much more interesting than this is whether or not UFOs are real: an interview with Matthew Rohrer

I feel like there’s not much I can say about Matthew Rohrer that hasn’t been said already.  He is a poet.  He is the author of several books.  He teaches at NYU.  His poems are funny and sad and familiar and strange.  There’s a liveliness in their voice and a deep reverence in their construction.  They take place outside and inside, in the city and nature, alone and with others,  somewhere where the imagination and concrete reality intersect.  Despite all of Matt’s experience and worldliness, his poems also have this remarkable ability of never seeming  “above the reader,” while at the same time never resorting to familiar tropes.  His poems always level with you and remind you what’s good about poetry.

His new book, Destroyer and Preserver, was released this year by Wave.  You can read poems from it here, here, and here.  We emailed over the past few days to talk about the new book, other people’s books, punctuation, and hurricane Irene gets a shout out too.

I want to start with a relatively surface-level observation of your poetry that this new book has revealed to me: you describe motion a lot.  And when you do so it’s in these vivid and wonderful lines like: “I move through the days remarkably sinuously” and “I glide without edges / through the rooms / like the smell of cooking” and “My love / hurtling toward me through vast subway / tunnels”.  Do you feel like you pay special attention to movement, either when writing or in everyday life?

That’s a funny question – I never would have noticed that in the poems, but I’m glad you did. Honestly I can’t say I think about that while writing them. It would be cool if I could say that I take Olson’s essay PROJECTIVE VERSE to heart and that my poems are all about forward motion, but the truth is that I love the ancient Chinese poems too much, and they’re often so static. And right now I’m hunkering down as this purported hurricane approaches so I don’t feel that considering motion is high on my list of things to do while writing. But as you noticed, there it is. Maybe it’s just that I’ve perhaps been more affected than I thought by all the years of people saying in workshops “nice verbs!”

 

This book feels like something of a departure from your previous work in that the use of punctuation is drastically reduced.  There are numerous poems in Destroyer and Preserver that have no punctuation at all, while there are only a handful of the same in Rise Up and just one (I counted) in A Green Light.  That is, your previous work, for the most part, has adhered to the sentence and this new book breaks from that.  Do you think you could talk about how your poetry has developed in this way?  Was there something you read or wrote that illuminated the possibilities of writing in a less punctuated style?  Is this something you find yourself continuing to explore in your new work?

I’m not sure it was one thing that led me to get rid of the punctuation, but lots of the poets I’ve been reading in the last few years (Eileen Myles perhaps most obviously, but also O’Hara sometimes does it, and many of the translations of Chinese poems by Red Pine and J.P. Seaton too) have had an influence. Man, the rain is really coming down now in this hurricane. OK. But the other thing is: the more I thought about it, and probably teaching workshops actually helped me notice this, the more I realized that most punctuation in poems is unnecessary. Commas could be spaces or line breaks; line breaks can replace periods, etc. Really, I wanted to think about how the line breaks (which we need) could do more of the work so that the punctuation (which we don’t need necessarily) could get out of the way. Also, though, I do like the sort of fluidity that this creates with phrases, so that sometimes, just sometimes, it’s not always clear if a phrase or line is the beginning of a thought or the end of one, or maybe both at the same time. Jon Woodward’s book RAIN was very influential in this, and also Zapruder’s poems especially beginning with the Pajamaist. His diction is crazily twisted sometimes and sometimes you can follow it out but sometimes I think he does this thing too — leaves a phrase to work as either the culmination of something or the start of something.

 

Do you think your poems have changed rhythmically as a result of doing away with unnecessary punctuation?  Do you read your poems aloud when editing them?

Yes they have changed rhythmically a little. When you move from using what are basically sentences to shorter phrases that have to work as lines also (or hopefully do), then the rhythm changes. I think it’s gotten slinkier.

 

Something that’s striking to me about these poems, despite their lack of punctuation, is their clarity.  I’m looking, for instance, at “What is More Distracting than Clouds”:

 

            Everything is more distracting than the clouds

            they are never there they move on

            no one can say remember that cloud

            we saw in college it’s still there

            let’s go see it again they walk their dogs in the park

            they see a low region surrounded by thin peaks

           

The clauses here are pretty self-evident.  This poem, and the book as a whole, is not characterized by moments of syntactical slipperiness.  There aren’t a ton of double meanings or ambiguous grammatical constructs resulting from the lack of punctuation.  There is the occasional hesitation I’d say, but nothing that leaves the reader guessing.  So I wanted to ask you: in writing these poems, did you ever write a poem with punctuation in it then remove the punctuation later; or was the absence of punctuation part of the initial conception?

Yes I definitely sometimes wrote poems with punctuation and then decided to make the line breaks do the work. I write by hand in a notebook so the line breaks that I start with are more or less arbitrary to fit the little pages, and I usually just use punctuation so I remember what I meant to say.

 

Do you find the poems come out differently when writing first drafts with or without punctuation?  That is, do you think the presence or absence of punctuation affects content at all?
I wish I could say “definitely” but if I’m being honest, I think the difference is slight. I think the absence of punctuation, if done well, like in those Merwin books from the 1970s, can produce another ghost-layer of meaning that the reader creates through his or her reading of the poem. But that’s the thing that makes it poetry or not: you could obviously punctuate Eileen Myles poems and they’d still say the same thing but not be as poetic. So does the reverse hold true? Is the removal of punctuation something that adds a kind of content— or more like a textual content? I think what’s much more interesting than this is whether or not UFOs are real.

 

I should note that not all poems in the new book are devoid of punctuation.  There are a few that are fully punctuated, and some that are only partially punctuated.  For example, “Marque Numero Dos”:

 

            But then the day got

            away from me

            holding the phone

            to my left ear for 45

            minutes para espanol

            marque numero dos

            for someone else’s appointment

            was lost or I fell

            into a hole and no one

            could see me

            pulling on my face

            or hear me screaming

            and then I just hung up

            and walked out into the blue bloom

            of love and needed to eat

            I ignored the phone

            at what peril? the rooms

            swelled a bit to fit my new silence

            and my shirts were on

            the floor. There was no one

            could touch me

            a sunny day

            is a sufficient cathedral

            though I have not finished with you

            Doctor Wong

 

I want to ask about that period.  Was it a difficult decision to put that in there, in a poem that is otherwise devoid of hard punctuated stops?

I kind of hate that period. The copy editor really got on me about that — because as you noticed, yes, that’s the only period there, and it seems a little amateurish to have to rely on it there and nowhere else. Which I struggled with. Also, to totally demystify the process, I think this was one where if I broke the line there instead of using the period then there was going to be one line continued on the next page — and really, the funniest line of the poem — the line that makes the poem what it is. So knowing that, I had to use the period. And also — I just didn’t really care THAT much. I mean, who cares about rules like that really? “You can’t just use one period!” That seems pretty artificial if using one period will make the meaning clearer.

There are these three lines at the very beginning of the book that go “the imagination thinks / in phrases but the universe / is a long sentence”.  These lines seem to function as something of an M.O. for the lack of punctuation I’ve been asking about, but also as an indication of the scope of your poems – the imagination is there, as it always is in your work, but it shares the stage somewhat equally with politics, history, nature, literature, the city, and this profound sense of domesticity and fatherhood.  Could you talk some about how you conceptualize the scope of your poems?  Do you actively work to include such a wide variety of elements?

Well, I don’t know that I actively try to do that. But I do like to think about putting a lot of different types of experiences in a poem, maybe even especially in a poem that on the surface seems meditative or overly domestic. If I actively worked to do anything like this in the poems I think I actively worked to replicate the experience of the mindset of writing the poems. I mean, sitting around, none of us are just thinking of one thing for any extended period of time. Whether that’s love or poems or why are the kids so annoying, all of these things are constantly knocked into by other thoughts: what a failure capitalism is, for example. So it seemed to me that a poem that wanted to be true to life (which is something I really want them to be, like the Lyrical Ballads or Williams’ poems) would have to include as many of these different registers of thinking as possible.

 

I noticed – and I hope I’m not calling you out or anything on this – your poems “From Mars” and “Skyward” share opening lines with Matthew Zapruder’s poem “Sad News” from his latest book.  I assume these were written with some amount of coordination?

That was a line I heard on NPR and suggested some other poets and I all use to begin a poem. His book came out first. And his title THE PAVILION OF VAGUE BLUES was one I suggested we all use — it is my mis-or half-translation of a spot in the Jardin de Atlantique in Paris. My PAVILION OF VAGUE BLUES was just a terrible poem. So yes, we (he, Joshua Beckman, Anthony McCann and Noelle Kocot and I) often do this kind of thing — come up with a title or idea or prompt and share it and see who can do it the most interestingly.  Usually it doesn’t amount to anything for any of us, but this time he and I both got poems out of this line. I guess I ended up getting two.

 

I know you guys work pretty closely together – you and Matthew and Joshua Beckman and Anthony McCann – sometimes collaborating on poems or books, but usually, it seems, reading similar things.  Could you talk about your collaborative/collective reading, if that’s an accurate description of it?

It’s just more fun to read something knowing that your friends are reading it to. Not like a book club. Just that you’re all engaged in the same kind of thinking, or are immersed in the same kind of world, together, though you live all over the country.  And with those people, if they tell me to read something, I know it’s worth reading. Joshua once raved to me about  Cowper’s THE TASK, which is a couple hundred pages long, written in the 1700s. It begins as a poem about his couch, and wanders from there. But it was Joshua so I sat down and read it.