Writer and translator Matthew Rohrer is the author of nine books of poetry. Most recently, he released the novel-in-verse The Others (Wave Books, 2017), a ‘day in the life’ that feels like channel surfing through intriguing genres and eclectic styles. Throughout his poetry collections, Rohrer blends a frenzy of surreal narratives with observational realism to form something altogether unique. Additionally, Rohrer released the collaborative Nice Hat, Thanks alongside Joshua Beckman, the two of whom have provided translations for Slovenian poet Tone Skrjanec. With three new poems in the online journal The Nervous Breakdown as well as plenty of work around the corner, I spoke with Rohrer about his dreams, his writing rituals, his iTunes shuffle, his (lack of an) online presence, and more.
How has the beginning of 2019 been for you?
2019 has been fine so far. I grow weary of the cold, but I know too from recently looking back at older poems that I will grow weary of New York City’s humid summers, especially since we don’t have air conditioning in our apartment. So I sit here, shivering, waiting for the inevitable.
What's the rest of the year looking like for you? What are you currently working on?
I’ve started thinking about putting together a new book, and I’m not sure what it’s going to be. I have so many poems, and so many types. I have a book-length project based on lines that came to me in dreams, I have other book-length projects, and then just loose poems. I wrote 100 poems in January and I could keep going, but I think first I should figure out what’s going on with the enormous pile of poems just sitting there. It is also a little existentially exhausting to keep up that writing habit. I only do it because, as I recently realized, I love starting a poem, I love that energy that’s present as something starts taking shape, starts coming together seemingly out of nowhere. I’ve written more than my share of poems that get tinkered with and edited, it’s just that right now I’m not feeling that.
Your most recent book, The Others, is a novel-in-verse. When you released your first book at 24/25, did you see yourself writing novels down the road?
No! I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me.
Do you have a favorite story within The Others? Was one particularly more difficult to write than the others?
I really enjoyed writing all of it, it was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and that includes trying to write a “real” novel…I guess the story I enjoyed the most was the one about Bashful, the sci-fi story that keeps getting interrupted by the story about the haunted lighthouse. It was the story that had the least connection to any lived experience I’ve had, so that was exciting to actively imagine.
What was difficult was avoiding anachronisms. Lots of it was based on my real life experience working in publishing in the 90s, but for the book I realized I wanted to talk about people being on their mobile phones. So I had to do a lot of revisions, making the two eras make sense together.
If you can, provide a photo of your workspace or describe with words. What are some essentials while you create?
For the last few years, I’ve been mostly writing while walking around. I like the transfer of energy that happens out in public. I like my poems to be totally permeable to what the day has to offer. But when I do write at home, I have to write in bed or on the couch. I can’t write at a desk. It seems like work. And I have to be lying down when I write, or reclining.
You walk into a thrift store of endless antiques/secondhand items. What department are you gravitating towards?
I will go to the shoes. It seems maybe a little gross to buy someone else’s shoes, but I’ve had some good luck. Once, Wave hosted a big reading in Seattle at the Henry Art Gallery, and I had gone out there for the long weekend with only my New Balance sneakers. Some odd person wrote a blog about the whole event wherein he or she only commented on the poets’ shoes. They literally wrote about each reader, and what shoes they wore. I came off sounding pretty lame, with my New Balance sneakers. (As my friend Beth once said: Great, another Brooklyn dad in New Balance Sneakers). The very next day I found a pair of Doc Martens for $10 at a vintage store and bought them and still have them. I wore them today! I wish I’d had the Docs one day earlier, for the reading.
For this ongoing author interview series, I'm asking for everyone to present a writing prompt. It can be as abstract or as concrete as you please.
This is what has worked for me recently: take a sheet of paper, and fold it in half twice, so you have 8 facets. Number each of them in the top left corner. Then with it folded up so only one of the numbered pages is visible walk around town and write quickly and observationally, using what you see, hear or imagine you hear. The idea is to be permeable to all that the day has to offer. But also know that you have to finish by the time you reach the end of this folded side. You get to do this 8 times. Do them all pretty quickly. Because it’s sort of the size of a phone, try to use a lot of online language--- OMG, IRL, abbreviations like U, etc. Pretend you are texting someone about your day, how the strangeness that is each day has permeated your life at that moment. But do it with a pen on a folded piece of paper.
I recently read (and loved) your translation for Tone Skrjanec’s book Skin. Are you currently translating any poetry?
First, thank you! And then second, no, though I have worked with Tone Škrjanec on a much longer selected poems, called Victory Isn’t Possible, and someone was going to publish it, but then didn’t, and it’s still sitting there, and it’s just getting better and better the more I think about it. I love Tone’s poems and would love more English-speakers to have more of his work available to them.
