Fair to say that Michael Robbins has been on something of a tear recently. He’s had poetry published in The New Yorker and Harper’s, in December he finished his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and he reviews regularly for Poetry and the London Review of Books. Currently he’s a visiting professor of poetry at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
This April Penguin will publish Michael’s first book, Alien vs. Predator. Anyone who’s read his poems in magazines or online knows they can be brash, ecstatic, scary, and fun, the bastard offspring of Lil Wayne and Frederick Seidel. In the mixed metaphorics of blurbspeak—not my native idiolect, alas—I guess you could call AvP a free-fire zone where moral outrage and wretched excess meet to outblast each other in the frantic light of a dying sun.
“Appetite for Destruction,” quoted below, is a fair sample of his work; other instances can be found at a search engine near you. Our interview begins after the jump.
Appetite for Destruction
You homicidal bitch. I killed the boar
’cause boar’s the game I came here for.
I clear the jungle with the edge of my hand.
I make love to an ATM. I enrich uranium.
Dude, this aggression will not stand.
I want to watch you bleed. My tongue
doesn’t know its right from wrong.
I’m uninsured. I ride the bus,
a loaded gun inside my purse.
My mouth’s a roadside bomb.
The boar’s inside the mosque and then
the RPG has martyred him.
His favorite song was “Crazy Train.”
I pity the Lord, pity the Flash,
I sleep through gynecology class.
They call me Yeti because my carbon footprint
drives the sherpas round the bend
into the village of the whup-ass can.
When I lie on my back in the ashy rain,
pigs drink from my cavernous groin.
MR: I'd have to say I don't believe that the critical me and the poetic myself talk to each other very much. I know that's unhelpful. But a critic is trying to find or impose a structure in or on a preexisting verbal artifact: to identify arguments, principles, tropes, and productively redescribe their operations. A poet is trying to impose a verbal artifact on a resistant world. It's very much Sondheim's "Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat." That's not to say, of course, that I don't think about my poems or that there aren't things I'm trying to do in them. But I don't think my critical work enters much into it, except insofar as it trains me to construct ex post facto accounts of what I was up to in the poems.
RPB: Fair enough. But without doubting your internal report, I’m not quite ready to let go of the connection between your poetry and your criticism. I know it’s a bad critical habit to reach first to someone’s prose to explain his poetry, but I’m going to indulge that sempiternal temptation nonetheless. In my defense I’ll say that there’s so much verbal energy in your work that it’s tempting to stop there—to admire the machine-gun rhyme schemes, the bracing braggadocio, the juxtapositions of John Berryman and Axl Rose, T.S. Eliot and Batman. It can be hard to find a foothold, is I suppose what I’m saying, and yet I expect “what [you were] up to in the poems” goes deeper than all that surface shock and awe.
So, onward. In your dissertation you argue that
the poetic self [in poets such as Allen Grossman, Jennifer Moxley, and Paul Muldoon] might serve as a locus for thinking about and working through problems—as, for instance, an allegory for larger social and moral problems—rather than be dismissed a priori as an ideological construct whose only possible function is obfuscation. The poem might then become an arena for thinking through such problems as though they were aesthetic problems.
This idea of the poetic self as an arena—as for a game or even a battle—sets up interesting harmonics with the personae in your poems.
MR: Quoting a man's dissertation is a low blow, but I agree with this. I mean, I didn't want to be all, "Well, if you consider the thesis advanced in my dissertation, you'll see that my poetic personae are outgrowths of my concerns about the complexities of the poetic subject, and/or vice versa." But it's true that I am dissatisfied with prevailing notions of poetic selfhood—bourgeois monad ego! social construction!—and I think they underestimate what sort of thinking is possible in poems, and mistake how that thinking happens. I think it's fair to say that I intend my poetic I to complicate those notions of selfhood. The risk is that the reader will see only, as a wonderful commenter at HTMLGiant had it, "cleverness and nifty references thrown in, and a sensibility a little too jazzed by the sound of its own voice." I'd hope for a little more generosity, a little more time on her part, to notice that I'm hardly unaware of the poem's surface effects and perhaps ask herself what problems I'm trying to address by posing them as aesthetic problems. But as Alexei Karenin says, "In general, passengers' rights in the choice of seats are rather vague."
