Playing It Cool: An Interview with Poet Michael Robbins

July 10, 2012   •   By Ameni Rozsa

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 life, when I was a kid — I just dodge the question. I'd never be snarky about their interest, which is genuine, but unless you're familiar with contemporary poetry my answer's not going to make a whole lot of sense.

I don't think I had much experience at all with poetry before I found Yeats. I'm sure we'd read some in school, and I'd read, you know, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein as a child, but my really deep encounters with words on a poetic level came through pop music. I remember listening to my 8-track cassette of Sgt. Pepper's and thinking about what it meant to know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. "I read the news today, oh boy" seemed very deep and haunting, but I couldn't tell why. Most of the lyrics I pondered weren't at the Beatles' level, of course: I was a kid, I listened to whatever was on the radio — Asia, Alan Parsons, Journey, Def Leppard. But also Prince, Madonna. And my dad would play Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, John Prine. I have a very vivid memory of him sitting in the living room just blasting "Cowgirl in the Sand," listening, as it seemed to me, intently. Poetry, I don't know, no one read poetry in my house when I was growing up.

AR: In that case it seems striking to me that your first experience with poetry was auralyou heard a character reciting a poem on TV. You didn’t see some poor verse spread across a textbook, exhaustively footnoted and bristling with diacritical marks. You heard it, and related it naturally to music, which you already understood how to enjoy. Obviously music remains a passion of yours — it’s ever-present in your poems, interviews, and tweets. Did you ever consider pursuing it, even privately?

MR: Did I! It was all I dreamed of from the time I discovered music — my mother bought me my first record, Shaun Cassidy, when I was five — until I realized in high school that I didn't have the chops. I can play guitar very desultorily and I have relative pitch, but my musical career is limited to a stint with a bar band in Mexico when I was in my early twenties. The guitarist was in love with my sister.

AR: Sounds traumatic. Did you sing?

MR: Yup.

AR: So, at this point, how far were you down the path toward thinking of yourself as a poet? I'm assuming you were writing poems, but what was the level of self-identification? Was writing poems just a thing you did? Or did you have a real notion that you wanted that to be your vocation?

MR: This was during college. My sister and I were staying with my first poetry teacher, Lorna Dee Cervantes. I thought of myself as a poet, but I was a terrible poet. Then and for many long years afterward. I met an Italian girl in Mexico and traveled to Italy to see her the next summer. I wrote poems about her that appeared here and there — Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, Seattle Review. But I beg you not to try to find them. I was under the sway of the Spanish surrealists, writing shitty poems about, like, putting the president in a boxcar full of wolverines. I had this notion that a real poet would get into a knife fight in Barcelona, that sort of thing. I was an idiot. I was a terrible poet and a total idiot, for a long time. Some would say I'm still the first, but I'm pretty sure I'm not an idiot any more.

AR: It seems to me that in some sense your poems still boast a certain population of both wolverines & presidents. But I’m assuming you didn’t think you were a terrible poet at the time. Moreover, you were getting feedback from legitimate poets and from literary magazines that must have at least made you feel you’d been assigned “potential.” So was there ever a period where you considered other options?

MR: Oh, sure. By my early thirties, I think I'd stopped believing I was going to succeed as a poet. It'd been years since I'd had a poem accepted anywhere, and I could tell that what I'd written up to that point was no good. It was indifferent, middling work. I knew that I didn't really know what to do as a poet. I could write semi-competent poems in a couple of different period styles, but they were exercises, nothing more. I continued to write for myself, but I was concentrating on becoming a critic — I'd entered the doctoral program at the University of Chicago and started reviewing poetry for Chicago Review, where I eventually served for a time as contributing editor. It was really because of two people — Srikanth Reddy and Oren Izenberg, both then at the University of Chicago — that I decided to knuckle down and try to be a poet again, for real this time. I showed them some of my middling attempts, and they were both honest and supportive. I remember the first poem I wrote that I thought was good. It's called "Self-titled.” I was 35 years old, had written hundreds of poems, and was only now beginning to feel like I knew what I was doing. More important, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew the sorts of poems I wanted to write and how to write them.

AR: Do you feel like knowing what to "do" in your poems — and how to do it — was a revelation in the work itself? Or was there a shift in you that allowed something to happen with the work that was different? It's possible this question attempts to parse things out in a manner that isn't quite right... I guess what I'm trying to suss out is whether you had to get out of your own way, either personally or stylistically, in order for that poem to emerge.