Outside of your own work, who/what have you been reading recently?
I just read two amazing and amazingly exciting novels—The Twelve Lives by Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti, and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. They’re very different, but both have just an incredible sense of plot and action. I also recently read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. You have no doubt heard someone talking about it, and it is every bit as good as they told you it is.
I also recently swan-dived into Pessoa’s poems, all I could get my hands on. It surprises me that he is not better known. He’s a million times better than Eliot, for example. And he corresponded with and even met Aleister Crowley. That alone puts him alongside Yeats. And makes him totally awesome. But I think Pessoa is truly a giant like these other guys, and when I was in college I never even heard of him; no one was even talking about him.
Your email address was a bit difficult to track down. I couldn't even find it on your NYU faculty page. Additionally, you don't have a website or any social media presence. Do you prefer being off the grid? Is it a matter of cherished privacy?
You know what? You should just share my email with people on this site. I really don’t mean to be that off the grid. I don’t know why it’s so hard to find me online. I’m at email@example.com. I do hate social media though. I really do think it’s stupid. It definitely made me a much worse person, and I think even the best people out there, doing it, are doing things they shouldn’t be, saying things they wouldn’t say to someone’s face, and it’s just not necessary. It’s like a monkey fight between Type A personality monkeys. I don’t really care about privacy per se. I mean, everyone can come see me if they want, I live on the corner of East 3rd Street and Greenwood Avenue in Brooklyn. In the summer I will be sitting out on the small cement stoop in a folding chair listening to music and having a drink.
Have you had any recent dreams worth sharing?
I’m so glad you asked. I had this crazy dream awhile ago that I was walking home late at night near my daughter’s school and saw Tom Petty staggering around, wearing only a long t-shirt, and seeming disoriented. Now, I love Tom Petty more than almost any other person in the world, including some of my family. I will hear no words against Tom Petty. So in the dream I go up to him and I’m like, Tom, Tom, what’s wrong, are you ok? Knowing he’s supposed to be dead. And he says, No, I’m not feeling too good, and I help him sit down at a bus stop. He says he’s been drinking too much, so I take out my phone to call 911, but the phone has been hacked or something and all I see on the screen are little dancing icons for a plumbing supply company. And I can’t get rid of them, or get to the key pad to dial 911, and I look and Tom is shaking and starting to dissolve into pixels, and I realize he’s been a digital projection this whole time, and at this point in the dream I realize some highly organized artificial intelligence entities “epigones”—I dreamed they were called—were doing battle on a different plane, and I had stepped between them, and the one I called Tom read my data from my phone and knew I would stop to help a disheveled “Tom Petty” on the street no matter how late it was, no matter how unlikely, it knew me too well, but the other one triumphed, and I awoke, a sadder and a wiser man. The crazy thing is, I woke up and thought: what the hell is an epigone? And it’s actually kind of the right word! I must have read it somewhere years ago, I certainly don’t actively, in waking life, know what an epigone is, but it was the right word. It means a less-distinguished imitator of someone famous, usually an artist.
Toggling Spotify or iTunes (or CDs in your stereo) to shuffle, please list the first five songs to appear. Any stories/memories linked to these artists/songs?
01. “Darling Nikki” by Prince
02. “There Was A Time (I Got To Move)” by James Brown
03. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police
04. “Gee, Baby Ain’t I Good To You” by Billie Holliday
05. “Kentucky Pool” by John Hartford
These are the first 5 songs that came up in my iTunes library on shuffle. “Darling Nikki” has that arresting opening scene in the hotel lobby. James Brown is the Godfather of Soul for those who are curious. The Police were my favorite band; I used to take a photo of Sting to SuperCuts and ask them to make me look like him. I love it in Clueless when Christian asks Cher if she likes Billie Holliday and she gushes “I love him!” This John Hartford record was always played, 100% of every road trip my family took, and we took a million road trips. It’s just him, playing either guitar or fiddle, and doing clog dancing on a wooden crate that he built just for the recording. The liner notes specify: “The dancing was done on a ¾” 4x8 sheet of new grade A unfinished plywood.”
Do you have any advice for writers/poets working on their craft?
I guess I would say that reading too many of the hot new contemporary books is going to make you sound like everyone else. If you get enough distance from it, there is a Contemporary Voice that crosses barriers that would surprise you—aesthetic, racial, political. There’s an underpinning of Contemporaneity that becomes really tiring. Read something else too.
Any final thoughts / words of wisdom? Thank you so much for your time!
I appreciate your giving a platform for people to speak here. Thanks.