August 2010

Ruth Tobias


An Interview with Matthew Rohrer

Random factoids about Matthew Rohrer: He loves Sachertorte, Geddy Lee, and inappropriately placed umlauts, in some order. He was on his middle-school swim team. He once wrote a whole song about bacteria. And he wore a top hat and bow tie to his senior prom.

I know because I was his date; Matt has been a dear friend of mine since puberty.†Together we survived the indignities of high school in Norman, Oklahoma -- thanks largely to fIREHOSE, Dairy Queen Blizzards, and Italo Calvinoís Italian Folktales -- and went on to become writers after studying at the University of Iowa Writerís Workshop, I a food journalist (see: Sachertorte and Blizzards), he the poet you know and love. The recipient of numerous accolades from the National Poetry Series, Pushcart Press, and others, Rohrer is the author of several books (most recently A Plate of Chicken), a tireless collaborator, and a professor in the creative writing program at NYU.

For the record, this interview was conducted by e-mail, which is for the best, because I lost ten years off my life the last time I saw my old pal due to a bottle of mezcal and a baggie full of sal de gusano (Google it). Heíll be the death of me yet -- which may be the coolest compliment you can pay a poet, right?

You and I started writing at virtually the same time, but I knew you'd outstripped me the day you wrote your mittens were "moaning at the seams," and we weren't even 18 yet. Your work has often been discussed in terms of your tendency to locate the spirit† in the inanimate world. Why do you think that is?

Thatís very funny -- I have no recollection of that line. Also I doubt I even wore mittens -- I mean, we grew up in Oklahoma. But I kind of like it, hearing it again. And I can see how it relates to my first book A Hummock in the Malookas for sure. In that book I was very interested in locating the spirit of inanimate objects. Iím not sure I will have a satisfactory explanation for why I was interested in that -- why I still am, [though] it hasnít been as big a part of my poetry since then. I think part of it is that, without believing in god, Iíve always felt there was something else much vaster going on around us, that reality as it was always described to us (especially in a conservative place like Oklahoma) didnít capture the complexity of what I felt was happening around me. So I think I imbued objects with emotions early on because I felt my emotions were so untethered and unlocatable. Iím still extremely awkward, emotionally, when Iím just talking to people. I have a wonderful ability to not hear things while theyíre being said and to tune out strong emotions from my daily life. But then my poems, especially recently, are extremely emotional. Some might even say that emotion is all that operates in them -- that that is the guiding principle.

Of course, others might say and have said otherwise -- in fact, in a review of 2005ís A Green Light in the Boston Review, you were called "a practiced ironist." How do you feel about the characterization?

Well I like ďpracticedĒ because I do work really hard at writing poems. But the other word bugs me. Because except for a handful of poems from about 15 years ago, I donít write ironic poems. I hate the way people misuse that word. And I guess I hate the way people use irony itself too. But itís a slippery slope: if you make one ironic gesture in a poem, people write the rest of the poem and book off as mere irony. Which is ridiculous, of course. And there are poets whose only tonal register is irony, and nothing is more boring, because nothing is risked. And thatís not what Iím interested in doing, especially for my last few books. I guess it makes me sad too that people say that, because it makes me think they must not actually be reading my poems anymore.

Well, I donít think youíre anything of the kind. So if you were to replace ďironistĒ with another word, what would it be?

Iím an emotionalist, I guess. Which makes me sound namby-pamby. Because people associate emotions with weakness, and with lack of clarity and with fickleness, all of that. But that, to me, seems inaccurate. Trying to nail down the exact emotion of a situation, or even of an inanimate object in a given situationÖ seems (sometimes) the most important thing to be accurate about. Everything else can be just so clinical. Like we can tell ourselves everything about the position and magnitude of our troops in the hills, or the insurgents or militant clerics, but those are just facts. It doesnít explain why what really happens happens.

Well, thatís emotion recollected in tranquility for you. If that means weíre speaking of lyric poetry, then I can make a cheap segue into the subject of music. You were a musician, specifically a bassist, before you were a poet. How would you characterize your sense of rhythm?

