Reading the poetry of Michael Robbins is kind of like driving around the parkways and frontage roads of America’s suburbs. His poems have a Best Buy, a Red Lobster, a Kinko’s, a Pizza Hut, and a Guitar Center; they reference the slogans of Christian billboards and the bumper stickers of hippies; they offer the choice between Safeway and Whole Foods and between the corporate classic-rock station, the corporate urban-music station, and All Things Considered. The poems are heavy with concern for the elephants, the whales, and the freedom of Tibet. They have a Rhianna song stuck in their heads.
Among poets, Robbins follows in the footsteps of Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon in writing about contemporary life using more traditional poetic forms and rhyme. He also references and sometimes even quotes Philip Larkin, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Wordsworth, and others. But Robbins is more playful and less grandiloquent than his sometimes-grim forefathers: after reading his first book, Alien vs. Predator, the two things I kept thinking of were not poetry at all, but rather the short stories of George Saunders and the video art of Ryan Trecartin. As Saunders did with marketing jargon and Trecartin with reality television, Robbins congeals his suburban idyll, transforming its vacant vernacular into unsettling poignancy. And sometimes it’s even funny.
I reached Robbins by phone in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We spoke the day after Rick Santorum’s victory in that state’s Republican primary.
Where are you working right now?
I’m a visiting poet at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, which is where I’m staying and just waiting until I get out of this city.
You don’t like it?
The people are great at the university, my students are great, but Hattiesburg is … it’s just like if you opened a university in a Taco Bell, basically. It’s just the ugliest place I’ve ever seen in my life.
Is it maybe good for the work though?
I spend a lot of time in my apartment, so I suppose it is in that sense. But there’s no bookstore, there’s like one Books-A-Million, whose Bible section is larger than its poetry section, which anyway has, like, books by Bill Bryson in it and stuff. You can quote me on all that if you want to, I don’t care.
You don’t mind?
No, I want to be on record saying that I hate Hattiesburg.
I see you thank Paul Muldoon in the beginning of the book, and he first published you in the The New Yorker, right? Is Paul Muldoon a mentor?
Well, Paul is responsible for anyone having noticed me at all, so in that sense I can’t thank him enough. But also Muldoon’s ability and Frederick Seidel’s as well—their ability to be contemporary and to respond to the present while at the same time enjoying rhyme and meter. I find it interesting that rhyme is something that is less valued now in contemporary poetry and is viewed as unsophisticated or retro or just old-fashioned. There’s not a lot of strict meter in my book, but there are a lot of rhymes, including some very doggerel-ish rhymes, and I enjoy that. Muldoon’s rhymes are the best rhymes right now in the world. So he was important to me.
It’s cliché to ask about the relationship between rap music and poetry, but you mention a lot of rappers and a kind of homage to hip-hop, “To the Break of Dawn,” closes the book. What does it mean to put Wordsworth and Jay-Z together in the same poem?
Muldoon has a line in “Sleeve Notes” where he’s talking about Leonard Cohen and he says, “his songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called ‘poems’ I’ve read.” Most of us have given up the idea that popular music is not an art form. There’s a way that popular music does what poetry used to do: it brings people together in a common conversation, and there’s a definite sense in which poetry over the past fifty years has become less and less of a popular art form and more a cloistered pursuit. I make the obvious distinction between Wordsworth and Jay-Z, but I don’t make a distinction in the impact they’ve had on my life. Each of them has provided me with what Kenneth Burke calls “equipment for living.”
Are there any musicians who have influenced your poetry?
When I was seventeen it was the Clash and the Stones. I was just thinking the other day how I couldn’t have imagined when I was seventeen that when I was forty I’d be listening to Prince and Steely Dan more than the Clash and the Stones. But recently I’ve decided Iron Maiden’s Killers is the best record ever made. Please don’t talk to me about Pet Sounds or London Calling.
You know what was really surprising to me? My friend Bobby Baird counted up the allusions to Guns N’ Roses in the book, and I was really surprised to find that I allude to Guns N’ Roses more than any other music, because I didn’t think they’d been that important to me.
In your poems there are a lot of ready-made phrases from the American vernacular and advertising slogans. Do they come to you when you’re writing because your mind has been sort of colonized by them?
My poetry is partly about how everything is for sale. It seems astonishing to me that we accept that as normal. At the same time, I love Taylor Swift and it would be ridiculous for me to not listen to Taylor Swift or to not see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I just saw, because they are consumer spectacles that disguise the actual relations of production. So yeah, I think the sense that those phrases are completed for me by capitalist vernacular, by advertising, by jargon and cliché is a way of thinking about language and my relationship to it. I want to register my antagonism while also registering my complicity.
Can we talk about your poem “Lust for Life” ? I was curious about the elephants. They come up a few times in your poems.
Ah, yes. The elephants. Other people have noticed that. Again, that was surprising to me. Someone said, “You have a lot of elephants in your poems,” and I said, “I do?”
Elephants and bats.
Well, I like both elephants and bats—it might be as simple as that. But I wrote this right around the time that the elephants were dying at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. There was a mysterious wave of elephant deaths, and now they don’t have any elephants. I was also reading an article about how poachers are killing so many elephants that the young males are basically just like gangbangers. There’s this adolescent-elephant violence spree in parts of Africa because they’re not being socialized properly. And whatever the elephants are doing in my poems, the reason they’re there is because I do spend a lot of time thinking about the nonhuman world and the horrific devastation that we’re sowing there.
And what about the bats?
The bats. Have you ever seen bats fellating themselves at the zoo, or is that just me?
I don’t think I have, but maybe I just haven’t spent enough time in the bat cave.
I do spend a lot of time there. I haven’t been to the zoo in Hattiesburg because I’m worried it will depress me, but probably bats are interesting to me because they’re like these weird … they’re just weird. They’re not birds, but they’re flying around, they’re fellating themselves. And isn’t it the case that there are more … let me look this up, I’ll look this up on Wikipedia—“Bats represent about 20 percent of all classified mammal species worldwide.”
So statistically they would have to be in your poems.
Right, if there are going to be mammals in my poems—and there are various mammals—you’re just going to have to include bats or it’s going to be strange. A fifth of all mammal species are bats? I mean, that’s crazy. We should take them seriously.
The bat, since Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, is a metonym for what reductionist accounts of consciousness cannot conceive—the subjective character of experience, for instance. And I play on Nagel’s title in two bat lines in the book.
It was election night there last night. How did you spend that?
I spend most nights in Hattiesburg sitting in my apartment imagining that I’m somewhere else. I actually watched Nicholas Cage’s new movie, Seeking Justice, illegally on the Internet.
It’s funny that you hate this suburbia you describe, because it’s also, from reading your poems, kind of your muse.
Kind of my what? Oh, my muse?
You’ve dismissed Robert Hass’s descriptions of the natural world—
I don’t dismiss them, but I do find it a little bit precious and pious the way some of his poems can seem as if, you know, some of his poems have obviously never been in a Best Buy or a Target. I’ve now been to Walmart five times in my life because it’s the only place to buy good food here, and it’s true that I hate it, because Hattiesburg is basically nothing but that. But it’s also true that this is how most people live. And I don’t want to go to Walmart, I don’t want to go to Best Buy, but when you do go to those places there’s something really odd taking place that you should pay attention to. I think you could have a religious experience in a Best Buy as readily as you could have one on a Tibetan mountaintop. This is a strange, strange world. It’s a very strange world. And I never stop being astonished by it.