Poetic Champions Beckman and Rohrer Compose on the Fly


In late September 2001, poets Joshua Beckman (Things Are Happening) and Matthew Rohrer (Satellite) were taking a walk around New York, when they decided to play a poetry game. They would collaborate on a poem, switching off one word at a time until it felt like they had a poem—a less competitive version of Ghost.

They had fun. They did it again. They started taping their walks, transcribing the keepers when they got home. Here are two in their entirety: “The police have come/in their little toy.” “We’re busy./We’re happy./We’re utterly pale.” They started giving readings, improvising on audience-provided subjects.

A year later, they had a book, Nice Hat. Thanks. (Verse), and a national tour; this year, they’re back on the road supporting a live CD, Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (Verse). Beckman and Rohrer offered the Voice some insight into their process.

“The hardest subjects are popular subjects, things people think are going to be funny. In Charlotte, North Carolina, ‘beer’ or ‘Britney Spears’ —people aren’t used to laughing at poetry readings, and they’re laughing when they say the topic. But we would never turn down a topic. Something seemingly random, such as ‘snowy mountain states,’ came out to be much easier to work with.”

While they’ve got their game to the point where they can produce surprising and delightful work most of the time, they enjoy pushing each other out of their comfort zones—and audiences seem to enjoy it too.

“If [the poems] didn’t crash from time to time the audience wouldn’t recognize the tension and the difficulty. It would just sound like a very slow poem being read. We get caught or challenged and there’s a pause. The listener fills that space as well, and they’re deeper into the experience of writing the poem.”


Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer Dictate Poem Over a Sputtering Cell Phone