MR: It's not as simple as this, but if you wanted a quick, easy answer to that question, I could say: Robert Lowell, Frederick Seidel, Paul Muldoon. I was reading deeply in them for my dissertation, and they helped me to realize that I already had what I needed. I had ego, hip-hop, and bile. A lot of contemporary poetry is made up of these boring sentence fragments, language deformed to highlight its alien nature. I had been half-heartedly playing with such fragments, sort of post-Language-poetry lyric-hybrid things. I could name a hundred exemplars, but who needs the grief? Those poems are easy to write: they're easy to write badly, and they're easy to write well. Reading them makes me feel like a cough drop.

Seidel made me realize I could trash all that, I could write poems that were fun for me to write, and I could offend whomever I wanted. Muldoon is a master course in rhyme. And Lowell — well, it's ridiculous how undervalued he is. But time will sort it out. Lowell's the vulture in the tree watching us crawl toward the next watering hole. He'll pick our carcasses clean.

And all three can teach you about the self in poetry, if you're willing to listen, which a lot of younger poets aren't. There's this dumb assumption in the poetic field that the self is only a bourgeois illusion, that if you write in propria persona (or pretend to, even!) you're a reactionary who doesn't understand how ideology works. But I'm interested in the way a more or less autobiographical poetic self can become the locus of a set of problems posed by selfhood.

Obviously Alien vs. Predator is not autobiographical in the way, say, Life Studies is. But I'm dealing with myself in those poems, working out things for myself about myself, in a sort of twisted way. And reading the poets I mention allowed me to go ahead and use the materials I already had because, as Heidegger puts it, "I am always somehow acquainted with myself."

AR: One of my favorite things about these poems is that someone obviously had a lot of fun writing them. As artifacts of the pleasure of process, I might argue they're a sort of pure autobiography, if not a literal one. At the same time that hardly matters, because they're so fun to read. They function to somehow reinstate the possibility of private joy among the chain stores and in the echolalia of commercial culture. But you were already looking to Muldoon’s work for inspiration and instruction; it must have been an awesome feeling to have him pick your work out of The New Yorker slush pile. That was 2009. Can you talk about that, and where you were in terms of this book at that time?

MR: Well, that's not the whole story. Briefly, I'd written to him to ask a question about one of his poems, he wrote back, I asked if he'd look at some of my poems, he said they were smart, and asked to see more. This was all before he was named poetry editor of The New Yorker, but when he was, I thought there was a chance he'd notice my submissions. So it's bit misleading to say I was just plucked from the slush pile. He rejected the first batch I sent in. "Alien vs. Predator" was in the second batch. Then he took "Lust for Life" from the third. Since then, by the way, he's rejected everything I've submitted, like ten rejections in a row. He always writes a nice note with the rejections, and I certainly don't mind: no one's promised The New Yorker, and anyway, who cares.

But that was validation in spades, yeah. Getting a poem in The New Yorker, seeing it in that font, dealing with the fact-checkers ... it's a trip, I won't deny it. I don't see any point in playing it cool, you know? I was tickled as punch. I told everyone I've ever met. I cried. And then to get a second one accepted almost immediately? No fucking way am I playing it cool.

There are people who think publishing in The New Yorker is selling out (but not when Rae Armantrout does it; love Rae, by the way); there are people who think I'm a narcissist for refusing to affect false modesty. Fuck 'em.

AR: And now it's three years later, you just turned 40, your first book of poetry is out, and for the past few days it's been one of the bestselling books of poetry in the country. This feels a little post-winning-touchdown-interview, but I'm asking in earnest: what does that feel like?

MR: It's actually been the bestselling poetry book in the country for the past few days, and that correction is all the evidence you need of how cool I'm playing it. It feels terrific, of course. It's a little scary what a review in the [New York] Times can do. But it mainly just feels weird. It's surreal. I certainly never expected it. Anyway, who knows how long it will keep selling like this. And it's a book of poetry — we're not talking Franzen-level sales here. And you know: sales, as if I'm making a lot of money off this. For me it's about readers. I refuse to be upset that lots of people want to read my book. I certainly don't agree with the way it's been positioned by some reviewers as "poetry for people who don't read poetry," but I'm not going to write a thesis about it.

