Birds Blur Together
R.M. O’Brien and Lesser Gonzalez-Alvarez are two wicked awesome Baltimore multidisciplinary artists who recently collaborated on a quiet, handsome little book of poems called Birds Blur Together (buy it for $6 here). Look at that cover—tell me it doesn’t look like something missionaries would hand out in South America? R.M., who runs the great reading series WORMS, put the 25-poem book out on his own WORMS PRESS because he can do whatever the fuck he wants to do. Like, just check out this video of his old band Nuclear Power Pants. Bob gots the beard and the stabby back.
Or, hell, for a calmer look at agitation in the woods, here’s Lesser’s “The Letter B”—he’s the yacht rocker with the watermelon.
Birds Blur Together is all collaborative poems, reminiscent of the stuff I love from Emily Kendal Frey and Zachary Schomburg’s OK, Goodnight or Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer’s Nice Hat. Thanks which are both also little books. Birds Blur Together has the same delicacy and the same obvious, though somewhat obscured, collaborative notes.
For instance, take “Love Poem”
You want me
to stop changing the subject
when you start talking
I want a car
the size of a HUMAN BEING,
a truck the size of GOD
to come together in one
CC me on that
I will shoot you an answer
in the AM
cool! awesome! thanks!
has become so melodic,
so repetitive and spare,
you think that you are a bird
and I am a bird
& we are two birds, talking
That there is one of my favorite thing about this book, the part where the bird comes in. Totally lovely, it’s almost distracting how lovely those words are, but then you go back and think about it and there’s a logical sense, too. Birds blur together. Good name for a collaboration.
The teammates are reading in Philly tonight at Magic Pictures. Below, we talk about the book and reading at rock shows and how poetry can be like a car accident.
You’ve talked about doing poetry readings at rock shows. Is that something you’re still interested in? Why or why not?
R.M.: Yeah. I like doing it, still. Doing poetry at readings where people are ready for you with open ears is more consistently satisfying, but reading at a rock show is fun and feels more like shaking your fists and shouting at the gods from the top of a mountain. It’s exhilarating in a sort of self-alienating way. Like everyone’s got these drums and guitars and half-stacks and you’ve got nothing—and probably the promoter didn’t put your name on the flyer—it feels like walking naked into a war.
Lesser: I think anything that gets poetry in the hands of people who may be intimidated by it, or may scoff at it, is a great idea.
Bob, what’s one of the weirdest things that happened when reading at a rock show?
R.M.: Hmm. In 2008 I read just before TheDeathSet and right after Monotonix at Sonar’s “club” venue in Baltimore. The bands were stopping in on the Fuck Yeah Tour. I was billed as a comedian. TheDeathSet were actually totally set up with their instruments ready to play in front of the stage. Most of the band didn’t even know I was supposed to read then. I had some friends in the audience but most everybody there (probably half high school students) absolutely did not want to hear a poem at that point in the show.
I spent several minutes shutting down hecklers and telling teenagers that if they kept talking out of turn I would put a curse on them that would prevent them from ever having sex. Then I read one very personal poem about completely destroying my life path at that point to move to Baltimore. And then I ended and TheDeathSet played.
OK, the first sentence of the book is a jab: “If anyone cared about poetry, collaboration wd be consider’d dangerous.” So why do you care?
R.M.: The first sentence is, “If anyone thought poetry was important, collaboration wd be consider’d dangerous.”
Oh, thanks. Why?
Lesser: I care about poetry because it gives me a way to record not only the things that go on around me, but my impression of them as well. When I look back I get a way more complete picture. I get a sense of me-in-the-world, and not just the world. I enjoy what happens when you bend language, and stretch the definition and usage of words to more accurately describe things (states of being, emotions, etc.) that may be lost in translation when they become words.
R.M.: I think poetry is important insofar as art is important, insofar as it’s important and powerful to hear someone talk at you and not try to sell you something. Maybe that sounds naive.
Now that I’ve misquoted your provocative statement, would you care to unpack it a little more than you do in the book?
