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Matthew Rohrer and Ian Fishman talk about Popeye, famous poetry collaborations, and exceeding the page

Matthew Rohrer is the author of lots of books including ARMY OF GIANTS forthcoming from Wave Books. He teaches at NYU and lives in Brooklyn.

Ian and Matt correspond over five weeks at the end of summer 2023 between Europe, New England, and New York City. 

Ian Fishman: Sometimes when my mind wanders and the subject of poetic collaboration bubbles up, I often think of the very brief poem that Berrigan and Creeley once wrote. (Maybe you've got a poem in mind as well that bubbles up to the surface of your thoughts when collaboration is on the brain?) I don't think they ever wrote more than this one poem together, and if you read the poem, anyone can tell it was probably handwritten on a napkin at a bar, being passed between the two like beer. It's a great poem, and a funny one, too, I think because Berrigan and Creeley had such distinct styles, independently of one another. When you think of one of them, you never think of the other as an aesthetic contemporary. No one thinks Creeley and then thinks Berrigan, and vice versa. (Or do people??)  A line of Berrigan's that is now maybe the most repeated phrase of his in my mind –– "Now / Robert Creeley speaks:".

I love this language because of its forthrightness, its contextual directness. This exposition, for how simple it is, is the most significant turn of the poem; on its face, the poem is about a flower. Something about the here and now (even tho that here and now is past, and has ceded its place in time to subsequent heres and nows) that Berrigan commands with this small bit of language. Something about how the poem racks its focus to the room these poets were in, possibly surrounded by other poets, possibly surrounded by amphetamine or dark jazz, the clatter of glasses or an orange lamp shining through bottles of pastis and fernet. Something about the poem is a transport to the literal act of these two guys writing this one poem. Something about how that feels like the poem is letting the reader in on its secret hideaway. Something about the poem giving us whereabouts. Something about the poem points at you and grabs your shirt and says so you are here with us.

Are there any collaborative works you've come across that position themselves as secret-holders, and they're letting you, for only a brief time, see the secret?

Matthew Rohrer: I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond to this great question. I love the idea of the secret-holder collaborations, and part of my delay has been because of a secret which I fear cannot be broken. I wanted to talk about one of my favorite collaborations and certainly the most important one to me, because it was after reading this one (and then later hearing it) that the idea for collaborating with Joshua Beckman became a reality. (In short, I had a copy of the book MAKING IT UP and Joshua had the LP, so we'd both come to it separately. This book and LP came from an evening that Ginsberg and Koch did at St Mark's Church performing live, improvised collaborative poems). The poem POPEYE AND WILLIAM BLAKE FIGHT TO THE DEATH opens with what I consider a kind of secret revealed: Ginsberg's bodily obsessions and arcane knowledge come crashing out of the opening gate.  Koch asks him if he wants to start making their improvised ballad, and so Ginsberg starts incanting--

"Popeye! you represent________" and then this is where I had to pause and take so long to get back to you. He clearly says something like "Pharmus" or "Pharmists" or "Pharmis"..... or "Farmists"? –– it's a word I have spent too long looking up. It seems intuitively to make sense as a Greek root of the word pharmacy, yet it isn't really. That would be pharmakon.

But in the book, and in the very few places online where this is cited, it is transcribed as "for us" –– which is, when you listen to it, wrong.  A lazy solution. Here's the rest of the opening of this poem:

AG: (almost yelling) "Popeye! You represent [pharmists]. Only the body there, only the meat"

KK: Hey hey hey, Allen, this is a ballad.

AUDIENCE: (laughter)

A lot is funny about this. What is this word? Ginsberg was a polymath and reveled in his arcane knowledge, so it's entirely possible he knows some word that the internet does not. Also, he has no desire to rein himself in with the obligations of writing a ballad, in that meter. And Koch very drily brings him back to Earth. To me, whatever word this is (but it's not "for us"), and the gleeful rush with which he dives into this poem about the body, it's meatiness, and how Popeye is merely that, shows us a secret side of Ginsberg. Or perhaps not so secret really, but it's revealing. All that was called for was a staid, traditional ballad opening, and he came galloping out of the gate with his obsessions in both hands and his pants around his ankles.

