Today I happened to pass one of my favorite spots, Myzel’s Chocolates—a small, idiosyncratic shop in midtown Manhattan, with a world of confections. For the licorice lover—that strange, fierce, embattled tribe—the store is a must. Myzel’s has the best licorice selection in the city: salty, sweet, terrier-shaped, boat-shaped, cute, creepy, hard, soft. “Licorice of the world,” they advertise. “Over a hundred different kinds.” And today a sign in front of the door read: NATIONAL LICORICE WEEK. Read More
I love being read to. I could pretend it’s because it takes my mind away when I have a migraine or because it allows one to appreciate the aural poetry of writing—and that would be partially true. But the appeal is more elemental, more regressive. When you’re being read to, you’re being taken care of.
Perhaps by the same token, something scary can be magnified in the hearing. Ghost stories are meant to be told orally, after all, and when you are listening to something recorded, you have the option of doing so in the dark. When October comes, no matter if it’s more Indian summer than crisp fall, I want nothing so much as the occult and creepy. And so I walk through the city or work in the kitchen or stand on line at the bank, with M. R. James playing in my ears. Read More
“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.” —John Betjeman
“If it could only be like this always—always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in a good temper …” So says Sebastian Flyte of his teddy bear, one of the most memorable minor characters in Brideshead Revisited. Both affectation and security totem, Aloysius (played in the iconic ITV miniseries by one Delicatessen) was modeled on a real toy: Archibald Ormsby-Gore, who belonged to Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford friend John Betjeman.
And while Aloysius may be Archibald’s most famous literary representation, it’s not the only one: in the 1940s, Betjeman wrote a book for his children, titled Archie and the Strict Baptists. (The main character, a practicing Baptist, is a keen amateur archeologist.) An illustrated version appeared in 1977. The bear, which Betjeman was holding when he died, now resides in St. Pancras, with his elephant companion, Jumbo.
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. Read More