Matt Longabucco: Interview with Matthew Rohrer  

  & Joshua Beckman

I saw Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman write poems together on stage twice—once at the beginning of the tour for their book, Nice Hat. Thanks., and once at the end. The first location was the St. George Poetry Festival on Staten Island, an event which Beckman organized. The second location was at the offices of their mutual publisher, Verse Press, in Florence, Massachusetts. In between, they traveled the country, surviving hostile audiences, unrestrained adulation, and the flipping over of their truck. They also brought many people who expected a straight poetry reading a unique performance of wit, chance, and poetic personality.

Beginning with a topic suggested by the audience, they improvise a poem, word by word—Beckman says a word, then Rohrer says a word, then Beckman says a word, etc.—or in some cases line by line. They say punctuation—“period”—and even elongate words, as in “friend,” “ly,” “er.” This was the way they wrote their book, but the tour itself produced several books’ worth of new collaborative poems (many of which can be found, along with a diary of the tour, at versepress.org).

The poems in Nice Hat. Thanks. carry within themselves the tensions of their making, the friction of not just a mind divided in itself but of two minds tugging language back and forth between them. When the poems are very short the effect can be that of a brief, highly charged meeting, out on the street or in a crowd, between one willful consciousness and another. In “Staying out all night/they came to a ravine/where it was morning,” those consciousnesses bring nothing less than the turning horizon of the earth to each other’s attention. In “America wins/every time/a bird dies,” they exchange, like spies trading passwords, a tired piety for its necessary punchline. As the poems grow in length over the course of the book, it is as if these initial sallies have given way to an extended duel, or dance, or analysis, or climb to where the air is thin and the partners can communicate only by hand signals and telepathy. The book ends with a “Note on Process,” itself written one word at a time, in which the collaborative voice asks: “Why did we write this together? The park is full of people who talk without recording it. We have a problem.”

I met Matthew and Joshua last December at bar bes in Park Slope, where they were awaiting the arrival of some friends from Slovenia (poets Gregor Podlogar and Primos Cucnik) and of Verse editor Matthew Zapruder, for whom Joshua had bought a classic Ouija board to celebrate Zapruder’s winning of the Merrill fellowship. Rohrer was also awaiting the birth of his first child, within the week.

Matthew Rohrer is the poetry editor of Fence magazine, and the author of A Hummock in the Malookas (a1994 National Poetry Series Winner), and Satellite. Joshua Beckman’s books are Things Are Happening (first winner of the APR/Honickman first book prize) and Something I Expected to Be Different. He has translated poems by Tomaz Salamun, to whom his book with Rohrer is dedicated.

PBQ
Have people collaborated in exactly the way that you did? What was the genesis?

ROHRER
Maybe not exactly in the way we did—although it’s certainly possible and we just never found out about it—but we came to it through things other people had done. There’s absolutely no question that this was all inspired by things that were out there. Predominantly, Kenneth Koch and Allen Ginsberg had done something, and I got a book a long time ago of a transcription of this thing they had done. Weirdly he [Joshua] had a recording but not the book, and I had a book but not the recording, so we pieced that together. And a lot of the people we love to read, like Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, a lot of New York School people, had done collaborations, so that was our idea. But we got going with the tape recorder searching for a form that fit us—we literally tried sonnets, villanelles, all that stuff—and it didn’t work. The form we finally came to, that we used most often, was just word by word, and I feel like that was something we came to by ourselves.

BECKMAN
Yeah, and we also did a lot of other weird forms. We ended up doing a lot of forms like the haiku and the tonka. And then we made other forms.

ROHRER
We would give ourselves rules…

BECKMAN
Like, ABCA…

ROHRER
Yeah, there would be a match, like the first line and the last line would be the same. We’d have to get in and out using the first and last lines.

BECKMAN
And we did tons of different ones; we’d just make them up, we’d do them once, and be like, Oh my God this is terrible. Or we’d try some other ones and do them for a while; there were some we just stuck with. We really liked the two-line poem—I say a line, he says a line, that’s it. He says a line, I say a line.