All of this makes me think about form in collaboration. It was the key element that Beckman and I had to figure out before ours could take off. We had to find the form that worked for us; trying ballads and sonnets and such out loud was not doing it, and we nearly gave up.

I'm wondering how you find form functions for you and your collaborators? How important is it to have that structure or framework, even if it's a very loose one? How interested are you in the totally bonkers ones that turn out not to "make sense"? That might be another question.

Ideas around pharmakon I've consistently found to be enlightening for some time. I remember theory classes in college, and discussions relating to the contradictory definition of this Greek root. Something that heals and something that kills. It feels near impossible to make synonyms of these things, and yet we contend with this.

I like how you're characterizing the distinctions of approach b/w Ginsberg and Koch, and how the balance of their temperaments in the performance of Making It Up (I took my copy off the shelf before sitting down to write this this morning) created its own essence, and even provided a set of stakes for the conversation. Each of the poets were familiar with certain poetic and socio-political conventions vis a vis their backgrounds, sometimes aligning, sometimes diverging from one another. They were very alike, but they also were not.

Of course, just the presence of more than a single poet writing a poem inevitably creates certain tonal possibilities that would not have been possible if just one poet were writing. That's exciting, but it's also giving away a significant amount of control over what the work turns into. Maybe the pharmakon is a good metaphor for this somehow. In participating in collaborative writing, you're gaining a sense of perspective you can't access any other way, but you're also forfeiting the omnipotence one has by making a poem alone. I'm trying to think about how this might correspond to secrets or revelations, or if it needs to correspond at all. This has all just gotten me to thinking of the conditions of making art with others. 

It's an intimate relationship making poems with other people. Koch and Ginsberg knew each other and each other's histories quite intimately; it's obvious with how they speak together in Making It Up. It's hard writing a poem with someone who you struggle making jokes with. Maybe this is something you can speak on or have a familiarity with, or possibly your experience is different, but sometimes writing with others can be a slow experience, and what can keep the poem moving is trying to make your collaborator laugh, or trying to almost project an idea you're thinking into the brain of your collaborator. Maybe that's how secrets come into the frame of reference of my discursive reasoning after all. In a way, writing a poem with another person is like having to come up with a new secret language.

When it comes to form and collaboration, I find it sometimes intuitive and other times less so. It can be helpful to apply a metric of words per line, or other constraints like that, but it's also enjoyable to not work with any constraints and just go off to the races at the start. You and I have written sonnets on and off the past couple years. I think as we've gone further into it, I've better understood what can make a line interesting and catchy that can also be taken in an array of directions moving forward into the next line, and I think that's directly related to working within this one form again and again. Sometimes when writing poems word by word with others it's quite exciting to attempt working outside of a larger form to see what strides can be made granularly. With that kind of poetic construction, repetition and anaphora are devices I like to reutilize. Fabricated facts, hyper-specific details, ambiguous contexts, comparisons, punchlines, characters to interact with in the poem, false narrators, addresses to the reader, physically impossible situations, a nocturnal attitude and romanticism. Bonkers poems are well and good and I like them, but the collaborative poems that tend to stick with me are the ones that read seamlessly.

I'm wondering if you think that there are specific possibilities/abilities of collaborative poetry that you can't really access writing a poem alone? And where does the collaborative desire come from also? I'm asking both broadly and specifically. Do you find yourself with objectives when you write collaboratively, or are your objectives in that case different from your objectives if you were writing by yourself?

