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Word perfect
Two poets take it one word at a time
BY NINA MACLAUGHLIN

The key to the collaborative poems of Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman is that they put one word in front of another ó itís just that neither one of them gets to do so consecutively. Speaking out loud, the two take turns contributing a single word at a time, back and forth, to painstakingly construct their unrehearsed, improvised verse. A year ago, they published Nice Hat. Thanks. (Verse Press), a 60-page book of their collaborations, culled from thousands of tape-recorded poems. They followed the publication with a 25-city tour, gamboling around the country, asking audiences to suggest topics, and coming up with poems on the spot. They recorded the tour, and created a CD, Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (Verse Press), compressing 40 hours of material into 55 minutes of the finest results. A small-scale tour in support of Adventures lands them at the Enormous Room on Sunday, November 16, with Both lit mag editor and Certainly, Sir singer Michael Andor Brodeur, as part of the new Enormous Poets series.

Rohrer and Beckman, both award-winning poets on their own, met a couple of years ago at a publication party. They started hanging out and talked about how to bring poetry to their down time. "We started walking around New York City," explains Rohrer. "Weíd take a tape recorder with us, and just improvise back and forth." These improv poetry strolls "got addictive," says Rohrer. "Once we got into a groove, we were churning out literally thousands of poems." And these poems, both in Nice Hat and Adventures, are striking and lyrical, sometimes beguiling and subtly humorous. Nice Hat opens with a number of two-liners. "I fell at the party./Iím still at the party" goes one. "An empty car/full of cheerleaders," is another. Playfulness permeates both process and verse, but neither feel silly. "Pageant Girls," a series of three-line poems from Adventures, is darker: "The sunny side of Louisville/crawled out from under/three inches of make-up." Their collaborations lack the too-typical arch seriousness of (bad) poetry, and Rohrer repeatedly refers to what he and Beckman do as exciting. It is.

Rohrer talks of the process as a game. He and Beckman became adept at anticipating what word was coming next, but "what kept it fresh," says Rohrer, "is that we got better at trying to confound each other." At first they tossed words back and forth, then included punctuation and suffixes, "and that added a whole new level of play," Rohrer says. But thereís a delicate balance between throwing the other person off and destroying the poem. "We definitely try to one up each other," says Rohrer, "but if a poem fails, we both fail."

And Rohrer admits that the poems do sometimes fail. "But thatís the excitement of doing it live," he says. "The audience gets to see the real clunkers, the ones that donít work out." When Beckman says a word, instead of responding in a free association way with another single word, Rohrer has "an instant flash of the structure of the poem," and he starts it down that path with his next word choice. "Sometimes itís destroyed," he says, "but sometimes we get in the groove and move in the same direction." But itís when "we end up somewhere where neither of us expected to go ó that makes us feel like weíve done something."

Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman appear at 6 p.m. at the Enormous Room, 567 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square. Admission is free. For more information call (617) 491-5599, or visit www.versepress.org

 


Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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