Interview: "Alien Vs. Predator" Poet Michael Robbins
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.