The thing is, a lot of times people are saying, Wow, no one’s ever done this before—and that’s absurd. It’s just absurd. We have a full century of interesting experimentation, and way before that too, but I think when you’re doing something improvisationally, yeah, no one’s done anything like it before. That’s what every person who’s doing something improvisationally can say. And that excitement that people have in their response, it gets dehistoricized, just because they got to say what the topic was, and it’s like that’s their break from everything that’s come before. I’m going to guess that there’s similar things—improv comedy and stuff like that—but we’re two very specific people, we are who we are, and we’re doing it in a particular way, and that makes it a new endeavor.

PBQ
That leads me to my next question. You have that “Note on Process” in Nice Hat. Thanks., where you say that “our method turned us into another guy.” What happened to you during the process? Did you have desires that got frustrated? Hearing you guys do it a couple of times, I realized that everyone in the audience always has the next word in their head, and they already know where they would want it to go. But then that doesn’t happen. Did you guys find a way to complement one another, and in general what was it like to do this?

BECKMAN
I think that frustration kept going the entire time. In a way we did become another guy, in that the frustration would sometimes fade away, and what would be there is some groove, some thing that we had gotten into together and that we were able to push forward. Not unlike the way that you’d push a poem forward on your own. On the other hand, that tension was always there.

ROHRER
A lot of the time, that was what kept us going—the idea of trying to one-up the other guy. There were definitely those situations, like he just said, of getting in a groove, feeling like we were both going in the same direction—which felt really amazing—but then a lot of the inspiration, and a lot of the good stuff, came from trying to outsmart the other person, or just trying to destroy everything they said, and trying to sink it every time. And that kind of exchange became really vibrant. Up to the end—we’d been doing this for over a month—well, that was just the tour, we’d been doing it for five months, several times a week, and on the tour we’d been doing it for several hours a day, every day—and up to the end it was exciting, and that was all because there was constant play.

BECKMAN
And the further it went, the more that frustrating each other happened, and the better we got at it. There no longer could be, “End of sentence.” A lot of times at the beginning, we’d use punctuation very aggressively to frustrate what the other one was saying, but then that wouldn’t do it, we’d just keep rolling it, because we were so used to it. So then it would be suffixes and prefixes—even though it goes linearly, you turn the end of what someone says into the prefix of another word. And we found other ways of frustrating it. The more that happened, the more interesting and better it got for us.

ROHRER
What it did for me personally as a writer was really liberating, because you had to give up. I feel like giving up is the thing that’s impossible to teach but is the thing you have to learn to do. To just have to give up after every word is something so astounding. You learn to write a poem, and you like the title, and it has a line in it that you like, but ultimately you have to throw it away. You learn to do that, but learning to just give up after every word is really eye-opening. That’s trickled back into my own work, and made me feel much less precious about everything.

BECKMAN
We both were writing like crazy during the time that we were writing these poems, for this very reason.

PBQ
Writing your own poems?

BECKMAN
Oh yeah. We both wrote a lot. Separate from what we were writing. I would say if we were just doing the thing together, we probably wrote more than we’ve ever done, and then get rid of all of that, separately it was probably the most productive time for both of us, ever. It was because of that, that you’d get to the end of a poem and be like, Okay, that was really fun, let’s do another one. And that’s not really the way that either of us are used to dealing with poems. Writing them and being in that space is incredibly liberating.

PBQ
Do you feel like you actually figured out something about syntax? Just hearing the way that a sentence can happen?

ROHRER
Obviously, you write word by word, that’s how you have to write. But I think you notice that you actually tend to write phrase by phrase. Going word by word forces us to look at writing in its most atomic structure—unless we were doing it letter by letter, which maybe we’ll do next (LAUGHTER). But other than that, this is probably the closest way you could analyze it, and the thing that happens is not just paying careful attention to words, but realizing the little tropes you always rely on, yourself, and the little tricks you always fall back on. Those are the things that are so hard to recognize in yourself, and those are usually the things that plague a writer. Here you had to say it out loud, in front of an audience, and you also knew that Joshua had been next to you for a month, hearing you. And you would let him down. I didn’t want to let him down by doing the same thing. I think writers are more than happy to let themselves down, because its easy—you always fall back on your tropes. And yet I was unable to let him down. I felt occasionally you [Joshua] got backed into a corner, or I got backed into a corner and felt I had to do something that he knew was coming. I felt ashamed (LAUGHTER). That has helped me in my own writing, because now I think about those tropes more carefully.

