“It says here to burn the rich and take their shit”: An interview with poet Michael Robbins

While I could start by quoting Benjamin on Baudelaire, or make some sweeping — and likely very silly– statement about the status of the poet in (post?)-postmodernity, I will simply say this: Michael Robbins is as unabashedly modern as a poet should be. Pop culture suffuses his work, but so does a loving attention to the sonority of words. His poetic voice is slippery and can assume many rhetorical  registers; leave your ideology at the door, and even then expect to be a little offended. His first collection, “Alien vs. Predator,” was a smash-hit (for a book of poetry), and I expect “The Second Sex,” released September 30, will generate a similar buzz. Oh yeah, he’s also one of the most entertainingly incisive critics writing today (his collection “Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop, Mostly” is forthcoming). When all the blurb-speak and hyperbole have been exhausted, Michael Robbins is simply a serious poet trying to write meaningful (but fun) poetry at a time when “neither the drive-thru voice that takes my order/ nor the divine can be clearly understood.”

 As this is a college magazine, I thought we could start out by talking about academia. You received your Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and teach creative writing at Montclair State University. It seems like there’s a conception in the literary world that the ivory tower, and the theory it circulates, exerts a magnetism which you have to either embrace or ironically distance yourself from. However, from reading other interviews with you, I see that you’re certainly not afraid to employ thinkers, and phrases like “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which perhaps don’t think get much traction outside of academic spheres. I was wondering if you could talk about the effect academia has had on you and your work?

I read Nietzsche and Marx in college, but I came to Adorno, Freud, Derrida, de Man, and Deleuze on my own afterwards, when I was decidedly not in the academy. I didn’t enter the PhD program at the U of C until after I was 30. John Guillory is right that within the academy a canon of theory replaced the literary canon as that which had to be mastered in order to secure cultural capital. I read Derek Parfit and David Chalmers in grad school while my peers were reading Franco Moretti or whoever. I find that most graduate work involves aping certain theoretical moves in order to demonstrate your technical mastery of the material that you are being trained to transmit in your turn to the next generation of graduate students. Nice work if you can get it. Guillory neatly says that the academy is both the agent of the reproduction of unequal social relations and the site for the critique of such relations. So the academy’s relation to my work, like most things under the present regime of capital, is a contradictory relation. I am both in and out of the game.

I start at Montclair in the fall. It’s not a research university, so there’s this radical idea that your job is to teach the students. Theory enters into it obliquely at best. I have modest goals for my teaching: introduce students to the great wonders of literature, and help them to write better poems. Most kids won’t come away from college with a love of literature or with the ability to write well, but that’s always been the case. You reach whom you can, and you try to be fair and kind to those you can’t.

Where I see theory surface explicitly in your work is in some of your more polemic writing (I’m thinking of your article on Obama and drone warfare in the Los Angeles Review of Books and your writings on the New Atheists). It’s clear you’re well-versed in the English tradition of argumentative writers. How do you feel about taking up that mantle, albeit temporarily, in the digital age? The situation Guillory outlines seems a serious handicap for those trying to meaningfully apply theory.

 Ah, I thought you meant my poetry. OK, sure. Well, I believe it is a serious handicap. Fine work can get done in theory, which only idiots dismiss as nonsensical gobbledygook (which is not to deny that some of it is nonsensical gobbledygook). But at the end of the day the school exists to reproduce social relations, not to inculcate young minds with the best which has been thought and said. So you get situations such as the one involving Joshua Clover and his students at UC-Davis, who committed the extraordinary crime of sitting down in a bank. Clover acted as if the words he writes and reads and teaches mean something. So the university had him and his students arrested.

The school reproduces economic inequality quite openly and directly in the form of student debt. In civilized countries, you go to college for free. Here you often have to assume a financial burden that will cripple you for decades, while, for instance, Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, takes home a $3.4 million salary. There is no reason students should continue to accept this obscene disparity. They should be doing whatever it takes to shut it down.

As for “the digital age,” I want to be wary of singing what Emerson called “the tune of the time.” It’s easy to believe that we have captured something distinctive with a phrase like “the digital age,” but I suspect we’ve elided what is distinctive about our time. As Jonathan Crary writes in “24/7,” “This pseudo-historical formulation of the present as a digital age, supposedly homologous with a ‘bronze age’ or ‘steam age,’ perpetuates the illusion of a unifying and durable coherence to the many incommensurable constituents of contemporary experience.”

The rhetorical tradition matters for anyone concerned about language. I recently saw Zadie Smith interview Karl Ove Knausgaard; one of her questions began, “Now that the language of God is unavailable …” I just thought: oh, sure, as everyone knows, the language of God is unavailable. No need to think about that for a millisecond, just repeat the received wisdom and everyone will nod. Has Smith read Marilynne Robinson or Geoffrey Hill? It’s your job as a writer to try not to simply regurgitate lazy assumptions about how the world works.

