After the New Yorker, a real press photo, maybe.
The poet Michael Robbins lives in Chicago, quotes both Lil Wayne and Paul Muldoon fluently, and studs his criticism with punchlines like “This sort of thing is why punk rock had to be invented.” His January 12 debut in the New Yorker, “Alien Vs. Predator,” was not exactly conventional fare for the magazine–“a poem by a young poet that is not about mourning one’s spouse by the slant of winter light on lobster bisque,” wrote an exhilarated Carl Wilson. What I wrote about it can be found here. Robbins spoke to me from his home for the piece; find our full conversation below.
So you’ve been writing for poetry forever, basically?
Yeah, I started writing poetry in–oh gosh, probably my junior year of high school. I remember I saw–I don’t even remember what it was now–something on TV where this one of the characters was sitting around a campfire, and he just started uttering these incantatory words, that just completely captivated me, and I had no idea what they were. I can’t remember what they were, I don’t know if I understood them, but after he finished he kind of looked at the other person and said: Yeats.
And I immediately had to go find Yeats. I’d like to apologize to the librarians of Cheyenne Mountain High School, because I believe I stole Yeats’s Collected Poems the next day from the library. Surely the statute of limitations on that one has passed, but…
You’re probably in the clear at this point. Was it always poetry? Have you ever written fiction?
Yeah, I tried. I wrote a few short stories like young navel gazers will in college, and I wrote one in high school as well. Boy, they were just bad though. I doubt that there’s a surviving copy of any of them, but if so, I’d be greatly chagrined to know that anyone could find it.
That’s the kind of thing you hope isn’t around any more.
Yeah. I remember I had one–I should never have gone through a Tom Robbins phase in high school, but I read everything that Tom Robbins wrote. I think it was my dad who gave me a copy of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. And, you know, it comes with a blurb by Pynchon, and I had read The Crying of Lot 49, and like most people at that age who’d read the Crying of Lot 49, I liked to pretend I’d read more Pynchon than I had.
I just kind of swallowed Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in one big gulp. And then, of course, my fiction attempts after that were full of faux zany characters and odd happenings that just came across as really strained and stilted.
What do you think put you over the top as far as writing good poems?
I think part of it is that you really have to realize how hard it is. You know, you can’t just sit down and — I mean, this is banal answer, but it’s something that requires a great deal of immersion in the tradition. I kinda decided when I was in my twenties that I was just going to read everything. So I read Blake and Milton and Pope and Chaucer and Donne, and Shakespeare, and I read Philip Larkin and John Ashbery and I just read as much as I could, and I didn’t worry about whether it was sanctioned by this or that school. And I read poems that I hated and I read poets that I thought were terrible, and I read poets that just moved me into a completely different ballpark in terms of my appreciation of poetry.
You know, I never write without spending some time looking at other people’s poems. Just kind of trying to remind myself how well this has been done before, and how much I’m going to have to sweat to get something that anyone else is going to care about.
Is there anyone in particular you consult when you sit down?
Well, it’s different, but lately it might go to—how-to manuals have been Ange Mlinko’s Starred Wire, Frederick Seidel: he could write recipes and I would read them. John Ashbery, of course, although actually I can’t read Ashbery before I write because you end up trying to sound like him, and no one can do that.
I see a lot of Frederick Seidel in your work.
Yeah, Seidel, boy–no one else sounds like Seidel. And I hope I don’t sound too much like Seidel, and I don’t think I really could. But certainly that exuberance, and that extremity, is something that I think is worth capturing in poetry today.
So when you sit down to write a poem, what is that process like? Many of them are very short. How long does it usually take you?
I’ve tried to write long poems. I wrote about a three-page poem last year and read it maybe a few months after I’d finished it and realized that it was about two stanzas long, and the rest of it was me just trying to pad out those two stanzas. And the two stanzas that were left were about Fleetwood Mac. I had been writing a poem about Fleetwood Mac without knowing it.