I love the bass because it fits my personality. When you play the bass you donít show off. Youíre not an attention hog. But youíre important. Bands without basses are a disaster. The Doors. The White Stripes. The Black Keys. Sleater-Kinney. I work hard. I donít blow my own horn. Though I used to play trumpet, remember? But I quit because playing trumpet is too showy for me. And as a bassist, you have to find a groove and keep it or the whole thing falls apart. And you can improvise a little around the groove, but the groove that emerges has to be followed. Which is kind of like writing a poem -- rather than being bossy about it and forcing something to happen, I think the best poems happen when some general nexus of rhythm and voice and sound just seems to emerge.

What music do you listen to when you write, if any? For that matter, what music do you hear when you write? What would you say is your poetic theme song or soundtrack?

Well I canít listen to music with words in English because I get distracted listening to the words. Sometimes I can listen to music with words in other languages. But mostly, I listen to this oud player named Hamza el Din. My friend Todd Hasak-Lowy is a novelist and he sent me some music that he listens to while he writes, which Iíve been doing recently: Paul Barnes and Wendy Sutter, and Max Richter. But I love the oud and Arabic music best.

I guess if I could film a movie of my poems most of the soundtracks would be rock music. Creedence. [Creedence?! Surely you jest -- RT. Nope, I love Creedence. Seriously. -- MR] I donít know -- thatís a good question. A tangential answer is this: the secret is that I always wish a poem were as emotionally direct and powerful as a rock and roll songÖ Lyrically, rock and roll doesnít have to be anything special -- itís the emotion that the music imparts to the song that takes everything to the new level. Which is why I get so tired of hearing those conversations about POETRY and LYRICS, or WHY BOB DYLAN IS (or isnít) A POET, and blah blah blah. I always think of these two amazing and amazingly emotionally resonant songs by Super Furry Animals that rely entirely on the music and not the lyrics. One is ďSlow Life,Ē where the chorus is simply ďrocks are slow life.Ē An interesting assertion. But with the music, and repeated about 30 times like they are, itís amazing. And then they have this song ďThe Man Donít Give A Fuck,Ē where basically all the song says over and over is ďThey donít give a fuck / about anybody else.Ē And itís one of the most empowering, almost tear-jerking songs I know. The power is in the music. And so when poems donít have that power, I get a little sad.

Hereís something else you were before you were a poet -- funny. Wit was and is, for me, one of the most dominant aspects of your personality. And humor, ranging from dry and satiric to exuberant and absurdist, has always been present in your work; that's obvious. These days, what do "comedy" and "tragedy" mean to you, if anything?

That's really a hard question. I do love humor in poetryÖ and when you never find it in a poet, there's something suspicious about that. And about the poet as a person. But Iím not talking about poems that are just all jokes or puns or are only funny. That's as annoying as anything else that's too much of itself. I guess I think a poem ought to be able to have both comedy and tragedy in it. That kind of emotional shift should be able to take place in a poem -- a poet should be that attuned to the way emotions can and do move. It seems more realistic than a merely tragic poem, or a merely funny oneÖ Probably most poems don't achieve this. I'm just saying we should all think they can, and operate under that assumption, even if we never can live up to it.

It was in Oklahoma and, later, at graduate school in Iowa that you were always making me laugh; you were born and went to college in Michigan; and you've lived in New York for a long time now. But one thing I don't think most people associate with your work is a strong sense of place, in the regional sense. I once had a student ask a guest to a class I was teaching if she was "a country poet or a city poet," which I thought was one of the coolest questions ever. In any case, how do you think place factors in to your work?

Well I love trees. And I think nature is great. Hooray for nature. I love to go out in it and look really carefully at it because I think you really can learn important things about life, even human, socially-constructed life, by doing that.†But if I had to answer that question about being a country poet or city poet, Iíd have to pick city poet. Because on just a basic level, so much of what goes on in my poems is about the city, and informed by living in a city. I think city living is perfect for poems. Thereís so much to see and experience. I mean, duh. Itís hard to talk about it without sounding totally obvious. But I also think that for the way I write, having so many different people and situations at hand is perfect, and I would seriously have to change the way I approach writing poems if I moved to the country. I also think living in a city is super-important, and if more people did it, weíd hear less nonsense said about minorities, about immigrants, about poverty, about ďtraditionalĒ American values and all that. Iím very happy to be raising two kids in a city. I think almost everything important thatís happened in human history has happened in cities. This is going to make me sound like an asshole but I think itís kind of a moral imperative to live in cities.