It seems to me that whether reviewers are praising or denigrating your work, they still tend to draw a line between the pop cultural material you “appropriate” and the “matters of permanent concern” that you ultimately address. In interviews you allude to myth and the sacred and I’m wondering whether your theological/philosophical views in any way influence the historical stance you take towards the cultural material you employ. Because it seems like the “sampling” you perform can go a number of ways, and while you don’t seem to be interested in the kind of historically-totalizing assembly of cultural materials that poets like Pound were, neither are you playing the “postmodern” game of making everything surface-level.

Well, I don’t draw such a line. The best review of my first book was written by Anahid Nersessian, and it appeared in Contemporary Literature, an academic journal, so not many people have read it. She writes that “The poems are out to embarrass the reader who finds provocation only in their highbrow-lowbrow mixology while glossing over their brash, unflinching partisanship.” And that’s right. I can’t worry about—I’m not responsible for—superficial readings of my poems. I’m not Danger Mouse, so I don’t answer questions about the pop-cultural material in my work anymore. Make of it what you will.

As for the historical stance I take, Nersessian also writes that I pursue “a left-ecological poetics that doesn’t rhapsodize about trees or point fingers too baldly—though here I would add that Robbins’s enthusiasm for turning multinational corporations into neo-mythic figures on a par with William Blake’s Urizen or Vala is exemplary both of his political literacy and his literary sophistication.”

You know, I’m interested in communism and Christianity in a culture where I have to explain what I mean by those terms, where the first signifies for many people “Stalinist” and the second usually refers to what I call actually existing Christianity, the grotesque distortion of the Gospel that prevails among fundamentalists. That makes it sound as if my poems are no fun, and of course I think and hope they are. But yeah, they arise out of partisanship and opposition. Wrong life cannot even be lived wrongly.

They are fun, and that’s a refreshing answer to a rather dry question. Perhaps the problem lies in the very term “pop culture”? You wrote a great piece on what constitutes a lasting review for the Chicago Tribune last year, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the climate of reviewing in general: is it healthy or are we still getting tripped up on distinctions like “pop culture”?

Well, pop culture certainly exists. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make such a distinction. I just don’t want to talk about it in relation to my poetry. The climate of reviewing I hope never to give a thought to. I don’t read enough reviews to judge. Most writing is terrible, always. Most reviews are not worth reading. But who cares?

If that’s the case, and if we can return to some points you made earlier, what truly distinctive aspects of the present day do you think we elide when we use blanket terms like the “digital age of literature”? You said in an interview with “The Believer” that you occasionally wonder if “all our problems come down to questions of architecture.” This was in relation to myth and the landscape of corporate America, but I think a similar observation about form obscuring or being confused with content could be made regarding the current debates over e-books, the digital humanities, print publications vs. digital publications, and perhaps even the occasionally portended death of the humanities.

 What I’m saying is that these “debates” are shallow. They exist because newspapers and journals and websites have to write about something. There’s no real argument taking place. I have exactly nothing to say about these topics—”the death of the humanities,” “the digital humanities,” these are just phrases on a magazine cover.

Well, I certainly agree that these debates are shallow to the extent that they don’t address, or even acknowledge, the fundamental systemic problems. I guess I keep making recourse to these buzzwords because they’re unfailingly used to frame these discussions in the media. How do we productively talk about the very real fact that public universities are closing humanities programs across the country if the terms of these debates don’t allow for a critique of the ideological nature of the academy?

Well, one wants humanities programs to survive. I’m just cynical about the hand-wringing. But can we talk about something else besides the academy? I realize I’m being a difficult interviewee, but my friend writes profiles for “GQ,” and Harrison Ford was much harder on him.

Certainly. I’ll use your obstinacy as a way to segue to some product placement. You lifted the title of your new collection, “The Second Sex,” from Simone de Beauvoir. What can we expect?

For one thing it’s another title about alienation, about being defined by and through external forces and processes. And I’ve been haunted by Eve Sedgwick’s reading of Foucault in “Touching Feeling”. She argues that while the first volume of “The History of Sexuality” seems to promise—and is often read as achieving—a way of thinking about sex outside “the repressive hypothesis,” Foucault actually propagates that hypothesis (the dualistic notion that, historically, sexuality has been repressed through censorship and prohibition, with the corollary that opening up about sexuality will liberate us). Make of that what you will. But of course there’s also the Replacements’ “Let It Be.”