BECKMAN
That fear makes you break them. Before you know them, you don’t even know how to break them. I agree—finding them, and figuring them out, is so difficult because they’re pretty deeply rooted, and they’re very close to the things that you aspire to in poetry. So to hear yourself… I have this image—You [Matthew] give me a word, and I go for exactly what I’d go for. You’d be like, You knew Joshua would say that. So I wouldn’t let myself do it, and I’d have to do something almost as intuitive. That was amazing, because you’ve got a whole crowd there, and you have to do it very quickly. So it’s not like you think so hard that you do the opposite, which is basically like doing the same thing. You have to do something intuitive. For every time we were up there and said something that was trite, or said something that was so obviously “something we would say,” there were other times that we forced ourselves… Also, we say very different things. So we forced ourselves: I would say something that he would say, and he would do the same. Getting ripped out of that groove is really important, and I don’t think we understood that that’s what would happen. There’s a thing that happens when you try experimentation. When you experiment in any way, it’s an attempt to find and destroy those things; but this wasn’t an explicit attempt, and it turned out to be great.

ROHRER
The only explicit thing I remember was you asking me if I wanted to go out to Coney Island and record some poems. That was the last explicit instruction I was given, and that was April, before our tour in October.

BECKMAN
Even the “Note on Process”—that was really written one word at a time, and almost completely unedited, as is the whole book. So it was great, once we got rolling, maybe a month-and-a-half or two months in, it was like, Wow, should we talk about this? And we were like, No, let’s keep doing it, we’re having fun, there’s no need to talk about it. We really didn’t talk about it, actually, until after the book came out and we were on tour, and people would ask us questions, and then we responded.

PBQ
When you’re talking about the things you gave up, and aspire to, and the kind of poems you write… Joshua, your poems are long…

BECKMAN
Well, they used to be…

PBQ
Well, maybe that they used to be is what’s important. I guess I’m wondering, if you’re improvising, it seems like there’s a limited amount you can hold in your brain and know where you are…

ROHRER
Some of the ones we ended up doing were long, longer than any poem I’ve ever written, personally. We did…

BECKMAN
…hours…

ROHRER
We did one in a car driving through Oregon that took over an hour. It wouldn’t take you that long to read it—it’s probably two-and-a-half pages—but we started pushing to see how much you could keep in your mind, and ultimately that was an interesting exercise too, because there is a limit to how much you can keep in your mind, and we would find ourselves falling back on things to reinvigorate the poem. That particular Oregon poem—we decided we would write a poem about each state we passed through on the tour, which ended up being about 21 states—I kept saying the word “Oregon” when we felt like we were getting lost in that poem, which is a fairly un-subtle trick to keep the poem going. Nevertheless, every long poem has its tricks to keep itself going, so it was just interesting to see that working, because when you have to say that out loud in front of a partner you can’t hide it.

But maybe the question you were going to ask is about the fact that these poems, which were written by “another guy,” are kind of short. They seem nothing like his poems, and even though they’re short like mine they seem nothing like my poems, I never would have written those poems.

BECKMAN
That was one of the most exciting moments for me, was seeing a line that I liked. I saw this line, this really long line, a longer line than either of us would write, and I was like, Neither of us would write this line, and I like it. We both liked it, that was really exciting. The other thing I should say is that we went to the far end of writing a poem that took more than an hour, one word at a time—granted it wasn’t huge pagewise—but then we also wrote poems that were one word. That was the minimum, because someone would say a word and the other one could say, End of poem. We did get that; we had a few in that series that were only one word. Regardless of specific size, regardless of what it is that we hold to in different ways, we used this; we really took advantage of how much time we had together, how many readings we gave, to use it to try every possible thing you could think of. Granted, if we were still on tour we would still be thinking of them. That’s the nature of the project, it’s actually really generative like that.