MR: When I write collaboratively, my objective is like yours I think –– I want them to read seamlessly. They don't have to make sense, but I want them to feel like a thing with individual integrity. My least favorite kinds of collaborations are the ones that are in two voices –– the ones that are responsorial, that don't even hide the two-sidedness of it. That irks me. I sometimes teach the SAINTS OF HYSTERIA anthology Soft Skull put out, and it's really a great overview of 20th century American collaboration..... but it's not all equally rewarding. Ah ha! And having just settled on that word, I realize that's what I'm interested in –– I want the experience to be rewarding for the reader. And it's not rewarding to hear that 2 dudes are writing a poem back and forth and then to have the form confirm and demonstrate that. Big deal. What's rewarding is to read a poem and feel that it is all of a piece, all spoken somehow in one gesture, despite being written by 2 people.

And I want it to be rewarding for me as a writer too, and that gets to your question, because there are definitely things we can't access on our own, and can only achieve in a collaborative mode. And ceding a little control over a thing you ostensibly have control over is extremely rewarding. I mean, unless you're a control freak. But those people amuse and sometimes scare me. But who doesn't want to take a back seat to a process now and then? And I think we're all looking for ways to increase our vocabulary, to augment our phraseology, and that's almost always best done through collaborative processes –– either what we're talking about, or collaborating with other sources like erasure, collage, things like that.

I wish you would answer your own question about where the collaborative desire comes from. I think it's probably complicated, but ultimately when I think about it it feels like a simple thing –– the desire to get outside of my own head. That, coupled with the desire to engage with another mind in a sparring sort of way.

I think for myself lots of the implicit desire to collaborate comes from a part of the self that wants to be doing something with people. That sounds like a redundancy but I don’t think it is. Essentially what I’m saying is it comes from a place of not wanting to be alone, or wanting to feel less alone. I’ve tried collaborating with many folks over the years sometimes just as a means of doing an activity together, how some might do  crosswords together. The poem is like a puzzle you have to put together together, except it’s a puzzle you have to concoct as you put it together. You create the puzzle as you complete it. So there’s that kind of intention of wanting to not be by yourself, but there’s also the kind of joy one feels releasing some of the responsibility for the entirety of the work. It’s relieving, literally. It’s almost like thank god, I would love it if you would steer this thing for a moment so I can tie my shoe and shave my face.

Let’s talk for a moment about collaborating with a text. Something I’ve been doing lately is taking poems that I love and trying to replicate them somehow. This sometimes means rewriting the poem in my words, while trying to reflect things about the form, syntax, volta, etc., of the original poem, the not-my-poem. I consider these translations of a kind, or poems that I didn’t write alone. It’s a method of writing that feels like a multifaceted collaboration; a collaboration with the poem on the page and the writer, the referents, as well as a collaboration with the self. Do you think I’m overstating the extent collaboration is involved in a practice like this? I’m genuinely curious.

MR: Not at all, I totally believe that that is collaboration, and as you know, I basically think most of what we do is actually secretly a form of collaboration. I mean, one of the first kinds of poetry I had success with (in my mind, and also in getting published) was ekphrastic poetry, which is obviously a collaboration with the artist. And what you're describing –– versions of others' poems –– that's a thing I love doing and did with haiku poets and also with Hafiz. I recognize that there can be some trepidation about this, about presuming that we as Western poets really have any business collaborating with texts from these other cultures.... but I think as long as it's done respectfully, and honestly as long as it's just done in the spirit of making poems, I think the dead poets would be super excited about it. I sure would. We all know that Bashō would love knowing that he was still collaborating with strangers he met on the road long after he'd died.

So yeah, I think it's interesting to think of some of these other practices we all do as not just being "experimental" but perhaps actually just being forms of collaboration.

I love how you describe solving the puzzle that you're both inventing, that reminds me of the description of OULIPO being rats who design the maze they attempt to escape from. I love that energy of working with another, and letting them take the wheel for a moment. I mean, we all get decision fatigue. But I think it's just as valid to think of engaging with other texts, via false translations, or erasures, or other forms of working with them, as forms of collaboration. And why not? We shouldn't be scared to admit it.

This morning, though it is now the afternoon, I am thinking about collaborations that exceed the page, collaborations that have less to do with folks necessarily collaborating on the same poem or the same story, but a form of collaboration that has to do with the dissemination of work, primarily DIY dissemination, collaboration through self-publications, collaboration as a mode of generating community, generating friendships, or an attempt to. I think what I'm trying to say or what I'm trying to point to is a method of support for the work of friends as a mode of collaboration itself, too.

