Dead Japanese poets make great collaborators

Waiting alone on the subway platform to catch a train to Brooklyn, Matthew Rohrer was thinking about how much he missed creating collaborative poetry with a particular friend, a fellow poet. In his bag was a book, “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa.”

“Maybe these guys won’t mind if I collaborate with them,” he thought.

The dead Japanese poets didn’t mind. Rohrer’s interest in collaboration comes from a tradition established by the haiku masters themselves, who would sit around and build poems together. Rohrer would select a line from the haikus, then add his own and thumb through the book to find the next line, and on and on.

He ultimately wrote 14 poems “with” Basho, Buson and Issa, which make up the third section of “Surrounded By Friends,” Rohrer’s new collection, which will be released April 7.

“You can think you know someone pretty closely,” Rohrer told Art Beat, “but then when you engage with them in something you both love and take very seriously, you absolutely see deeper into that process and come to understand them more. And I think I would humbly say that happened with me and these haiku poets.”

He intentionally chose lines from the Japanese masters that sounded more contemporary and crafted his own lines to sound more antiquated.

“When Basho and I write a poem together, I don’t really know who ‘I’ is,” he said.

Listen to Matthew Roher read “POEM WRITTEN WITH BASHO” from his new collection, “ Surrounded by Friends.”


The sound of the water jar
empties in the open graves
where the refugees live.
Because it does not touch me
near my pillow
I can sleep and dream
of the clean lines
of summer. What I thought
were faces turn out
to be elaborate plates of sweets
not this human sadness.
One or two inches above
my head until the mosquito
sticks his snout
into my dream.

From the haiku experiment, Rohrer latched on to a greater theme of collaboration with the world around him.

“I started to realize, that would be what held the book together, this idea of being in conversation,” Rohrer said. “Sometimes with famous writers and sometimes with my friends and my kids.”

Sometimes those conversations are even with inanimate objects. His opening poem asks a bicycle if it can feel the distance from home; “Le Machine Ate Himself” imagines an ATM as an indifferent frenchwoman who chomps down on the narrator’s card.

The poems are mostly brief and sparsely punctuated, but the short lines are dense with meaning. They string together his internal dialogue and overheard conversations, personal memories and references to art and history, often inspired by citylife.

“I think the city is the best place to write a poem,” he said. “Everything’s going on. And it’s happening there for you.”

As a younger poet, Rohrer resisted writing about the mundanities of daily life. “It didn’t seem like it was heroic enough subject matter,” he said.

While writing “Surrounded by Friends,” his eighth collection, he realized that the poets he respected most were writing about their daily lives — what was most immediate and powerful to them. He allowed the daily routine of walking his daughter to school to become poetic inspiration. Getting lost in a science magazine for kids led to his imagining of life as an ant.

“I realized that’s what poets do,” he said. “They write about everything that’s on their mind.”

From “Surrounded by Friends.” Copyright 2015 by Matthew Rohrer. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.