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A Talk with MATTHEW ROHRER

Highlights from Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest

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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. 

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