By Ella Christoph
Michael Robbins’ poetry demands to be read aloud, so long as you’re not among the virtuous. In the poem “Bubbling Under,” he proclaims, “I live by the alien logic we impose on children./Whoever smelt it dealt it. I’m glazed with K-Y/beside the Goth girls gone haywire. Talk about cathexis!” His debut collection of poems, “Alien vs. Predator,” was published at the end of March, but it was only a couple weeks ago that a drooling review on the cover of the New York Times’ Arts section helped skyrocket “AvP,” briefly, to the number one and two (paperback and Kindle) spots on Amazon’s American Poetry bestseller list. Robbins has immortalized the screenshot on his tumblr. Robbins, who completed his PhD at the University of Chicago last year, recently returned to his Andersonville apartment after a yearlong stint as a writer-in-residence at The University of Southern Mississippi.
You’ve gone viral.
I am a virus, just like language. It’s been too surreal for me to process. I knew there would be some attention paid to the book, but poetry books don’t ever get this kind of attention. I feel great, obviously, but I’m also waiting for the backlash. I’m sure like “Lana Turner” or some journal will publish a devastating review of my book, which is fine. I don’t care.
People are so excited about all the pop-culture references in your book.
But rap’s been doing that forever, and novels and TV shows—is poetry the last frontier, then?
There’s something about the way I’m kind of rabid about it, I think, because so many poets deal with pop culture and appropriate pop culture and write poems about pop culture that it’s not even worth talking about. It’s everywhere in poetry. I think that’s sort of a red herring actually. If there’s anything interesting about my use of pop culture, it’s got to be about the way I appropriate it and the poems I make out of it, and not the inclusion of pop culture itself, which is completely ordinary in poetry.
A lot of artists complain about how the Internet and television are like endless time-sucks that take their attention away from the real work they should be doing. Do you identify with that or is it all inspiration and research?
I’m like anybody, I’m conflicted. Certainly any hour I spend on the Internet is an hour I’ve not spent going to the park or the museum or talking to friends. I don’t feel like I have anything especially profound to say about that. There is a general decline in literacy and in reading that people have been complaining about since Plato, and I feel that it’s both always with us and perennially worse than ever, and I do worry about it. And certainly technology plays a role in that, it’s just that for Plato it was writing that was the problem, because it was going to destroy people’s memories.
I got the paperback copy of your book—
It’s only out in paperback.
But there’s the e-book, right? And I was wondering, should I be reading this on a Kindle?
No, you can’t read poetry on an e-book. The Kindle edition was selling really well for awhile. But I have Palgrave’s “Golden Treasury” on my Kindle, and you’ve got to do all sorts of reformatting to get those lines to show up the way they’re supposed to.
But you could have hyperlinks to all the references.
Yeah, I don’t know, I find that annoying. There are people that do that. That to me is just gimmickry. I’m sure some people think my own poetry is gimmickry, but I’m just not interested in it. I just find that to be an empty gesture. You’re trying to imply something profound about the nature of information in the contemporary era, but in fact what you’re implying about the nature of information in the contemporary era is so obvious that it’s sort of comical. Look, you can use the Internet to look shit up.
Are you excited to be back in Chicago?
I lived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for almost a year, and I dreamed about the Art Institute, and the Aquarium, and the movie theaters, and the parks, and the lake and the bookstores. I have this theory for which I have no empirical data whatsoever: That part of the reason we are one of the most psychotic nations in history is that most of our architecture is just glaringly ugly and it deforms us on these emotional and cerebral levels. And Chicago is not as ugly a city as so, so many cities are.
Bachelard writes about this in “The Poetics of Space.” And he writes about it in a very new-agey, pseudo-scientific way, but who cares? It’s gorgeous, the way that he’s able to enter into the myriad levels of the way space affects us. That’s not something I really took to heart until I moved to Hattiesburg—and I don’t mean to talk shit about Hattiesburg—but my mood was so affected by the aesthetics of the place, the way it was laid out without any organizing principle, the way that it was just strip mall after strip mall after strip mall.
In The New York Times review of your book, Dwight Garner writes “I doubt he has much to confess.”
I don’t want to comment on that. I’m very pleased to have everyone think I don’t have much to confess.
Michael Robbins will be reading from and discussing “Alien vs. Predator” at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, on Friday, June 8 at 6pm.