I’m a very slow poet. I might think of a couple of good lines and put them in a poem that I’m working on that takes me–I’ve been working on this poem right now which is loosely based on the video for Guns N Roses’s “November Rain.” And I’ve been working on it over a month, just writing things and deleting them and trying to think of a good way to rhyme with ‘Axl.’ It turns out ‘Paxil’ was staring me in the face the whole time and I didn’t realize it.
That’s a pretty good Chinese Democracy review right there.
Right! Axl on Paxil. That was a terrible record by the way.
In a fascinating sort of way, yeah.
It’s like being invited to a spectacular flameout.
Music shows up in your work a lot. Is that a conscious thing?
Well, we talked about the books I look at, but I wrote a poem that I still like a lot last year and it was almost entirely the product of listening to the National on my iPod–if you print this, please put the songwriter’s name in [sure– Matt Berninger], and pretend I know what it is. I think he’s a pretty fabulous poet in his own right. And if I ever get this manuscript published that I’m working on, it’s going to have an epigraph from Animal Collective–which replaces the one from Ghostface Killah that the earlier version had.
What was it going to be?
It was going to be: “Mr Bush sit down, we in charge of the war,” which was Ghostface’s trenchant response to 9/11. But then it didn’t make any sense the way the manuscript developed.
So musicians are an inspiration.
Oh yeah. And Lil Wayne–I mean, Lil Wayne could just sit around rapping Chinese menus and I would want to listen to it. That guy understands things about words that the rest of us are just dimly intimating.
He may well have rapped a Chinese menu at this point.
Exactly. Or at least you could make an amazing Chinese menu out of some of his raps.
I was reading your Poetry Foundation piece, and there’s a kind of a through line to the criticism. You make the joke at one point that the horses are “wild mares” in Ruth Stone’s poetry because, quote, “this is a poem.” It seems like you’re pretty interested in a distinction between the readily poetic, on the one hand, and something like Ghostface, on the other.
You know, I’m more wary than maybe anyone alive of the division into two camps of poetry, where you’ve got the avant garde and the mainstream. I think it’s a really impoverished way of thinking about the forms of poetic thinking. But at the same time, I do think that the Venn Diagram of poetry’s audience and its practioners more and more comes to resemble the final moments before a total eclipse. And I think part of that is because, for all the insular, difficult, obscure poetry that everyone is supposed to struggle with, there’s also this sort of ‘My grandmother fed a deer in the backyard’ poetry.
And that’s the point I was trying to make in the Gibbons piece, is that this idea that ‘wonder,’ the sort of commodity ‘wonder,’ that is available to the denizens of suburban backyards, is something that takes a kind of real inattention to the culture we live in to write. It doesn’t respond to the way I think about the world. I’m all for wonder, and I’m all for feeding deer, but you know…
Wonder could be in a Best Buy.
Well, that’s the thing, right? We live surrounded by wonder. We live in a gigantic spectacle that is the most ominous machine ever created, and we can’t pretend that we are sitting on a Chinese mountain in the eighth century.
Writing our poems out in beautiful, longhand script.
I should probably ask you about “Alien Vs. Predator.” Is there a good story behind the fact that you had a poem land in the New Yorker?
I had written to Paul Muldoon–The first chapter of my dissertation is on Paul’s poetry, which I think is–I’m not saying this because he accepted my poem in the New Yorker, although people will think I am–but I think he’s one of the five or six best poets writing today. But I had a question. I found a word in his poetry, that…let’s see…Dude, I’ve got to find this word. Sorry.
I’m all for finding the word. Don’t worry about me.
So I wrote to Paul in 2007, and he has this word in “Yarrow,” his poem, that says “The deelawg was not so much an earwig, I suspect, as a clock.” And, you know, it’s very hard to put a word in a poem that is unGooglable in these days. But I could not find this word anywhere. I looked in the OED, I Googled it, I Googled variant spellings. And so he wrote back, very nicely, a few days later: “A deelawg is a clock in the beetle sense, Hiberno-English.”