RPB: So many young poets today (and by young, of course, I mean what no one except writers and morticians mean—namely, people in their 30s and 40s) write as if charm and likability were the highest literary values. I'm thinking of poets like the Dickman brothers, Dorothea Lasky, and Matthew Zapruder. If Ashbery is a coy flirt in his poems, these poets are often openly solicitous of our affections; occasionally they even seem desperate for our admiration. Your poems are not not-desperate, but at the risk of severe understatement they do strike a pretty different tone from what we're used to hearing in contemporary poetry. The poet-critic Jordan Davis calls the poems in your book "dark and scary," and after reading a poem like “Appetite for Destruction” it’s hard to disagree.
You've said before that you think "hate can be a healthy emotion in literary contexts." This being a poetry blog and not a therapy session, I won't ask whom you hate or why, but I am interested to know what you find congenial—to use another inapt word—about writing in the vituperative mode.
MR: First I want to stress I'm not interested in being an unpleasant person. Some of my favorite haters—Céline, Pound, Bernhard—seem to have been exceedingly nasty people. Maybe they needed to be, or whatever, but is art worth it? Rilke skipped his daughter's wedding because he didn't want to lose his concentration. I say go to her wedding, make her happy, it's just a poem, dude.
But I do admit to finding our culture of positivity a bummer. I agree with Adorno that "The common consent to the positive is a gravitational force that pulls us downwards." Vituperation is a defense against vapidity. I live in Mississippi at the moment, where social relations are modeled on the butterslide. Everyone is very polite, and that politeness is sinister. I've got nothing against civility ("Among narrow puritans, this is lying; but with civilized people only civility"—Bellow, Herzog), but there is a kind of disguised animosity that forces itself on you with a grotesquely exaggerated deference. I prefer my animosity unclothed.
RPB: Is it fair as well to see that vituperation as a form of depraved dramatic monologue? I’m thinking of the recurring persona who says things like, “I etch the speckled cybernaut. / I rape the earth. It’s not my fault” or “I backed over the last passenger pigeon. The sex was great.” This is a John Self-quality asshole, a true omnivore, which is maybe to say a happy cannibal. He sounds to my ears not a little like the projected voice of the liberalism you’ve said elsewhere you despise.
Sure—although given the impoverishment of available contemporary political vocabulary, let me say that I despise liberalism from the left. I would go further: the situation of art itself now strikes me as one whose only defense against the twin pressures of pseudo-avant-gardism and liberal capitalism (insofar as the two are aesthetically distinguishable) lies in what you call "depraved dramatic monologue." I might as well confess that two of that recurrent persona's heroes are Moses Herzog and Mickey Sabbath.
RPB: Sincerity is maybe always a tricky subject, but it's especially tricky when we're talking about art. At first glance, your poems would seem to be about as anti-sincere as they could be; they seem to be working very hard to keep us at arm's length. And yet, as you've argued, sincerity can operate in many registers. Pound, for instance, famously said that "technique is the only gauge and test of a man's lasting sincerity."
MR: Everyone loves to quote Oscar Wilde's line about how all bad art is sincere. And it's true, as anyone who's ever read thru a slush pile knows. But good art can be sincere, too. Sincerity doesn't have to be pious or earnest-treacly. Obviously my poems are not always sincere in the usual sense. But I think there's a vulnerability to them. This is to some extent a reason for their vituperation—those who breach decorum most obnoxiously are often acting out of defensiveness and insecurity. They're not at all sure of themselves or their place, so they act as if they don't care. I was that way in high school and in my early twenties, and the poems are meant to rehearse those feelings in what I hope is a playful way. The personae I adopt in Alien vs. Predator do not always speak with sincerity, but they know that what is most sincere in speech is seldom what is actually said. I'm afraid of a lot of things, you know, and my poems often pretend I'm not. I think that comes through.