A Conversation with Matthew Rohrer
BY HEIDI SEABORN
Not that long ago, on an Adroit Journal Editorial call, we were debating a poet’s work, and one of the Poetry Editors said, “It’s kinda Matthew Rohrer-like in the very best sense,” which then led to a discussion on what that meant and how great Rohrer is. So, I thought I’d be cool and actually call him up and talk to him about his new book, The Sky Contains the Plans (Wave Books, April 2020). I admit to having an ‘in’ since he’s one of my MFA advisors, but he’s also one of those rare poets who is happy sliding below the radar.
Reading The Sky Contains the Plans, one realizes it is very ‘Rohrer’ only in that it is unique, unlike anything he’s written before or like anything anyone has written before. The first poem in the collection, “EVERYBODY’S RELATION TO CHANGE IN THE SACK” serves as an invitation to enter into a surreal world “where the bodies sleep / in a dream I had / I saw Time turning everything yellow / I saw many other things of wonder.” Each poem becomes a thing of wonder and curiosity. I had the sensation that the poems were being written just seconds before I read them, and that poet and reader are both launched on the same journey of discovery. The following short poem encapsulates that experience of following close on the heels of Rohrer—as the reader is cast adrift with the speaker.
HE SEEMS LOST
TO A PARTISAN GIRL.
a civilization beneath the waves
each evening. He drifts
across the water
in a low boat with no expression.
Yet, Rohrer has carefully constructed poems that appear to float along the surface but conceal entire universes. An image dropped between two ideas creates a whole story. The personification of a block of cheese cuts to the heart of our greatest fears. These are poems that seduce with simplicity and surprise with complexity. The first line of every poem is the title and sets the tone, often the shape and rhythm of the poem, but not necessarily the narrative which lilts and tilts in various directions, like a pinball machine. The language is beautiful, with surprising and evocative images, yet the logic is off. If you’ve seen Richard Linklater’s extraordinary film, Waking Life, you’ll know what I mean. Kind of like dreams.
And dreams they are, fabricated out of the near asleep and the very awake mind of Matthew Rohrer. These poems puzzle, amuse, and sometimes irritate. They seep beneath your skin. You want to read The Sky Contains the Plans before you go to sleep. You want to read it when you wake up, instead of the news. You want its unreality to be your new reality because, well, reality sucks these days.
In this issue, we are publishing two poems from Rohrer’s The Sky Contains the Plans: “I ONLY SMOKE CIGARETTES/ON YOUR ROTATION” and “IF YOU EAT THIS COOKIE/I WON’T LET YOU INTO PARADISE.” Enjoy this little taste, my conversation with Rohrer, while sleeping, while walking, while writing as much as humanly possible and then throwing most of it away. Seriously.
Heidi Seaborn, Interviewer: Matt, I’ve had the great fortune to read your brand-new book, The Sky Contains the Plans. Which is your eighth, ninth collection?
Matthew Rohrer, Poet: It’s my tenth book. If you don’t count the little chapbooks or the collaborative, privately published book that I did with Joshua (Beckman) and Anthony (McCann).
HS: Wow, that’s impressive. Given it’s your tenth book, one would expect you to be in a creative groove. Yet each of your collections is so different, and this one is totally distinct—fresh and ground-breaking—which invites the obvious question: What’s your writing process like that you’re able to surprise constantly? It seems that the Matt Rohrer style is that there isn’t a ‘Matt Rohrer’ style.
MR: Thank you for noticing. I try really hard to do that; I don’t want the books to be the same and it’s something that I consciously do. A couple months ago I was giving a reading with a friend and he said to me that the organizer was trying to figure out who should accompany him in the reading and mentioned, “Well, there’s Matt Rohrer, he’s a minimalist.”
Given that my last book was a 240-page poem [The Others], I don’t think I’m really minimalist. I do try, very consciously, to have each book be very different. Joshua Beckman set me on this path. His books are radically different. It’s part of his practice, it’s just a given for him and it rubbed off on me. I write a lot of… Oh, I don’t know if I want to use this word, but I guess I write a lot of project-based poems. This book is an example of that. It’s very much a contained, distinct project. Even my other books, in way that may be even secretive or visible only to me, are little formal projects. It just seems inexcusable to have the same book come out over and over again.