Something we've talked about a lot over the last couple of years are the UMass poets and the DIY bent of the scene surrounding so much of the UMass MFA, primarily between 2005 and 2015. An example of this notion that I have been returning to lately is an old chapbook of Rachel B. Glaser's,
Heroes are so Long. It's a great chap, and Glaser is a powerful writer, but the lens I'd like to view the chap through has little to do with the work inside it, it has more to do with certain contextual bits that surround the production of it. Firstly, in the acknowledgments, peeking at the journals and mags that published the individual poems that make up the chapbook, one can see that probably 85% or more of the poems that were published before being collected in the chapbook were published in journals and mags that were run by poets contemporaneous with her in her MFA. Many of these sites and publications are defunct now, and never achieved any sort of widespread, mainstream recognition, but I find it incredibly moving that much of the initial support for the work came from, presumably, familiar places. the chap itself was a self-published endeavor; someone in Glaser's UMass circle published the chap themself. From my understanding, the covers of each chapbook (it was printed in an edition of 150 copies, I believe) were hand-designed by Glaser, each one distinct from the rest.

I think what I'm ultimately trying to get at here, is I would argue that collaboration needn't necessarily exist inside the poems (I mean it's great if that's true also!). The argument I'm trying to make is that collaboration can actually exist as a form of community, a form of wanting to support those who support you, and a form of wanting to share and highlight the work of friends. I'm wondering if this clicks and makes sense. I'm also wondering if you've had any experiences that somehow mirror or reflect this notion of collaboration as a mode of support and dissemination.

MR: Yeah I think this is a great way of thinking of it, and especially how you point out that so many of Glaser's publications came from her comrades at the program. That is truly one of the great things about the UMASS program –– that environment that just oozed collaboration on projects, on publishing, on ultimately living the life a writer needs to live, together with other writers.

And what you're describing is probably so much more common than we usually think. Even Wordsworth and Coleridge had this same situation. We all know or you know, if you take my classes you'll know that Lyrical Ballads is a collaboration, in that some of the poems are by Coleridge, most are by Wordsworth, and a few lines in RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER are by Wordsworth, and all that. But I think what you're pointing out is really the more important aspect of their collaboration: they provided, for each other, a model of enthusiasm, and they were their own tiny community, including Dorothy Wordsworth, that inspired and challenged each other for some brief but truly remarkable years. Although Coleridge wasn't helping Wordsworth write his poems, there's no question (there are dozens of books about it in fact) that it was the influence of Coleridge that pushed him to write. And you can tell, because when they fell out with each other, both of their work suffered. A lot.

In that regard the actual writing together is not really the collaboration. I think that exists all over the place, in everything from writing groups to formal workshops. And it's really the core of so many of the great literary successes we can look back on. The Romantics, the Beats, the Black Arts Movement, The Harlem Renaissance, The New York School, and on and on. That's how the work gets done.

Is that sort of where you're headed with your informal research into the UMASS scene? To suggest that it was a mass experiment in collaboration?

I think that ultimately I am reminded all of the time that much of the poetic flare of the UMass scene came along with poets who shared certain common interests, or similar thoughts about how to make poems work, and poems that were deliberately eschewing easy logic, or glitching the narrative qualities of the poem, and otherwise showcasing a certain exuberance and debauchery and humanity in the process. There's a traceable style, and maybe it goes hand in hand with something that, in its core quite likely, was occurring on an intimate scale pretty generally. A sense of freedom but maybe also a sense of care comes from this. I'm not sure it was a mass experiment in collaborating, but collaboration was certainly part of the ethos. I wonder if it comes down to the environment and the intention of the work. Small means = close friends. I think there could be something useful in replicating that intent to support those around you at a scale that's not much bigger than your life.

Matthew Rohrer is awesome.

Ian Fishman was born in Holyoke, MA. He loves you.  

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