Some of us really do hate it when our friends become successful. It's interesting to learn who will remind you that Billy Collins and Mary Oliver are bestsellers, as if you'd forgotten. But I have nothing to complain about. I feel — I guess the word is blessed.

AR: Not to request the thesis you just said you weren’t going to write, but is your objection to that angle — “poetry for people who don’t read poetry” — the possible implication that your work isn’t also for people who do read poetry? Or do you question what your work offers to non-poetry-readers?

MR: Well, I think people have described it in those terms both because of its engagement with popular culture and because of its aggressive affect. First, neither of those aspects is what I think is most notable about the work. Second, lots of poetry engages with popular culture and has a bad attitude. So a few people have attacked the book for not being unique in those respects, as if I ever claimed it were. I do think that one thing people are responding to is the particular combination of popular culture, affect, and craft that my poems evince, but I'm not going to talk about why I think my poems are good.

AR: On the subject of "good" – you’re still reviewing poetry, too. Do you think you'll continue to do that? Now that those poetry sales have made you so wealthy and powerful, that is —

MR: I will continue to review poetry, yeah. I'm very, very good at it, and I enjoy it. But I reviewed Marilynne Robinson's When I Was a Child I Read Books for The New York Observer a while ago, and I'd like to review more nonfiction, since that's mainly what I'm interested in these days.

AR: It's interesting to read your nonfiction alongside your poetry. It's equally aggressive, but confounds, say, that Times reviewer's suggestion that you aren't "particularly soulful.” Or that you don't have much to say. Is the affect we find in AvP what we should expect to keep seeing from you, or is it changing as you undertake new work? It seems like, under the circumstances, you might have a new set of autobiographical concerns at hand.

MR: "Everything I do is carefully planned," says Inspector Clouseau. But I have been writing poems that, while not dissimilar from those in AvP, are less defended and less defensive. I don't want to be known as the guy who writes funny poems about rap, although as my pal Zach Baron said to me, "There's a lot to be said for being known as 'the guy who ....’” I'm at work on a new manuscript, and it only started coming together once I decided not to worry about whether I was writing AvP2. If that's what I need to write, I'll write it. But oddly, once I got rid of that concern, the poems started coming more easily, and they allowed themselves to be more autobiographical — and slightly melancholy, I guess.

AR: Interesting. Is that, like, the long-pursued Legitimacy conferring courage?

MR: No, it doesn't take courage to write poems. Unless you're Akhmatova or someone. It's just being bored, not wanting to get stuck.

AR: I never assigned you a third Labor. Any final thoughts or obsessions you would like to share with the world at this time?

MR: Current obsessions...I was out to dinner with my friend Andrew Milward, the fiction professor here at Southern Mississippi. He's written a great short-story collection called The Agriculture Hall of Fame that everyone should go buy. Now, he'd told me a few times about his cousin, a guy who's written for GQ, the Times Magazine, Paris Review. I'd sort of nodded, half-listening. So we're at dinner, we're talking about what's stupidly called "creative nonfiction.” We talk about DFW, John D'Agata, Annie Dillard. And I say, "But you know who you gotta read, just the best writer in America for my money, is John Jeremiah Sullivan.” Andrew rolls his eyes and says, "You mean my cousin?"

I'm just an evangelist for Sullivan right now. That man can sing. I haven't felt this way about a writer since I read Michael Herr's Dispatches. Sullivan could write about anything and I'd read it. David Grann, too — I read every word he writes. But Grann’s definitely a reporter, a journalist. Sullivan, to me, is the American writer right now, in any genre. I'd put him up there with Herr, Didion, McPhee, Dillard, DFW. I think he's a horse. He's staring us down.

AR: So, concurrent to this interview, you’ve been cleaning out your apartment in preparation for a return to Chicago. Is there nothing you will secretly miss about Hattiesburg, Mississippi? Not even its mystical Best Buys?

MR: There is a homeless guy who sometimes sleeps on the bench outside the restaurant next door, whose loudspeakers play music softly through the night. He is mentally ill, and occasionally, at three or four in the morning, I'll awaken to the sound of him yelling and conducting arguments and discussions with imagined interlocutors. At first it pissed me off, but I've grown used to it, and even come to find it soothing. Mine is the only apartment on the street, so it's just him and me in the Mississippi night, no one else around. Except for the people in his head. I won't really miss him or anything else about Hattiesburg except for a few friends, but I hope he'll be okay.


Recommended Reads: