LET'S PUT THE CHRIST back in Xbox, proposed the first Michael Robbins poem I encountered, several months ago. That compact nesting of idiom, mysticism and disposable culture felt so uncannily apt that it won me over instantly. In late April, Robbins’s first collection of poetry, Alien vs. Predator, debuted in book stores, a tight little number packed with the shiny squares of the 24-hour-media mirror ball: Al Jazeera to Ghostface Killah, Care Bears to Red Bulls. Since then it’s hit the nation’s bestseller lists, its brash tone and savvy rhythms eliciting the affections of reviewers while also enticing the sweet young things on Tumblr. But AvP offers its readers more than broadcast babble. With a firm handle on the traditional elements of poetic craft, Robbins steers us through the absurd and holy spectacle of here and now: our church fundraisers and our AA meetings, the sweet incantations of our Starbucks cashiers. He riffs — sometimes obscenely — on beloved moments of the canon. He wonders, What the fuck?
Robbins and I chatted by email as he packed up his apartment in preparation to move back to Chicago. We talked about his sudden fame and lengthier failure, his ambivalence about being dubbed a non-poets’ poet, and his yet-unrealized yearning for knife fights.
AR: So as you know, I’m a tremendous admirer of your work, but we’ve also never met, so with your permission I’ll compensate by assuming an overly familiar and vaguely abusive tone. I’d like to begin by asking you to perform three Labors. The first is to explain your poetry as if you were speaking to my mom. The second is to explain your poetry as if to a not-terribly-precocious adolescent male from a U.S. demographic of your choice. The third I’ll come up with while you are busy with the first two.
MR: Well, you're not going to like this answer, but I would never attempt to explain my poetry to your mother or to an adolescent male or to anyone else, really. It’s just not something I'm interested in doing. If you have to explain your poetry to someone, one of you is doing something wrong.
AR: No, no; point taken. I was actually just imagining a conversation with someone who had not read your work. Like, some nice lady at a wedding says with genuine interest, "Oh, what sort of stuff do you write?” It's a question I think most writers dread and/or despise, but I thought your hypothetical answer to it would be of interest.
But let’s stick with your answer for a moment because, indeed, one either connects with a given poem or one does not. And yet that’s also the answer of someone who is at home — as it hardly bears pointing out most people are not — in poetry. I would like to know more about the way in which you came to be that way. You mentioned in another interview that you encountered Yeats as a teenager and that, while you didn’t understand it, you could hear it. What was your experience with poetry before that? And what happened next?
MR: Well, when people do ask me such things — not at weddings, I've only been to one wedding in my ...read more