HS: And requires, in the case of The Sky Contains the Plans, a whole different writing process, right? Can you describe exactly how you wrote these poems?
MR: Sure. When you’re falling asleep, your mind enters this in-between state where you’re not quite asleep but you feel you’re dreaming, and I think most people hear voices or sounds, some people see images. But apparently that’s less common. That state between sleeping and waking is called the hypnagogic state. I became fascinated by how you sort of lose control of your body and your mind, and begin to hear voices and you think, “What was that?” I began paying attention to the voices and the phrases and sentences I heard, and realized they were weird—and not weird in a dreamy way or surreal; they were sort of boring. In fact, they were mostly boring. Even tacky phrases I would never think to use. I decided to start writing down these mundane, boring voices and phrases. I got the idea to write down 100 of them. I trained myself to do that at night, falling asleep with a notebook in my hand, then waking up when I heard them. My plan was to get 100 of them and then they would become the first line of a hundred poems.
It took more than 100 nights, nearly a year. Often, I would forget them or wake up in the morning and find them, but I couldn’t read my handwriting. At one point, my wife noticed that I’m falling asleep with a notebook, and thought, “Oh, Matt’s working on some project.” And then one day, the notebook is laying open and in this insane late-night scrawl it just says, “Seahorses are awesome.” And she said to me, “This is your job? This is what you’re doing?” But it seemed incredibly important at the time to write down “seahorses are awesome.” And actually, for a long, long time that was going to be the title of the book.
HS: That’s funny. When you were a kid, did you have a recurring dream?
MR: Oh yeah, and I still do, to some degree. I still dream of the same places that I go to in my dreams, and actually Joshua and I were talking one time and we realized we think we go to the same bar at night in our dreams. I was trying to convince him that we should meet up there some night.
HS: Are you serious? This sounds very Sci-Fi. You and Joshua Beckman meeting in a bar. In your dreams. In a dream bar. But is it your dream selves of your real selves?
MR: I don’t know. It’s all fun. Since these weren’t actually dreams but these sort of dreamy voices, I had more freedom when it came to make the poems. I got to invent dreams. I guess more than half of the poems that made it into the book are just absolutely made-up situations.
HS: Did you see any patterns as you started to look at these and then evolve them into poems?
MR: I think they were just so random. The patterns that emerge in the book come from my daily experience. There are a whole bunch of passages about spiders, and I realize that I wrote those on this weeklong camping trip where there were lots of spiders on the tent. But the voices just come so quickly, and it’s not like you’re delivered one per evening. I mean, they’re just a cacophony, and it was all I could do to sort of hear one, to pull one thread out from the huge cacophony. I can’t find any rhyme or reason to it.
HS: You’ve accumulated this stack of first lines. When did you start writing? And how did that progress?
MS: I waited until I had a hundred of them, and then I felt some pressure that I had taken this huge task upon myself, and I thought this is going to be hard. But it turns out it all came out very quickly, and I think the writing of it took much less time than the collecting of the lines. I probably wrote all 100 poems in a few months. That’s not to say it was easy. The challenge was that I had to use the line, even if it was dumb or literally didn’t make sense. I let the lines dictate the form or the rhythm of the poem. For example, if the line was only three words long, every line in the poem only had three words in it. Or if it had a very long, loping rhythm, I would make every line of the poem have that rhythm. When I got to the end of the 100 lines, I knew I was done, which is not how you feel with writing in general. You’re always writing, but this one was done, so I completed it and put it on the back burner for a while. Nearly ten years.
HS: During all that time that it was on the back burner, would you open it up, poke at it, chisel around or?
MR: Yeah. I was torn, because the idea of the project, I think, is very fraught and interesting and promising and generative but also limiting. I set out to do 100—that’s an obviously nice round number. Do I keep all 100 because it’s 100, or do I want only good ones? So, a lot of the poking over the years was just going back and, in the sober light of day, saying, “Is this one really good?” It was sad because there were a lot with lines that I thought were great but the poem didn’t work and, ultimately, I ended up getting rid of those that weren’t strong enough. But I kept this manuscript alive all those years by reading aloud from it. It was very fun to read out loud and it was a thing that the audience could catch right away, and so that kept it alive for me.
