Poet with Chutzpah: Matthue Roth

Whether you’re a poet, beat-boxer, or just a plain music-loving Jewish hipster, you’re going to love this week’s Poet with Chutzpah, Matthue Roth (BTW – if you missed last week’s smokin’ poet/actress Yael Miriam, check yourself, and read/watch her now).
Matthue Roth quit his job as a tech consultant in 2001 to move to San Francisco and become a professional poet. Since then, he’s toured nationally and internationally, filmed for HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and MTV’s Rock the Vote, and played with Mos Def, Matisyahu, Deepak Chopra, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Yeah, we’re impressed.
We asked Matthue, would he consider himself a Poet with Chutzpah? His answer:

I try not to think about it — which, of course, makes me think about it in the biggest way. When I write, I try not to think about whether I’m saying something to be chutzpahdik or in-your-face or because it sounds racy or incendiary. You want to say words that are as close as you can to what’s in your head — which sometimes comes out sounding way different to different people. I’ve done the same poems for way different audiences, and grandmothers will say “Aw, that’s sweet” and punk kids will tell me, “I can’t believe you’re allowed to say that.”

Matthue calls himself a professional poet (see above), and I had to challenge him on that. I mean, what does that even mean?

When I moved to California to do poetry, I wanted to be able to write and pay my rent with it. Admittedly, I was living in a closet at the time. I had friends in graduate writing programs and friends who were poetry professors, but nobody actually read what they wrote — no one but other poets. So the idea that I walked into bars and rock clubs, did a few poems before a band played and I was able to sell some CDs to people who were like, “I don’t like poetry, but that’s pretty cool” — that’s what I think professional poetry is. Not making your money by talking about poetry, but actually doing it.

But Matthue is more than a poet, professional or not. He’s also the author of a memoir, Yom Kippur a Go-Go, and three novels, most recently the Russian Jewish geek-punk novel Losers. He’s the co-founder and co-producer (with Sarah Lefton) of a weekly animated Torah series at G-dcast.com. His screenplay 1/20 was filmed in late 2009, and is currently in post-production as a feature film. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter, and works as an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com, and he keeps a secret diary at www.matthue.com.
One of the things that I find so awesome about Matthue (and I’m only starting to get introduced to his stuff) is the way he challenges himself both poetically and Jewishly. Check out this video:


After watching that video, I asked Matthue this question. How has your poetry changed as your relationship with Judaism has changed over the years? He said:

At first, I was using shock as a language — pushing the boundaries of poems, but also what it means to be Jewish and Orthodox and Hasidic. Now I’m trying to write about other things — and think about other things, too — without losing that passion and fire. If you can write a poem about the best prayer you’ve ever said, and make it sound as hot and passionate and ecstatic as a poem about the best sex you’ve ever had, that’s the kind of writer I want to be.

I know some of you reading this are like, wow! Cool! How did he start writing? I thought the same thing. Why write poetry? I asked. And how did you start?

Dan Bern, the folksinger, once said how everyone writes as kids; most of us just stop writing at some point. I guess that growing-up self-consciousness never hit me. I try to step back and let the stories take over. Sometimes they’ll start as an image — a girl drop-kicking an attacker with a high-heeled shoe — and that’ll turn into an action novel (that’s my novel Candy in Action).Other times it’s just a moment or a feeling. Those are usually the ones that become poems, the most visceral and sudden ones.

Here’s another one of Matthue’s poems. Read it, and then if you like his stuff, check out his ridiculously cool online book sale.  Word.


When I’m around you,
I keep my cell phone on silent
my pen in my pocket
and pretend like I can color-coordinate

When I’m around you
I act like I use a knife & fork & napkin
at every meal,
even midnight snack.
Even when I’m eating pickles, Slurpees,
and Froot by the Foot

When I’m around you,
I turn your mobile to vibrate
and stick it deep in your pocket.
When I’m around you,
I stop halfway through sentences,
try to delete them and
start over again,
then forget I’m not using a typewriter until
I’ve been pressing your nose like a space bar
for five minutes.

I get seized by a brilliant idea
and press your belly button again and again
like an emergency reset.

You don’t run away.

I’m going to take that
as a good sign.

(Photo of Matthue Roth: by Daniel Sieradski)