R.M.: The first sentence was originally, “Collaborations are dangerous.” I just couldn’t let it stand unqualified. Guns are dangerous. Parents are dangerous. Religion is dangerous. Collaborations—like, one-off step-on-each-other’s-toes-type collaborations like the ones in this book—are a bit of fun that just usually turn out kinda bad. Like an NBA All-Star Game.
R.M.: It’s just so novel for these guys to be playing together—it’s such a lark—that you end up with a really high-scoring game with a bunch of goofy dunks and alley oops and no serious defense—like, it’s not really a good game. On the other hand, if you’re not using the collaboration to get a little outside yr normal program—to let go a little bit—then I don’t know why you’d do it.
Lesser: I think what it means is that poetry is already such a conscious force, and by that I mean constantly recording and comparing in order to find a kernel of truth, that two people speaking freely and without boundaries of even the self—I mean, doing what we wanted with each other’s words—starts approaching a kind of multi conscious entity. People coming together is always dangerous to those in positions of power, just look at riot-proof architecture or advertising that promotes complacency and cold independence. These devices are aimed at consumers so that they never overcome their cynicism long enough to band together under one cause, it’s a kind of population control. In my opinion poetry is quite the opposite, it makes it painfully obvious that we’re all in the same boat, wondering the same things, and that’s dangerous.
What happens in the space between “come together” and “in one” in the poem above, “Love Poem”?
Lesser: I was on the highway recently, and we drove past a terrible accident that had obviously just happened (car overturned), yet we never heard a sound or any indication of it happening. It’s like the tree falling in the woods thing, It happened, but wasn’t experienced. I think that blank spot is a good way to express that.
Can you guys take me through the collaboration on that poem?
R.M. You know, that one is actually a little more cut and dried than some of them. Lesser sent me a really long string of more or less spontaneous writing. And I plucked lines from it here and there, and changed and added whatever I wanted. (I sent something similar off to Lesser and of course he had the same kind of license.) The second stanza of “Love Poem” is found totally intact in Lesser’s original writ. I tacked on the opening stanza and called it finisht.
Lesser: I sat down and wrote some words, and then I looked over them and thought about how much was packed into them. If not enough, then I’d reword it until it seemed to contain many different possible interpretations. Then I thought about what all those interpretations shared in common, and if they had enough in common, I’d send it off to Bob. He then probably missed or picked up on some of those and took it somewhere else, somewhere I maybe wasn’t primed to take it. He re-hammered it into what it is now, so that it always seems fresh enough for me not to get tired of reading it. I think that’s the great thing about these collaborations, the fact that they’re familiar to me, yet external enough after his edits to feel as if I’m experiencing someone else’s perspective.
“Finisht,” huh? The abbreviations you use (like “whisker’d” and “I sd to myself” and “Patriotig”)—those are all you, right, Bob? Since these aren’t like the Internet poems that Melissa Broder recently reviewed, where does this antiquated (?) device come from?
Yeah those are me insofar as I decided to spell them that way. But sometimes that’s me restyling Lesser’s phrases.
Do you have a favorite poem, or one that you really keep going back to? How much of it did you write?
Lesser: I really like ‘Statues’ on page 17. I basically went down one of Bob’s poems line for line and rewrote the lines based on the impressions they left me with. Then at the end I edited I small amount, but the exciting thing is that we both worked what seems to be a pretty equal amount on it, yet it’s a completely new poem, like mashing together DNA and being left with certain familiar traits as well as all new, unexpected results.
R.M.: We didn’t really sit on these poems very long and since they include someone else’s writing, they’re still pretty interesting to me. I go back over the one that starts “Dim Shape, I have a part for you,” because I allowed myself to be so brief and sort of awkward for a moment. And I love reading the sections of Lesser’s writing. He allows himself to be really idiosyncratic, and he’s not afraid to spend a verse or two spinning his wheels or winding up or whatever is the relevant metaphor. I really linger on the lines (from “Truism”), “A stone tablet with / Truism chiseled / and that’s it”, but I don’t know exactly why.
How much of it did you write?
R.M.: I’d say it was split fifty-fifty.
R.M.: Depending on how you define writing.