Commentary, Interviews

Interview // Matthew Rohrer

By Bill Carty | Associate Editor

On Wednesday, May 17, Matthew Rohrer will give a lecture at the Sorrento Hotel as part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. The event will also feature a reading from Rohrer’s new novel-in-verse, The Others, recently released by Wave Books. I spoke with Rohrer by phone from New York—Washington Square Park, to be exact, and our discussion of his lecture, new book, teaching, poems, and politics was punctuated by choppy bursts from a nearby flugelhorn.

To begin, would you speak a little about the process for the coming up with the lecture you’ll be giving at the Sorrento—“Poetry is Not a Symbol”?

At first, Matthew Zapruder asked me to be part of the Bagley Wright Lecture series, and I really didn’t want to. I have no academic training—I’m not a criticism writer, I’m not an essay writer—and the idea of producing three sizeable talks to be given in staid academic locations didn’t interest me at all.

No offense to the people that have done them—because I’ve seen some that have been great—it’s just not my cup of tea. But I did have to write this essay for my graduate students, because they were annoying me, and I was trying to get my thoughts in order. At some point, I shared it with Matthew. He said, “Why don’t you come and do a one-time talk based on the essay you sent me?” And I said yes, because I love going to Seattle.

The lecture comes out of my frustration that people treat poems as the doorway to something much bigger and greater, and the idea that poems are made of symbols, so that everything you see in a poem points to something else. And that’s crazy.

For a writer, I think this is dangerous because you stop thinking about what you’re actually writing, and the words mean less to you. For the reader, it means you’re not even reading the poem—you’re pushing past it to get to the “deeper meaning.”

In a blog post on the Bagley Wright Lecture Series webpage, you mention the idea of “wise passiveness” in Wordsworth, which reminded me of Keats’s “mellow fruitfulness.” Focusing on these aspects of the poems places emphasis on reading them as products of a particular, individual writer’s mind, and I was thinking about how that contrasted how I’d often been taught the Romantics, in which readings were totally dominated by symbolism.

That blog post came out of something I’ve been thinking about for a really long time, something that is undefinable, perhaps on purpose. Like Lorca’s duende—it doesn’t have a great definition, which is its point. Also, the Daoist idea of wu-wei, or non-action. And the third thing is, in music, the groove. You know when a song has it, but you can’t explain it to your grandma.

I think these three are the same thing. Each is about not being bossy and not trying too hard. I think that’s what Wordsworth was talking about.

In your interview with Rachel Zucker for the Commonplace podcast, you spoke of aspiring to “looseness” in your poetry—is that similar?

Absolutely. There’s the idea of not trying too hard—we’ve all read these poems where you can tell the person knew exactly what they were going to say, where they were going to, and at the end of the poem, they got there. And you watched them get there. Great job! You got exactly where you knew you were going to go.

If you’re really great you can pull that off, but otherwise, that rigidity shows through, even before you put pen to paper. I’m way more interested in reading and making poems that discover where they’re going, and you watch them get there.

I like watching people speak on the page. When you write a poem that way, there’s much more necessity for it to be a poem, rather than writing an argument that already existed, a thought you already had—you feel a certain way about slavery or tax law or whatever—and you made the poem to match that.

The other way, the looser way, makes the poem more necessary as a poem because it enacts its coming-into-being. (He said, smoking a joint…)

As a teacher, how do you encourage your students to do that?

The first step is to get them to notice the pleasures of those moments in the poem that get away from them—moments that are unusual, unruly, and surprising to them and especially the reader.

I’ll say to my students, “Maybe that’s where it ends.” Or, “Follow that direction and try to get away from your ‘grand plan’ for the poem.”

I’m teaching a class about poems and politics at the Hugo House, which comes from my desire to explore what makes a good political poem, and really not knowing myself. Often there’s an impulse to the argument—minds have been made up and audiences predetermined—before the poem has been written.

Some of your poems that I would consider to be to one degree or another political seem to resist specific argument. “Mary Wollstonecraft Traveling With Her Kids,” for instance, ends: “This calmed me down. / To stay out of the fight, / but to egg it on.”  

How have you been thinking about the intersection of poems and politics in this particular poetic/political moment?

There are obviously hundreds and hundreds of wonderful political poems out there, but many people turn away when you say “political poem.” Diatribes and screeds are obviously boring, and I think the way to make a poem interesting is to make it seem necessary: when the poet can’t help but say it, when it’s part of their world.

I have this grad student now, Jess Rizkallah—her new book is coming out soon—who is Lebanese-American. She writes these poems where something comes up—the homeland is being attacked—and you know it’s about Israel, but she never says so outright. It’s not a poem about Zionism being bad; it’s just part of the poem, and it’s so much more powerful. The students in my class love it, but I guarantee that if you said to them, “We’re going to read a political poem,” then they’d all groan.