PBQ
What’s it like going on a poetry tour these days? You did meet Malkmus…

THEY RESPOND WORD BY WORD
We met a rock star who wasn’t friendlier than the whiskey was. We met many British-seeming musicians. They haven’t experienced their own wonderful poets and it hurts. Traveling through this country happened accidentally. People. Food fed us. We bought the bottle one cannot ever return. Robin’s eggs sitting in their nests.

ROHRER
That’s not a complete answer.

BECKMAN
Part of the answer is that that was really slow and not so together. The answer to the question, What was it like on tour, was about…

ROHRER
…fifty times faster…

BECKMAN
…fifty times faster and more in tune than that, and that was one of the amazing things was, God, we were so… We read in this bar, the second-to-last day of the tour, and we were just boom boom boom boom boom boom. And it was more than just the speed—we were in tune, we were ready to bounce off the tension of things, we were excited by the tension of it, and just having done it every day… We did it almost every day, for like two months. Doing it every day in that space was kind of great.

ROHRER
But it also was shocking to people to find out that we were poets on tour. We met the guys from Pavement, and they were surprised that poets could be on tour. And then my childhood hero Robin Hitchcock, he couldn’t believe we were poets on tour, wanted to know who was backing it, if we were selling “merch” (LAUGHTER). People were pleasantly surprised, and they sort of liked it, I think. It was yet another poetry reading, but here was one by some guys who happened to be driving around on a very strict tour, and that might have added something to it.

BECKMAN
The performance aspect is obvious when you see us back and forth, but the performance is way bigger than that.

ROHRER
The performance is all across the country. The tour itself is the performance.

BECKMAN
Right, and even more than that, maybe. When we very first started—the first reading we gave—we hand-typed chapbooks, and hand-typed broadsides, and made in into this thing. Since that point we were just part of this thing we were trying to get involved in. People would e-mail us almost every single day after the reading, and it would always go something like, Hey guys, it was nice meeting you, we got so drunk after your reading we all did that thing you guys do.

ROHRER
After every reading we got that e-mail, which is great…

BECKMAN
…as part of the performance, in the same way that us driving 300 miles to read at a bar in Tuscaloosa is fairly performative.

ROHRER
So many dry counties…

BECKMAN
That was interesting. Even that’s part of it, and then other people doing stuff is part of it, them yelling stuff out is part of it, so it just seemed to get bigger and bigger in that respect.

PBQ
I remember getting drunk with some friends and trying that, too, after the second time I saw you read.

ROHRER
It’s addictive, we couldn’t stop doing it.

BECKMAN
I know, I just want to keep doing it again. We’ve done it now a few times, on tour. We were in Athens—we met Robin Hitchcock, you just said—and afterwards we were in such a good mood, and a ton of people came to the reading, and we got brought out to this fancy dinner, and we ended up writing a poem word by word for the cook. It was just part of how things go. Tonight, two friends are coming from Slovenia, who haven’t actually heard us do it, but have read the book. So Matthew was saying, we have to do a performance tonight for them, and that possibility is amazing—all of a sudden to regain this thing that poetry has been about forever, which is, You can do it whenever you want. The economy of it…not commerce, but the sense that…well, I was going to say with a pad and a pen, but we don’t even need either of those, we just do it with absolutely nothing, we just need another person for this.

ROHRER
Another interesting thing—this is one of those creepy coincidences—is that prior to this, Joshua and I had both been separately interested in Asian writing, specifically Chinese poems by Cold Mountain, he had started reading haiku by Basho and others, I had written some American-type haiku. We had both come to that almost separately, and were sharing our interest in that. For me, because I wasn’t aware of this, it was a separate thing, and then we started our collaboration. But later it came back in a circle, when I had done more reading and learned that this is exactly how these haiku people did these things. Of course, Basho would write his own haiku, but then they would come together for these, basically, conferences, and they would try to outdo each other. Then at night, they would drink a lot of wine and do collaborative haiku, or collaborative tonka, or collaborative renga. They would do these big cyclical poems, and they would pass it around the table as long as they could, and the idea was to see how long you could keep it going, see if someone could actually ruin it—all the things that we were doing. It was an interesting culmination of these two interests we had.

