As a member of Rabbit is a Sphere and Everything Absent or Distorted, Robert Rutherford helped bring some of Denver's finest indie rock and pop to life. Those bands have since ceased to be, but Rutherford is still writing in the same idiom, even if the final form is a little different. Channeling some of the same angst and aggression that drove his work as a songwriter, Rutherford spent two months in near isolation writing the poems that would become Dragging Out the Old Cheer, his first poetry collection. This Saturday, December 14 at Deer Pile, the book gets its official release. Before that happens, we caught up with Rutherford to talk about how the book came to be, the role of public transportation and how he's still just an indie rock kid at heart.
Westword: For the release of your poetry book, is it safe to assume you'll be doing a reading from the material?
Robert Rutherford: [It's] kind of a reading. There's a handful of them that I've turned into songs with friends, a couple of the guys from Rabbit is a Sphere. So rather than read, we're going to perform them.
Did you sit down to write these poems as a cohesive collection, or was it just a matter of having written a bunch of poems you liked so you decided to put them together as a book?
They are related. The lion's share of them came from a little challenge I gave myself last year when I was spending a couple of months in Seattle. That was just to write a poem a day. So many of them are interrelated and there are lots of themes that repeat themselves. To be honest, when I gave myself this challenge, I was at this point where I was sort of really hating my writing and I thought that if I gave myself a challenge like that, and I knew that I was going to have plenty of time because I was there working and I had no money and only a handful of friends -- but mainly no money -- so I wasn't really doing a lot other than doing my research at the museum and riding public transportation and reading Game of Thrones. I thought that seeing as I would have a lot of time on my hands, I could, if I gave myself this challenge and just said. "I'm not going to judge them. I'm not going to think about it too much. I'm not going to edit them right now,. I'm just going to do it just to stay on my practice." So that's what I did.
I didn't pay too much attention to whether or not I was repeating myself or covering ground that I thought I might have already covered. I was just doing it, and not judging it too much while I was in the process. What ended up happening was I had sixty poems and when I got back to Denver I edited out the ones that really were honestly crap. Then I sent out the batch to a whole bunch of other artist friends, because I thought it might be fun just to use them as a way to launch some collaborations. I was reaching out to fine artists, filmmakers, comedians, musicians, other writers to see if it sparked anything. It did, and some of those collaborations came to fruition, like the music ones, and some of the fine art ones. I have some friends who just drew -- I don't want to call them responses, but they would read them and something struck something in them and they would draw.
My intent was to keep working on that and eventually put together a show that was all of these things, and more if other collaborations grew from that. Artists... they're so flaky. Time just kept passing and some of these things just sort of dragged out and weren't happening, so I said. "fuck it, I want to put it out and it will just be what it is." If any collaborations continue out of it, those will just be their own thing, but I thought it would be fun to just put it out.
Will any of that be on display at the release?
The music thing -- I'm playing with Al Scholl and Christopher Nelsen, and both of them have their own pieces that they wrote or improvised from this body of poetry, so they'll be doing their own thing also, [as well as] the pieces we created together that we'll perform.
Do you want to talk about any of the themes or motifs that we'll find in the collection?
Sure. The place where i stayed for the first half of my trip was right on Lake Washington. It was like a block away, so I spent a lot of mornings walking down around Lake Washington bird=watching and running and enjoying the cool weather. A lot of themes -- the most prevalent themes, that repeat themselves throughout the book -- are birds. Crows, osprey: There were some nesting osprey just south of where I was staying and I would see them all of the time -- gulls, owls. The poems themselves aren't necessarily about birds, but birds as metaphors and the imagery of birds plays heavily. Those are the most prevalent ones.
I was also riding the bus a lot, waiting for the bus a lot. You still do public transportation, don't you?
Not a lot since my daughter was born, but all the time before that.
So you know that the world of public transportation is filled with many splendors. I love to people-watch, so I wrote a lot of poetry about people that I would see in bus stations, or drunk on the street, or drunk on the bus. I wrote a lot about people in transit, moving between things.
Stylistically, what was your approach?
Most of the poems are very short. Because I was doing it every day and I wasn't trying to write "Howl" or anything, they're really short, free-form portraits or tone poems. Without all of the fucking around with the shape of the words themselves, they're probably close to like ee cummings. One of the people who edited it said he saw some Bukowski in there, which I don't know if I agree with 100 percent, other than the loneliness and drunkenness and depravity that's in there. Stylistically I don't know if it's there. I rip off plenty of people -- ee cummings. Denis Johnson is someone I read a lot.
You have a background in music and some of the poems are adapted as songs already. Is there an element of rock lyricism in the material?
Yes. I think so, for sure. There's lot of references to music in the poetry. There's lots of references to dancing. I think the lyricist in me definitely shines through in the poems. I think it's evident in the poems. That all sort of fed into it. When the bands broke up -- part of the reason Rabbit is a Sphere broke up was I thought that my well had run dry, with that experience. I was coming off this crisis of not being able to write in that environment any more. I felt like I couldn't write songs anymore, so I was trying to do everything that I could to find if I still had anything left in me. Even though the rock lyricist is evident in the poems, I think that it comes from not feeling like a rock lyricist any more. Does that make sense?
It does. Obviously different things take different approaches, but there's a common core, right?
Yeah, it's still your voice, regardless of what you write, right?
After you play, you'll be around to talk about the work I assume?
Yeah, I'll be the guy in the turtleneck.
How very poet-like of you
[Laughs.] Yeah, I'll have my beret, my turtleneck ... my tattered copy of Espinoza and Song of Myself. I'll be there, ready to mingle.
For people that are mostly familiar with your work via your bands, what would you say to get them to come out and check this out?
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I joke about the beret and the turtleneck, but the whole reason I'm not just doing a straight reading is because I recognize that may turn people off, and that the idea of poetry itself may turn people off. I don't know what to say to those people other than, "I'm sorry for you" [laughs]. But at least with this show, I'm trying to do something that's a little bit outside of the norm. I think what makes it interesting is it's not slam poetry, by design. I think that is rooted in its own aesthetic. Nor is it going to be a straight recitation. There's going to be noise and loud instruments and the same sort of whiny, affected, aggressive indie rock stuff that everybody seems to love in their art.