Q&A: Poet Michael Robbins Talks His New Poem, "Lust For Life," the Girls Song It's Named After, Nicki Minaj, and Why Burzum's Varg Vikernes Is A Moron
The Chicago-based poet Michael Robbins is heroin for literary nerds and music nerds alike. Britney Spears, Pink, and Buju Banton have all crashed the gates of Robbins's poetry, which began appearing last year in the New Yorker; his newest piece in that magazine, "Lust For Life" (published yesterday), is titled after a Girls song, namechecks meth labs, Aztec princesses, and Fruit Stripe gum, and borrows rhythms from both Frederick Seidel and the RZA. It's an odd mix of the absurd, the colloquial, and the bizarrely specific, all bound together by a technical sensibility refined enough to make effort look like ease. We last spoke with Robbins on the occasion of "Alien vs. Predator," his 2009 debut in the New Yorker; he's since become a friend, so we figured hit him up again about "Lust For Life."
Congratulations! You know you're not allowed to title New Yorker poems after Girls songs, right?
Ah, you remember my Pazz & Jop ballot. I fucking love that song. I'd been thinking about that title because of Craig Finn: "Me and my friends are like the drums on 'Lust for Life.'" Every time I hear Iggy's song now I think of Carnival Cruise Lines, and I've never seen the Kirk Douglas movie or read the Irving Stone book. I listened to that Girls song every day last summer.
Your last poem in the magazine, "Alien vs. Predator," referenced John Berryman in the first line and Buju Banton in the 16th. Thank you for getting to Britney Spears much quicker--way before John Milton--this time around. For a minute I thought your pop culture game was slipping.
The Spears reference is also a Pink quote! Who's slipping now, Baron? Huh? Who?
Your big poet-shame secret is that you enjoy stuff like Sleigh Bells and Burzum in addition to John Ashbery on tape or whatever. What have you been listening to lately?
Way too much black metal. But not in any programmatic way. I despise those comment-stream nerds who are all, "Dude, that shit is NOT black metal! Go get yr Jack Spade messenger bag signed by Wolves in the Throne Room." Someone hipped me to Ulver, someone else to Weakling. Peste Noire, Immortal, Deathspell Omega, Horna. (I get most of my metal recs from Last Plane to Jakarta.) It's great to be getting into this stuff when I'm not, uh, so young anymore. Also, the new Drive-By Truckers, anything with Nicki Minaj on it, that Hyperdub comp from last year, the Franco comp from last year, um, Brad Paisley, the new Ted Leo, Little Boots, Robyn, La Roux. Converge's Axe to Fall keeps on giving. I can't decide whether Titus Andronicus is ridiculous and awesome or just ridiculous. They're kind of like 24 in that respect. Oh, and I can't wait for Heaven Is Whenever. And of course Merriweather Post Pavilion. I listen to Merriweather Post Pavilion six or seven times a day.
Was it New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon who made you take the capital letters off "Gift of Gab"? ["I move to a new one/like a hermit crab. I give the gift of gab."] Is "Lust For Life" secretly a poem about Blackalicious?
I wish. I still have that first album somewhere. I got very tired of all that positive-vibe stuff, though. There should be a hip-hop equivalent of black metal. Three 6 Mafia has the anti-social lyrics and the cartoonishness, but they're way too listenable.
The last time we talked for SOTC, you were working on a poem inspired by the video to Guns N' Roses' "November Rain." What happened to that?
It's actually coming out soon in The Baffler. It's called "Dig Dug." It didn't really turn out to have much relation to the video, but it does refer to it at one point, and it ends on a slightly tweaked GnR quote.
Another manuscript was going to have an epigraph from Animal Collective.
Yeah, I was kind of joking about that. But there is an epigraph from Fucked Up in one section of my manuscript.
Do you want to announce any similarly ridiculous projects at this time?
I intend to embark upon a series of poems about Burzum. I just got the issue of Decibel with the Varg interview. He's fairly articulate for a complete fucking moron. He bothers me, because I actually do like some of his music, as you noted (although I've never paid for any of it). I mean, yes, there are plenty of artists who held execrable views--Ezra Pound made seditious broadcasts for the Fascists during WWII & was a famous anti-Semite, but that doesn't stop people from reading The Cantos. Or it shouldn't. But Pound wasn't a moron, and he never killed anyone. (Didn't Villon kill someone, supposedly?) Anyway, I'm going to try to write something about Burzum in at least a fundamentally vague way. I was reading Thom Gunn's Jeffrey Dahmer poems when I had this idea, for whatever's that worth. I should probably finally sit down and read Lords of Chaos, but I find it difficult to get past the sensationalism. And the prose. The prose is funnier than the corpse paint. (If there are any good books about black metal, please let me know.)
Once, an editor who shall remain nameless asked you to interview Frederick Seidel, but then Seidel only let you ask him two questions. What are the two platonically ideal questions like that for Michael Robbins?
My friend Rose Schapiro suggests "Can I publish yr manuscript?" and "Would you like a job at our elite university?" Ha ha! Ha ha! Ha. No, those are pretty good.