BECMAN
The way of being social was connected to that, to Cold Mountain and Basho—those were the people we were both reading. He was reading a lot more Cold Mountain, I was reading a lot more Basho, we were both reading a lot of other stuff in Japanese and Chinese traditions. Those things are about being social in a very different way. Even Basho’s poems—it’s really funny, you read some of those longer things: a haiku, a haiku, a prose section in one of the diaries, and then a haiku, and then you see the little note which is like, “By some other guy who was drinking with us last night.” It’s not even one of Basho’s haikus, but, We were at a snow-watching party and this guy said this, and I’m just gonna say it because it’s part of this communal poetry.

PBQ
I keep thinking about that “Note on Process,” and how you put it at the end of your book. And I was thinking about the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” and Whitman’s preface, and how those obviously come at the beginning. But they’re manifestoes. Now the thing that you guys are saying—is there a manifesto here for poetry culture? Is there something about a social aspect, a collaborative aspect, that you guys feel is happening—maybe not, but either is happening, or isn’t happening?

BECKMAN
I guess we might say it differently on this, but I think that we didn’t feel—okay, we might say something different but I’ll use “we” anyhow, we’ve gotten good like that (LAUGHTER)—we didn’t feel comfortable making a manifesto, but we did feel comfortable living a manifesto. Saying, This is what people should do, this is how it has to happen, is probably a lot of what we’re fighting against. It seems like you’re asking something somewhat political—about an idea of poetry community and how to view it, and that, like all the stuff we’ve talked about, works against things we don’t like within the poetry community. Instead of writing some big manifesto about how things should change, or why poetry matters, we just tried to make matters better.

ROHRER
We got into an interesting conversation, and it was a thing I’d never thought about before, which seems sort of embarrassing. We were in Portland, having a conversation after one of our readings with some other writers, and they were talking about this idea of community, and Joshua brought up a point which I thought was very important, which is that in many, or maybe almost all cases of poetries in specific communities—you think of, say, the dadaists, or the surrealists, or Black Mountain, or the beats, or the New York School—these groups of poetry that are described in schools or even geographical ways… Most of the stuff couldn’t be written had there not been that community. It was written for the community, within the community, bouncing off the community. That was something I never really thought about before, but I’ve come to find it’s really true with us. I have a new manuscript, which is dedicated to Joshua because it’s what we wrote—I mean what I wrote (LAUGHTER)—on my own during our collaborations, but was a kind of sub-conversation with what we were doing, and things we’d been talking about, and with Chinese poetry, and with collaboration and all of that.

PBQ
I wanted to ask you about independent projects, if that’s something you want to talk about. I was wondering if the St. George Festival is going to be annual.

BECKMAN
The first annual St. George thing is a one-time deal. It was an incredible amount of work. It was really fun, I was happy with it, I felt like it was successful, and my life can’t accommodate another one. Also, we went to something that was really fun a few years before that, which was the Big Small Press Fest in Amherst, and I think the first instinct when something good happens is to do it again, and that doesn’t make any sense necessarily. Because the whole impetus for a lot of good things that happen is that they haven’t happened before, so you want to do them. So then to follow that up with something that has happened recently doesn’t follow. I know for a fact that we’d get at least double the amount of people, and that falls into this weird way of thinking, and I don’t think that’s productive. There are a bunch of people who spend a lot of time talking about poetry to each other, and I sort of organized this version of it, and I’m certain that something like this will happen again somewhere—best case scenario, someone else does it real soon; worst case scenario, if no one does it, I’ll do it eventually.

ROHRER
There was a weird sense that it was almost the same crowd at the Big Small Press Fest in Amherst and the St. George. You see different people at each one, but it seemed like there was a core group of the same people there. It wasn’t explicit, but it just happened, and you got the sense that this could be a nice traveling happening. It could happen somewhere else next; I’m sure the same type of people would show up.