The other day I said to somebody: if you are thinking about politics all the time, it would be crazy if it didn’t show up in your poems. That’s how I try to do it. I keep letting it come out because it’s crazy not too. If everyone knew that I was a world-famous collector of Wonder Woman figurines, and then I never wrote about Wonder Woman in my poems, that would be weird. So if you’re really passionate about politics, I think it should come out.

Are there any other poets you’ve been reading recently that do similar work?

I love Tommy Pico’s book-length poem IRL, and everything I said about my student’s poems I’d say about that book. It does a really good job of combining the personal and the political. I also really like Morgan Parker’s new book—she’s a friend of mine, and I’ve known her for a while. She has poems that are absolutely political but are 100% personal—they never feel like broad-stroke political attacks…

Which might have their place…

They do have a place, but the problem with capital “P” politics is that they are lived experience for real people, and that’s where the results are ugly. And I think Parker’s poems come from that lived place.

Let’s shift directions for a second and talk about The Others. I know you’ve collaborated in the past with different poets, directly with Joshua Beckman, and then in a different sense in Surrounded By Friends with Issa, Buson, and other poets, and I was wondering if there was a degree to which this book too is a collaboration?

I would say it’s less a collaboration with specific authors and more a collaboration with genres. It’s very indebted to sci-fi, ghost stories, Confessions of an English Opium Eater-memoir-type writing. I was thinking of a bunch of books, including Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragasso and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I think this book follows that tradition of engaging with various genres.

Because I don’t really write fiction, I needed a lot of help. I was heavily immersed in the tropes of those stories: road-trips, adventures….

In a way, The Others moves between these genres with humility. Compared to something like Ulysses, where the genres seem adapted as part of the author’s ego—with a bit of “look what I can do”—in The Others, one genre slides very naturally into the next.

That’s funny, because I really like Ulysses and have read it a few times, but I honestly wasn’t thinking of it when I did this book until Matthew Zapruder pointed out that it starts in the morning and ends at night, that it tracks this guy for a full day…

It ends up in bed too, like Ulysses.

Yeah, in retrospect no one is going to believe me that it wasn’t an influence.

Was there an initial impulse for the book?

I had a sense it would be a longer piece that began with a mundane scene juxtaposed with an escape into storytelling. I began with the scene where the main character has his ass pinched by his boss, and I wanted the character to leave that boring, soul-crushing cubicle space and disappear into this book called The Others, which is the story of two kids in Ireland, and the introduction of a ghost story. Even more damningly, they are reading Ulysses with their professor. (Obviously, I’m not disguising the influence well).

It was originally going to be about the pleasure of getting lost in a story, and I had such a fun time doing that, I thought, “Well, I guess he could go home, and on the subway, he could read another book.” Then I started seeing how porous the structure was.

I found that reading the book made me more attuned to the different stories that drift into daily life. That’s the looseness again; you’re receptive to all these stories.

When my wife read the book, she said, “Aw, this reminds me of the 90s when we’d first moved to Brooklyn and everything was a story.” That was your currency. You went over to someone’s house, you met at the bar, and you said, “What’s your story? What happened?”

And if you were lucky, you have friends with great stories. You traded them around, you told other people’s stories, you embellished them in your head. So that scene in the book when the guy Pearson comes over and tells them his ghost story, that scene reminds me of that time.

I was also thinking of the night that Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Byron, and Polidori all got together in Byron’s crazy castle and tried to scare each other with ghost stories. Mary’s story turned into Frankenstein, and Polidori’s story became a version of Dracula. Nothing turned out as well as Frankenstein, but they all could have been one manuscript. Like The Others, it could have been different people telling the different stories

Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is that exact same thing. Have you ever read his book The Castle of Crossed Destinies?

I have not.

It’s so great. I have a theory that it’s a not-so-subtle jab at literary criticism. But the setup is that it’s the medieval age and there’s a terrible storm, and the cast of typical medieval archetypes end up in this castle seeking refuge. They’ve all been struck mute by the power of the storm, for some reason—those things happened in medieval times.

So they can’t communicate, but they have a tarot deck, and one of the characters lays out six tarot cards, and Calvino tells the story based on the cards—though it’s very much embellished.

Then the next chapter is another traveler lays the cards out, and everyone reacts with surprise, and a different story begins. I’ve always loved storytelling like that.

Matthew Rohrer is the author of The Others (Wave Books, 2017), 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), and A Green Light (Verse Press, 2004), which was shortlisted for the 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize. He is also the author of Satellite (Verse Press, 2001), and co-author, with Joshua Beckman, of Nice Hat. Thanks. (Verse Press, 2002), and the audio CD Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty. He has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and The Next Big Thing. His first book, A Hummock in the Malookas, was selected for the National Poetry Series by Mary Oliver in 1994. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches at NYU.

Bill Carty has received poetry fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Artist Trust, the Richard Hugo House, the Sorting Room, and Jack Straw. He is the author of Huge Cloudy (forthcoming from Octopus Books), and his poems have recently appeared (or will soon) in the Boston Review, Ploughshares, the Iowa Review, Willow Springs, Conduit, and other journals.