HS: In this world we live in, there’s this great urgency to publish. The idea of resisting that impulse and to put a manuscript away for a while and let it gestate is unusual.
MR: I agree about the rush to publish. And feel that it is not always a great idea. I think marinating things is sometimes really important. At the point that I finished this manuscript, I had some books out so I didn’t feel that urgency, and I also write a lot. I write all the time, so I had loads of poems to work through. And I just kept writing. And the manuscripts just kept getting bigger and bigger.
HS: You’ve included an essay on collaboration at the end of The Sky Contains the Plans. You have done a lot of collaboration—could you talk about that?
MR: In thinking about the hypnagogic project, I realized it was a form of collaboration with these other voices. And I’ve collaborated with Joshua Beckman, where we walked around New York City, recording literally thousands of poems. That became a book, and then we went on a tour and we did those on stage for people: they would call out topics and we would write instantaneous, improv poetry. So that’s a more classic form of collaboration.
HS: You close the essay with a comment that the joy of writing this book was writing a lot of poems, and just writing. We’ve talked in the past about how damn fun it is to just write, and you write a lot. That’s a lot of joy.
MR: It’s funny because just last night I said to my grad students, “Don’t you remember when you first got interested in writing that it was really fun? That’s why you did it?” We start writing because it is joyful, it’s an experience that is full of glee, and I want my students to recapture that in different ways. But I see, especially in grad students, that pressure to be published or win some big fellowship, and so it becomes much more goal-oriented. And that just seems like the death of fun for sure and often the death of writing. And there’s a product-oriented, almost branding idea around poets to find your voice, find your thing, that’s the thing you do, and that by branding yourself, you’ll stand out and people will follow you on Twitter and so on. That’s probably true to some degree, but I feel like then that’s what you do and you’re done. That seems sad to me.
HS: You appear to be the opposite of that. You are constantly pushing things, you never get into a comfort zone. Would you say that’s true?
MR: Well, we all like to be in our comfort zone, and there are types of poems I find myself writing. And then I have to put the brakes on and think, nope, I’ve done this already. Let’s try something else. I just keep writing. That’s the thing, the more you write, the more you write. And it’s less precious in some ways. Sitting down to write one poem a month would be so frightening—you’re going to mess up that piece of paper. But if you’ve written 20 poems that day, I mean that’s a lot, but let’s say you’d written 20 poems that day, your 21st poem is not going to be so precious.
HS: What about revision? Do you love revision too?
MR: I don’t revise, really. My revision style is to just throw the poems away. Because I write so much. In that hypothetic situation where I write 20 poems in a day, I’m not afraid to keep revisiting the same image even in those 20 poems, so I’ll reuse them, because I know that at the end of the day 18 or 19 of them will be thrown away. I will try to fix poems, especially if I like them, but if they’re giving me too much trouble, I’ll just start another one.
HS: You end the essay in The Sky Contains the Plans with, “I am just laying out my weaknesses as a poet. Another weakness I have is I will try anything.” What have you tried and failed at?
MR: You name it, I mean everything. I feel grateful that this strange experiment with an epic poem [The Others] didn’t seem to fail. It could have easily failed and there were moments when I was putting it together that it did seem like a failure, so I’m glad that one worked. But I’ve tried any form you can think of, and lots of political poems have failed. I like to include politics in my poems just because it’s something on my mind every moment of every day. But the ones that are more overt, I think for me, those often fail. So yeah, I have failed at all kinds of poems. But I just keep trying new things.
HS: Yes, and you can always revise. Or in your case, just throw them out and keep going.
MR: Well here’s the thing that I sometimes tell some of my grad students, and they get chills and they’re horrified. For my book, I think it was Destroyer and Preserver, a couple books ago, (and I know this is terrible for the earth, and I wish I hadn’t done this), I needed to look at every poem between the last book and that one, so I printed out every poem. That was around 550 poems. The book is 80 pages, so it’s a lot of poems thrown away. And that’s what happened to them, they’re just thrown away. It’s not like I put them in a file for later. That’s my method. I write a ton and I’ll revisit subjects or images over and over, so hopefully the stuff I’m interested in will still come through. Even after wiping out four hundred-plus poems, there’s still going to be something left that I care about.