You were somewhat hesitant to endorse the “guarded optimism” another interviewer saw in your work. What I think is lost today in the optimism-cynicism distinction is that there are different strains of cynicism: the kind that goes back to the Greeks and is interested in deeper truths, and the more common modern variety that’s basically self-reflexive resignation. Is a “healthy” sense of cynicism (about, say, “political correctness”) a prerequisite for serious writing today?

 “The prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “and its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong.” To write as if that were true is the only prerequisite for serious writing I know.

You talk elsewhere about poetry being a way to complicate the relationship between the poet and his persona. While a poem like “Oh Wow” seems like a sustained earful from a persona or interlocutor, at points, like the beautiful third stanza of “Sweat, Piss, Jizz, and Blood,” the speaking subject seems to dissolve into lyric description. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little on your concept of the poetic self and personae, and how that plays out on the level of form in your recent work?

The speaker in the poem is never entirely the poet, that’s basic. That’s the first day of Introduction to Poetry. But I wouldn’t really say “persona,” I’d say that the voice in my poems is not me. As Anthony Madrid writes, “It’s not not me,” but it’s not me. Think of “The Brothers Karamazov.” Dostoevsky had to channel his skepticism to write it. It wasn’t his settled position. But he needed to write the novel. Valéry said it best: “Look, you can’t hold me to this shit.” You have to write a poem, you can’t restrict yourself to your truest self, your most considered thoughts. You have to allow yourself to be dishonest, to be meaner than you are or sappier or uglier or stupider or prettier. When people object to the tenor of one of my lines, I’m just like, yep, I object too, I don’t agree with that stuff. That’s why it’s in a poem and not an essay (setting aside the question of how honest you have to be in an essay). Anthony Madrid says something to the effect of: “Put your finger on any given line, and I’ll tell you what percent I believe it. It never goes lower than 15%, and it never goes higher than 91%.” Because you’re making art—art isn’t supposed to be true or comfortable or genuine or authentic or sincere. It’s not a position paper. That doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t actually have the wicked thoughts you put down. It just means that for the sake of the poem you don’t renounce them, as you certainly would in life. As for what form has to do with it, I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer to that. I suspect form is devoid of content.

I’m interested in one voice that’s not *not* you in your poetry: the rural Michael Robbins, or, perhaps more generally, the geographic Michael Robbins. In “To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward,” geography plays a destabilizing role (“Mumbai used to be Bombay”), and throughout “AvP,” when cities or countries come up, they seem more like proper nouns than physical places. However, there are a handful of poems from the new collection that ground me in an environment in a way that is to me new in your poetry. I was wondering if you could talk about the role of place in your work, and (to get back to rural Michael Robbins) what draws you to the Americana that is the subject of poems like “S,P,J,& B”, “Mississippi,” and “Country Music.”

Some poets bleed place—the examples are obvious—but I’ve never felt strongly attached to any particular place. And the speaker of “Alien vs. Predator,” who as noted isn’t “the me myself,” identifies with generic, homogenized spaces—Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, meth labs. Except for “To the Break of Dawn,” written during my belated first trip to New York City, where I now live. And even there the New York is one I missed out on. I’ve often envied others their rootedness. But I recently lived in Mississippi for a year, and felt out of place in a banal way. And I became more keenly aware of a longing for place that I don’t know how to satisfy. So the places I know but don’t love—Chicago, Mississippi, Kansas—made their way into some of the poems in the new collection. I think it was Andrew Marvell who said, “Home is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there.”

What I find particularly refreshing — especially since for a while now the prevailing rhetorical stance of liberal pundits to the absurdity of the political situation has been satire — is that your political work, even when it’s irreverent or hyperbolic, is where I feel close to the 91% truth-content in your work. And if there is humor, it’s not predicated on lampooning a particular ideology. I was wondering if you could speak to the intersection of politics and humor in your work? Do you see humor as a productive force?

Well, I should say that I don’t think poetry can have any political efficacy at the moment, which is not to deny that it has had and, though I doubt it, might have again. But when you say I don’t lampoon a particular ideology, you are rightly locating the ideological in my work. How hard is it to make a joke out of the current Republican Party? Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are funny, but it’s easy humor, and I don’t doubt that their conservative counterparts are also funny. I still believe in totality.

 So in an effort to end on something of a hopeful note, are there any contemporary poets you’re excited about?

I always recommend everything Robyn Schiff’s written; Anthony Madrid’s “I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say”; Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s “My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer”; August Kleinzahler’s “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City”; Patricia Lockwood’s “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals”; Frederick Seidel’s “Going Fast,” “The Cosmos Trilogy,” and “Ooga-Booga”; Mary Ruefle’s “Selected Poems”; Dorothea Lasky’s “Thunderbird.”


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