Yeah, I know–I didn’t understand that response, but I didn’t want to say anything else about it. But I had read a story that he, when he was younger, sent his poems to Seamus Heaney, with the question “What is wrong with these?” And that Heaney responded, simply, “nothing.” Which is a nice story, even if it’s not true.
But I asked him if would take a look at some of my poems, because you have to be kind of a…
Yeah, you have to be the squeaky wheel, I guess. And he said ‘sure,’ and of course I sent them to him with much trepidation, and he really liked them, you know, he said they were smart, and asked me to send some more, and didn’t like those as much. And so I eventually decided well, he said he liked these, I’m just going to submit to the New Yorker, and I sent them in with the kind of note that made it clear–because I know he doesn’t read the submissions that come in, you know, he’s got elves to do that–that I’d been in contact with him. And he didn’t like any of those, but then eventually yeah, he wrote to me in July I guess, and boy, that was a crazy day.
I mean, as excited as I have been by all this response, which has really exceeded my expectations by an order of magnitude, that day–when I got the email from Paul Muldoon saying that he had accepted my poem for the New Yorker–it was like the culmination of twenty years of fantasy.
I saw Taylor Swift on Saturday Night Live this week, and after she finished “Love Story,” which is such a great song despite its hackneyed lyrics, she just–as the audience applauded, she just turned into the teenager that she is for a minute. Just like totally, adorably unbelieving that she was on Saturday Night Live. And she did this kind of like little foot-stomping in jubilation with this goofy grin, and I felt just like that when Paul accepted my poem.
You were the Taylor Swift of poetry that day.
Yeah–not that this–this is not Taylor Swift level attention. This is like the feeble glow cast by the reflected disco light in the splintered windshield of a Ford Taurus passing by the second hippest club in town or something. But that was quite a day.
The poem did solicit quite a reaction.
Yeah, I’ve seen that–I have Google alerts all up on my…But that’s the thing–I’ve never heard of the Gothamist before. But someone wrote me and said your poem’s on the Gothamist, and they said something like: ‘ The Nobel committee should consider giving a special prize for poetry once they read ‘Alien Vs. Predator,'” and I was just like–fuck! You know, it’s kind of amazing.
I think part of it really is that this is not the sort of poem you expect to read in the New Yorker. I think Paul has just cracked that shit open, and is just I think doing great things with the journal. But, you know: ‘That elk is such a dick’ I don’t think is a typical New Yorker poem line.
I remember very vividly when Junot Diaz had a short story in the ’90s in the New Yorker, and the last line was “And I don’t know where the fuck she went.” Reading your poem felt that way: you had kind of cracked a wall of reference and vocabulary.
Well I think that’s important, you know? I remember reading when I was younger, when I was into James Wright real heavily, I remember reading his complaints about Bob Dylan and just how awful rock music was. And I think one difference between poets of my generation and Paul Muldoon’s generation, from older generations, is that there’s not even a question of whether popular culture is low culture. Whether we should be listening to Brahms and reading Rilke. You know, we can listen to Brahms and read Rilke and talk about–Paul’s got poems about Bob Dylan, he’s got poems about the Beatles, U2, the Stones. And it’s just a much more–a much more generous responsiveness to the larger culture, I guess.
As you said, this is why punk rock had to be invented.
I mean, I’m always having this argument with people about whether hip-hop and popular music lyrics are poetry, or not–and in a sense, I think it’s a completely useless argument to be having. But you know, like Paul Muldoon says in “Sleeve Notes,” writing about Leonard Cohen, “His words have meant far more to me/Than most of the so-called poems I’ve read.”
And I’m not a huge Leonard Cohen fan, but you substitute Springsteen, or you know, Sonic Youth, for Leonard Cohen, and I’m right there.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 23, 2009