A Talk with MATTHEW ROHRER
Highlights from Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest
Sunday, June 17, 2007
By Joel Craig
Matthew Rohrer is the author of four books of poetry. The most recent, Rise Up, has just been released by Wave Books.
Stop Smiling: Let’s talk about the free-associative imagination of many punk and indie-rock bands, and how it relates to poetry.
Matthew Rohrer: Well, for me, it was indie music, or whatever they called it in the Eighties, that got me interested in language for its own sake. I was always interested in writing. I wanted to be a sci-fi writer. Listening to Robyn Hitchcock and the Soft Boys in high school suddenly gave me an awareness of language as something that can operate slightly outside of the realm of storytelling — you know, heartbreak, the devil going down to Georgia, that kind of thing.
SS: Is free-associative the right word, or should we put it another way?
MR: I guess what you’re calling free association comes from the structure of songs — having to truncate thoughts or phrases to fit the form. When I’m writing I sometimes wish I were a songwriter, because I want that emotion in my poems. But then I remember that, for better or worse, my job is to try to replicate those feelings on the page.
SS: Someone on Amazon once called you a surrealist. Care to argue with that?
MR: When people say that, I say, “Yeah, sure, my poems have inanimate things talking, and blah blah blah.” To me surrealism is a specific movement in art history — Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, and I’m not going to claim allegiance to that. Of course, I use many of their writing techniques: dreams, automatic writing, chance, things like that. Mainly, I object to the pointless but seemingly overwhelming need everyone has to label everything.
SS: I get the impression from Rise Up that you’ve been reading a lot of the Romantic poets. Has this been ongoing or a recent rediscovery?
MR: I’ve always felt oddly drawn to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When my son was very young, things began coming back to me — especially from “Frost at Midnight,” when my apartment was cold and the winter night was howling outside the poorly sealed windows. Then about a year ago I spent an entire year reading only the Romantics — their poems and criticism, and their contemporaries.
SS: Rise Up is a loaded title. At first I read it as a call to action — to protest. But now I see it from a Romantic perspective — to live, to indulge in every moment that life brings.
MR: That’s exactly how I thought of it — I want the initial resonance of “rise up” to be violent, political, angry — that’s how I feel a lot these days, and certainly during the writing of the book. As you noticed, the book goes on to be more about rising up in one’s attentiveness, in one’s life — rising up past blindness and mediocrity to something better.