BECKMAN
I don’t know who exactly they are. But I’m really happy recently. I moved to New York a bunch of years ago. I was here for two years, literally went to at least, no exaggeration, at least two poetry readings a week, usually three or four. I was just like, I’m going to the big city, I’m gonna see all the poetry, I’m gonna meet all the poets, and it was like wah wah waaaah… It just crashed. I didn’t really feel any sense of community, any interest in that stuff. Recently I’ve been feeling a lot more of that. Someone pointed out to me right before we went on tour…maybe it was right when we got back, because I had to re-sign my lease, and I was all depressed because I don’t have the money to. I was like, Oh, maybe I should leave New York, and this and that, and they’re like, Wait, you just got exactly what you’ve always wanted. Which is a community that’s vibrant enough that it can create something for you, individually for you, that you couldn’t have done on your own. And that was writing this book, going on this tour, continued discussions. Right now it’s the two of us, but there are other people, for both of us, who are part of those things. For me that’s something that I’ve always wanted.

PBQ
Is a lot of that community around a group of journals?

ROHRER
I think they help us meet people, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the way it started. Maybe, I don’t know. There’s no question that, for instance, the Big Small Press Fest brought a bunch of people that were affiliated with this small group of journals. It was great to meet new people in that way—it helps to do that—but maybe it was 50/50, it could be that this certain type of people that we respond to go to those journals, too. The thing that I would want to add to that idea of community is that there are many poetic communities in New York (sometimes they would never know that each other exist), but I also like the idea that there’s a community that’s not necessarily geographical. There are young Slovenian poets who are coming to visit us tonight, who we have intellectual poetic exchanges with. We have people in Minneapolis—people all over—that have this community, and we come together every so often, but we don’t even need to necessarily. We saw some of them on tour, or we write letters to them…

BECKMAN
Like, Noelle Kocot is someone who I know is in both of our minds a lot.

ROHRER
I feel like I’m writing with her in mind a lot, yet I rarely see her and she lives in Ohio.

BECKMAN
The one thing though… I want to say, No to the journals, I want to say, No, it isn’t really the journals that are bringing us together, the journals are somewhere around and we’re interested in some of them and we get excited about some of them. But the truth is, we met through our publisher, basically. We had met once before, briefly…

ROHRER
…through a party at my journal…

BECKMAN
Exactly, so we did really meet through Fence first, and then through Verse, so it would be sort of wrong to not recognize that.

ROHRER
And to be fair (I’ll speak less about Fence because Fence as a journal publishes so many more people), but to be fair to Verse, I think Verse and Matthew Zapruder want to choose people who are sort of a community for Verse. He doesn’t obviously just randomly pick books; he picked our two books, and we had never met, but he thought they would be appropriate for Verse, and we’d be perfect for each other.

PBQ
Can I get you guys to write me a poem?

ROHRER
Of course. You’ve got to give us a topic, though.

PBQ
I’ve got one. “Desert warfare.”

BECKMAN
“Desert Warfare.”

ROHRER
Okay, can I start it?

BECKMAN
Please.

Rommel Has Tanks That Cannot Reckon

Rommel woke up early and turned to his bedouin lover and cried:
If the reason for all bloodshed is truly God, then why won’t he call?
Sheathed in doubt he proceeded towards Dakar.
Sanded glass threw itself down.
Today Baghdad is brightened with its own sand glare.
Yesterday on Baghdad’s primary artery there appeared a camel
quietly instructing another camel on ways to defy hunger.
Listen, heathens, you must follow these camels’ leads into peaceful hills.
Fighters from Missouri believed in God.
Those bombs believed that alluring particles drew themselves into patterns magically.
Dunes forgotten by the people were rising.
Tanks quietly rusted and disintegrated within the first year.
Rommel turned over and dreamed heathens away,
and heathens went away.
Today there will be giant dunes drinking happily.
If blood can flow it can.
It lasted forever.
It spilled another’s infidel and cried.
It’s asking barbaric questions of us.
Sanded wood believes in time.
There’s blood that tanks can’t destroy.
The questionable presidential ideal isn’t even.
It’s knowing how to spend.



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