Matthew Rohrer, a Pushcart-Prize winning poet, received his MFA from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. Mary Oliver chose his first book of poetry, A Hummock in the Malookas, for the 1994 National Poetry Series, and his later collection, A Green Light, was shortlisted for the 2005 Griffin International Poetry Prize. He teaches in the writing program at New York University.
This interview was conducted in conjunction with Howl.
Q: What is your writing process like?
It’s – at this point – a lot like improvisation. I don’t like to sit down with an idea. I don’t really think I do that with poems. I like to watch the ideas arise on the page, in the act of writing. I never know where the poem is going to go when I start, but pretty quickly (if I’m lucky) I can see a shape it’s taking and then I can try to follow that, to help it be that. A long time ago I taught a little one-day course called THE POEM IS SMARTER THAN YOU ARE and I still believe that. I’m not saying don’t sit down purposely to write a poem about your brother or whatever, but just don’t sit down thinking you know what that poem about your brother is going to be, or even look like.
Q: How do you edit your work?
I don’t revise much when I’m writing. I feel much better if I just generate a lot of work, and keep going, and keep going, and then the revision process for me is more about looking back at what I have and seeing if anything should be kept, and also if there are things that go together. I’m always surprised when I see people belaboring their poems, editing and editing and scratching out and doing draft after draft and, essentially, I think, wasting time. Just write another one. If that one doesn’t come around after some modest attempts to fix it, maybe it’s not good. Maybe you should just write another one.
Q: What advice do you have for budding writers?
The main thing I wish someone had told me outright is to just write a lot, as I just mentioned, and not to care if each thing you do is great. That the more you write, the more strange moves you make as you write, the more exciting your poems will become. And I wish someone had told me what William Carlos Williams said: “if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem”. He doesn’t mean a poem has to be about a pleasing subject, he just means a poem, at the very least, has to be exciting and interesting and strange. Why else read them?
Q: Who are the writers you would recommend our readers to read?
There are so many wonderful books being published every year now, it’s so hard to keep up. I teach lots of different classes and in some we read old poems and in some we read only contemporary poems and in some we do both. What I remember from being a student is that, for better or worse, I responded to people who seemed more like me – at first. I came to my love, my deep love, of older poems, The Romantics, for instance, as a grown up. But I think students need to see what is going on, what people who are not that different from them are doing. Morgan Parker was a student of mine and is a good friend and I think her poems are truly amazing—they are both wholly personal and wholly artistically powerful. There’s a great anthology out recently called THE BREAKBEAT POETS which opens up what might be a new way of approaching writing for some students. I always loved Williams even as a younger student. And when you’re ready, Wordsworth, some of it, Shelley, some of it, Keats, Coleridge, some of all of that is good for your soul and separates you from the brutes who are in power.
Q: Why do you feel that poetry is your creative medium of choice?
I always knew I wanted to write but my stories were stilted and strange. Not in a good way. When I tried poetry it suddenly became clear to me that this is how I think. I think some writers think in poetry and some in prose and few writers are really truly good at both. I wrote a prose piece a while ago and a friend of mine told me it didn’t sound like me. So I think poetry is the place where I can most sound like what I want to sound like, which is myself, I guess.
Q: What is a quirk about you – as a writer – that most people wouldn’t know?
I pretty much only write lying down or walking. I write in bed, on a couch, or while taking a walk. But I hate writing in a chair, or at a desk. That seems like a job.
Q: What are your thoughts on the condition and direction of contemporary American poetry?
I think it’s amazing and vibrant and getting more and more so. The arts by definition become richer the more voices you let speak.
Q: What kind of student were you?
I was a very good student who did all of my work early, before it was due, so I could get it out of the way to do what I really wanted to do, which was read books and write.
Q: Your book, The Others, is defined as a novel-in-verse. What were some of the challenges of crafting characterizations and shaping narratives in poetic form?
It was a challenge to make it seem both like a poem and a story. I wrote it in pretty strict syllabic form (some sections with 7, some with 6 syllables, for instance.) And yet I also wanted it to be believably a story, with dialogue, and action, all of that stuff. I think it helped to have the syllabic concern there all the while, because it kept me focused very closely, very minutely on the language. The thing that scares me about prose is you can just go and go and there’s no real obvious, inherent shape to it. I like shapes. So focusing on this microscopic level of language manipulation I think kept me sharp.
Q: Do dreams influence your work?
Of course. Dreams are as important as any other kind of thinking. I’ve learned a lot of important things from dreams.