HS: That talks to your eye as an editor, at least in your own work. And maybe you can talk a little bit about your editing process.
MR: What works for me doesn’t really work for everybody. Students don’t often want to hear me say, “Yeah, just throw this one away.” I try not to impose that on others as much as I do on myself. There might even be some sort of strange poetical mathematics to it. If the piece has more than… I’m making this up now, but let’s say the piece has more than 60% goodness to it, then is it worth saving? Maybe it’s only the title or an image. That’s the last step before throwing a poem away. Is there an image or a line I feel strongly about that I can put into new poems or try writing new poems from them?
HS: You might be a minimalist after all, in terms of what poems you keep. But you’re just a maximalist in terms of production. What are you working on now?
MR: Right now, I have these two other manuscripts that are still open ended that I’m working on. One of them is very formally driven, with poem series that have the same form. The other one is comprised of loose poems. At the moment, I’m working on loose poems. I just want to write hundreds of poems and find a couple good ones out of them. I’ve been writing a lot as I walk. I’ll take a long walk for a couple hours just writing. This afternoon, I’m going to walk to Industry City in Brooklyn and write some poems on the way there and back. I could just take the train, but I’ll walk and write. I feel like it would be pretty funny if I get hit by a car in an intersection writing a poem, whereas millions of people are on their phones all the time and don’t get hit.
HS: Yeah, don’t do that. So, what are you reading these days?
MR: Currently, in my graduate class we’re reading stuff on the idea of dailiness—a book by Harryette Mullen that ironically she wrote while walking around L.A., called Urban Tumbleweeds. I’ve been reading a lot of Joanne Kyger again recently. She’s very interested in a daily practice of writing. And I just reread the amazing, amazing letters of Lew Welch. It’s so great. Two volumes with an incredible title, I Remain, which is I guess how he signed off on his letters. And it’s ironic since he disappeared into the woods with a pistol, and the assumption is he killed himself. It’s like reading a novel, but better than an epistolary novel because those are so fake and this is just actual letters from his whole life, starting out when he was a college kid.
HS: When you aren’t writing or reading, what are you thinking about?
MR: Well I’m trying not to think about our democracy; it’s hard to get that out of your head. Just last night I was on the train home from work and I was trying to come down after a long day of work and listen to my noise-canceling headphones on the subway, getting lost in some Tim Maia funk and soul from Brazil from 1978. I find myself dissociating into these horrifying political worm holes and needing to snap myself out. So I’m trying not to think about that, but it’s very difficult and frustrating. I’m actively thinking about the importance of family, just whatever your family is, whatever your home lifestyle is. My son’s about to go to college and that is momentous for us, but especially for him. It’s going to be incredible. You know, I remember what happened to me, it is life changing, it’s exciting. But those thoughts have been on my mind a lot and thinking about home life and pretty boring pedestrian things like that, I guess. It’s a momentous change that’s coming to the family.
HS: It is. And interesting, because when I read The Sky Contains the Plans, I see that it is very much a love letter to your family and to life, in its complicated ways.
MR: Well, I guess that is true. There are at least a handful of straight-up love poems to my wife, and there’s lots of stuff about the family and the kids. My daughter was very young at that point, probably two years old, so we had a little kid in the house—that’s very all-consuming. So yeah, that makes sense that it’s very domestic. And maybe that explains the whole genesis of it. I’m kind of the primary caregiver. I’ve never been to a residency or anything. I don’t get to leave the house. A lot of my poems are written looking out the window, honestly, because I don’t get to go many places. So that might be part of it is going inwards to dreamscapes while being a part of the domestic scene.
HS: Well, thank god you kept these poems, kept this manuscript around, and it’s now out in the world. The end result is a really remarkable, surprising collection of poems. Thank you for talking with me about how The Sky Contains the Plans came into being, your unusual, perhaps dangerous approach to writing, and revising and what’s on the mind of the minimalist/maximalist Matthew Rohrer.
MR: My pleasure.