In that case, I have to ask: Despite some of the poems that have gotten special attention lately, I donít think youíd generally be characterized as a political poet. First of all, itís an easy characterization, for all the usual reasons. But all that aside, given that you seem to associate place, specifically the city, with a personal politics in the form of an integrated social awareness, how would you say politics is reflected in your work?

Uh, yikes. This seems like a huge question and even bigger answer. Iíll try to keep it focused. I think basically Iím going to say that you just answered it yourself: that I think of my work as political only really in the sense that it reflects ďa personal politics in the form of an integrated social awareness.Ē I really like that! Iím going to say that from now on. I mean, yes, I wrote a poem that said I was looking forward to watching Dick Cheney die. Which I still am. And which many people are or were, but for me still it was a personal statement. For the converse of what I think of as political in poetry, you can read the fucking ridiculously immature, or maybe actually autistic, review of the Wave political anthology that came out two years ago in Rain Taxi Review. That guy ridiculed the whole enterprise because none of the poets had ever fought in a war. I know it seems like it must have been reductio ad absurdum, but he meant it seriously, and I think the guy is just stupid. And that whole idea of politics equals statecraft or war is moronic. All politics is local and all poems (yes! Iím about to say it!) are political. As I say that I realize I do believe it. I read somewhere recently that the clearest and most accurate depiction of politics is that you are either on the side of Truth and Justice, or you are on the side of Power and Privilege, and that it is actually, sociologically impossible for anyone to be on both. So that no president, not even Obama, can truly be on the side of truth and justice. And thatís the side I want to be on, maybe because I wasnít born into the other side. And I think you can look at peopleís poems and see which side theyíre on.

On that note, tell us about the poems in your latest book in terms of recent influences (literary or otherwise).

My next book is called Destroyer and Preserver. Itís coming out from Wave next spring. I only got the title near the end -- originally Iíd wanted to call it Army of Giants, which I think is an objectively awesome title. But as I began shaping all the poems into the book, I realized lots of the poems were about states or situations that fit the line from Shelley -- things that can either be perceived as destroyers or preservers. Thereís a lot of domesticity in it, which is both a destroyer and a preserver. Thereís a lot about having kids, who are destroyers and preservers. My wife pointed out that thereís a lot of wine in it too, and I guess alcohol is a destroyer and preserver. The book still has the line ďarmy of giantsĒ in it though.

In terms of the influences, itís hard for me to see them, I think, or articulate them. But I know thereís a lot of Eileen Myles in it, especially in her sense of the line, and the movement in the poem from line to line and line to whole poem. Thereís a lot of stealing from Jon Woodwardís amazing book Rain. A little bit of the form, and a lot of just the feeling of the flow, and of the domesticity of them -- how that becomes as important a subject as anything. Or everything. I always associate his book with William Carlos Williams, who I think is my favorite poet. Because heís the most democratic. He equalizes everything. Nothing is more important than anything else in his poems. I love that about Woodward -- Myles too -- and I want my poems to be like that.

Thereís a lot of wine in it? Why is that? I mean, you drink a lot of wine, but you also drink a lot of whiskey. Of course wine and poetry have a time-honored relationship, but for you personally, what do you think wine is conveying in this book and/or at this time of your life?

Well wine is just great, isn't it? Wine makes everything better. But I guess you got me: wine just sounds more poetic than Paddy Irish Whiskey. Also I'm a huge fan of Chinese poetry -- which has been a gigantic influence on my writing for many years, and I'm always so sad to think that when Li Po talks about wine, he just means sake or millet wine. That just seems so tragic to me. So I'm both honoring his tradition by talking about wine, and incredibly thankful that it's actually wine I get to drink and not that thin rice-y crap.

Crap?! I think youíve been drinking the wrong sake. To end on a happier note, then, tell me what youíre drinking right now. Iím drinking GrŁner Veltliner, starring your favorite diacritical, the umlaut.

Sake is weak. In both senses of that word. But right now I am drinking, and I recommend everyone else also do this, Paddy Irish Whiskey. Because it is the best. And it is also only available here as a test market thing, so we really have to show them that we want it.

Fair enough. Just so long as itís not mezcal.

Ruth Tobias is a Denver-based freelance writer specializing in food, drink, and other things that make life worth living.