them, and seeing which ones belonged and which ones got cut, I realized there were themes of destruction and preservation... so I took that title from the end of the Shelley poem.
But I would also like to point out to readers who may be impressionable that this is not really a great way to go about it, and I am wracked with dark self hatred when I can’t write a good poem, and my day can be ruined if I sit down to write something and it fails. I feel lost, basically, and like I am back at square one. Because I’m sure you’ve had this feeling too – having written a great poem, you are happy for about 5 seconds, and then you realize it’s in the past. It’s been written. What next? For me that is the beginning of a darkness that descends and maybe that’s what keeps me going to makes me keep writing so much. But it’s unpleasant. I’m not really exaggerating that much here.

KMD: The composition process can certainly be filled with moments of darkness and uncertainty. But the strange thing is, one wouldn’t necessarily guess this by reading one of your books. There is a tremendous amount of playfulness and spontaneity in your work, and relatedly, you engage subjects that don’t usually occupy the domain of poetry. You bridge the gap between the literary and the nonliterary, closing the distance that separates high and low culture. With that in mind, what non-literary texts do you find most generative for your work? How important are distinctly non-literary texts to your writing practice?

MR: That’s a good question. I definitely am interested in trying to erase this distinction, and I think this is something that’s been happening with poetry in general over the last century at least. Anything can be the subject of a poem and anything can inspire one, and I try to broaden what I allow into my writing practice as much as possible. To answer your question though, I don’t think I have a stable of non-literary texts that are inspirations – some people for instance read about dark matter or octopuses and that gets them going. That can happen for me too but not in a thought-out way. I have kids and often the stuff they bring home from school is so strange and interesting that I find a way to get that in my poems. I also think just being open to the mundane and quotidian can be a radical act for poetry, and since much of my life is spent being intensely domestic – making breakfasts and lunches for the kids, getting them to school, helping with homework, making them practice their instruments, showers, bedtime – I think it would seem sort of weird NOT to find poetry in that.

KMD: You mentioned that “being open to the mundane and quotidian can be a radical act for poetry.” I couldn’t agree more, since commonplace subjects often lead to incredibly thought-provoking work. I wonder if this argument could be extended to form and technique, since the most familiar literary forms are easily made strange. Your work explores traditional poetic forms, such as the wonderful sonnet sequence that appears at the end of Satellite, while also undertaking wildly imaginative experiments (collaborations, invented constraints, and improvisations being merely a few examples). Could you speak about the relationship between tradition and innovation as you see it? For poets, is the new frontier finding novel ways to experiment? Or is it integrating inherited tradition and innovation?

MR: Well that’s tough. Of course I think it’s our job to innovate in whatever ways we can, and of course that means formally just as much as anything else. I’m no academic but I know enough about the history of modern poetry to know that it can be seen largely as an expansion of what is allowed to be considered poetry – both in terms of language and form.

So I avidly invent little formal structures, or make constraints for myself, as you mention. I definitely do this more than I don’t. But I also do write in iambic pentameter as you point out, or other equally formal structures, especially those imported to us from China and Japan, which I find for some reason really work for me. And I guess I’m going to go out on a limb here, since these things will last forever online, and I may be proven wrong – but I doubt poets will ever fully stray from deep-seated methods like rhyming and counting rhythms. Those things seem too archaic – maybe even part of our biological make-up – to ever really get rid of. I think we push as far away from them as we can as poets and as larger cultural movements, but then dip back into them. They’re just so satisfying, you can’t ever toss them out completely. It’d be like suggesting people overcome their love of sugar. It’s biological, like I think rhyme and rhythm are. We just need to keep updating how we engage with them. I’m not saying anything new here.

KMD: While we’re on the subject of experimentation, I’d love to hear more about your collaborative projects. How different is your creative practice when working without a co-writer? Are your single-author projects still, in some ways, collaborations? Lastly, in your estimation, is all of writing a collaborative act?

MR: I do like to say all writing is collaborative, it’s just that lots of people don’t acknowledge it. That’s a tad cheeky. But writing with Joshua was extremely mind-expanding, and obviously very different from doing my own work. I’ve said this stuff before but basically you run up against, or you shove your collaborator up against, your ticks and tropes right away and if you don’t become aware of them and work around them soon, your partner is just going to look at you funny and say “yo, what are you doing?”. So it definitely helped me very quickly assay what it was that I always did and to learn how to change that. So then, yes, taking that back to my own writing I was hopefully able to avoid some of that, at least for awhile. And then also it helped me realize that you can always collaborate with yourself if no one else is around—in other words, you can react to what you’ve just written—the last line you just wrote or even the last word – with the same insouciance that you would have if it were a collaboration partner and you were trying to mess with them, or torpedo what they’d laid down. Why not try to have that same tension and energy in your own poems, I figured? I basically learned this from Ron Padgett, when I interviewed him in 1995 about his Selected Poems. He said once he’d done collaborations with Ted Berrigan, he never wrote his own poems the same again. I didn’t really know what he meant then; it wasn’t until 2000 that I really started doing anything like collaborating in a really big way.

KMD: Your collaboration with Joshua Beckman was gracefully unified by its improvisational structure. How important is it to limit possibilities within a collaborative manuscript? What advice do you have for writers who are considering co-authoring a poetry collection?

MR: I don’t know—I guess I think the limitations are great, and important. I guess someone could just go to town and it would work. But I’ve definitely read collaborations that operate under the idea of just Woo Hoo! Let’s go crazy. And usually those are boring in their excess. But I don’t tend to like “real” poems that do that either. I think the whole thing about poems is there should be some palpable limitations they are working against.

KMD: I couldn’t agree more! The best poems are always driven by that kind of tension, what you described as a “palpable limitation they are working against.” With that in mind, I’d love hear more about your current projects. What are you working on? What can readers look forward to?

MR: Well they can look forward to my novel-in-verse or whatever called The Others which Wave is publishing in May. It’s a 240-page single poem. Sort of a Russian doll story-within-story love affair with story telling. I was inspired by The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki, and the 1001 Nights, and novels like Cloud Atlas—layered stories like that. It’s very much a narrative, I guess an epic, hopefully entertaining.

After that I’ve been working on writing poems, basically. And it’s been hard because of the rage I feel for fascists and racists during the run up to, and then upshot of, the sham election. And yes, I say “sham” because even if you don’t believe that it was hacked by Russia, poor people and people of color were turned away in record numbers, the Voting Rights Act was gutted and people’s voting rights were taken from them. That, and the fact that half of Americans didn’t vote, and he didn’t win the popular vote, so what the fuck is that supposed to be? A quarter of the nation chose a racist woman-hater. It is hard for me to write poems under these conditions, apparently. Or at least good poems. And this pisses me off because I know these assholes didn’t plan to keep me from writing poems but it IS a part of their plan to disrupt us in general and demoralize us and distract us, and they did it, so congratulations to them.

KMD: At the moment, my hope is with the Electoral College, and I know that several of the electors from Republican states have already said they’re going rogue. In the meantime, thank you for a wonderful conversation, and for taking the time to speak with me about your work!
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Descant, and elsewhere. She divides her time between the United States and Europe.