Michael Robbins called from the road. He explained he was driving back to Chicago from Mississippi, headed for his new apartment in
How very dramatic.
But the guy is a poet.
In fact, Robbins, 40, Chicago resident, recent
He's that kind of poet.
He doesn't mince, he mashes.
He's the kind of poet who wears a Slayer T-shirt in his author photo, dedicates a book to his cat, unfashionably rhymes, disregards poetic meter. The kind of poet who tosses out lines like "Contents may have shifted during rapture/Let's put the Christ back in
Let's go to Laurie in our Eye in the Sky / for a look at traffic. Thanks, Don. / It's an hour in from the Hut of Intelligent Design / to the saddest tapir in the nation. / Nothing left of the Sharper Image but ashes. / All fall down, Laurie? All fall down, Don.
Despite the irreverence, or because of it, less than two months after Penguin released "Alien vs. Predator," the book is already into its second printing. Reviews have been a dream — the
In other words, Robbins, sweaty with pop obsessions, bracingly fresh, pointedly approachable, is unlike any image of a serious, intellectual poet. Which means, if you're part of the cloistered poetry world, he's the guy getting the attention you never will. To make matters worse, he's full of it — talent, bravado and, yes, a little you-know-what. In person, he comes off like the smartest guy in the room, quick to admit to obnoxiousness, somewhat self-important, somewhat impatient. On the page, he's similarly brash and ramped up, but more interestingly, he's thoughtful, funny and smart.
"There is something peculiar about him," said Don Share, senior editor of Chicago-based Poetry magazine. "The excitement is partly because, for people who signed off on poetry in high school, it's a revelation that you can genuinely laugh at poetry. But not everyone likes Michael. When we run his stuff, we get emails from readers who think (his work is) too clever. Or not 'real poetry.' It is fair to feel skeptical of him. But I think that enhances him. Because here, at last, is a poet to make up your mind about. Unlike a lot of poets, you can't take him or leave him — he forces you to decide."
Said Sasha Frere-Jones, pop music writer at the New Yorker, and a fan of Robbins: "He is the total package. If a crossover moment in the poetry world exists, I'd not be surprised if Michael's the one to do it."
A couple of days after Robbins arrived in Andersonville, his place looked barren. The only furniture were bookcases and a handful of tables. The only evident things seemed to be the piles of books stacked in every room, rising up from the wooden floor like a colony of literary stalagmites. And the only decorations, albeit 48 hours after moving in, were the following: A large black poster hanging over his kitchen table with no image, only the words "What Would Neil Young Do?" And over his writing table, a framed copy of his first poem that ran in the New Yorker, the title piece of his collection, "Alien vs. Predator." He looked at the framed pages and said when he wrote that he had been thinking a lot about approachable, breathable contemporary poets.
"I'd been reading a lot of John Berryman, Paul Muldoon. The sensibility of John Ashbery had been clanging in my head. I knew I wanted to do something that brought them together but I wasn't sure what. So one night I sat down and wrote 'Somehow I sidle,' which became 'Self-Titled,' my first of these kind of poems. The line was this obvious reference to (American poet) Frederick Seidel. Then I wrote: 'I kick-start/I hot-wire my monkey heart/I take my waking slow,' which alludes to Theodore Roethke, of course. I remember thinking, 'You know, you can just write what you want to write.' I told myself that from here on I would write what made writing fun for me. And turns out, it's better not to write the stuff you don't have a feeling for!"
With that he stood, went to his kitchen, nonchalantly removed a carton of low-fat milk from his refrigerator, came back, settled behind his desk, removed the cap, took a long swig from the milk carton and resealed it.
"The reaction to that," he continued, gesturing to "Alien vs. Predator" above his head, "I was stunned, I was unprepared. I knew having a poem in the New Yorker was a big deal, but there are poems there every week!"
He lit a cigarette and let the smoke settle in his mouth.
"Do you know I've had an inquiry from (Hollywood agency) CAA for film rights to my book? My first thought was 'These rights?' My second was, 'A book of poetry?' Turns out, they decided 'not to pursue' the rights because the agent's client thought there wasn't a 'cohesive narrative thread' here. Well, for (expletive) sake!"
"I do not know for sure, but it's a CAA client who really likes poetry, so I have a guess …"
He leaned forward and quietly whispered a name that rhymes with Fames Wanko and sat back with a big grin.
Robbins is facing a rare, happy conundrum for a contemporary poet — popularity. "Alien vs. Predator" was the No. 1 poetry book on Amazon for several days after the Times review; at last check, it was No. 17, between Tupac Shakur and Philip Larkin, oddly perfect, sensibility-wise. Poetry magazine's best-seller list puts it at No. 3, behind Billy Collins and Tracy K. Smith's "Life on Mars," this year's Pulitzer winner for poetry. Robbins is quick to say he would be callow for complaining, and yet, "Part of me can't help but think, what am I doing wrong? I would be lying if I said there was not that little
It's not an unwarranted concern. Said Stacy Horowitz, managing editor of the Best American Poetry blog: "It's important to note that Michael's poems go way beyond clever. They come out of a (slightly satiric, lively) tradition of modern poets that includeFrank O'Hara. Because his work is fun to read doesn't mean it isn't very sophisticated."
Said celebrated poet Robert Wrigley, who was instrumental in getting Robbins published at Penguin: "A lot of people will be drawn in because of how cool his poems are, because of the references. But that's OK because, you know what, they are cool. Possibly timeless too. Michael is very much a formalist. You just don't feel any need to blow the dust off him before you read him."
Robbins was born in Kansas; he moved with his father to Colorado when his parents divorced. "It wasn't a literary household," he said. But one night he heard a character on a TV movie refer to Yeats. After that, he became hooked on poetry. He wrote a lot, read a lot, but did badly in college and didn't get serious, he said, until he came to Chicago in his late 20s, partly because his sister was studying art at the University of Chicago.
The rest is a fast tale of talent and networking and chutzpah: In 2007, while working on his Ph.D. in poetry, Robbins wrote Muldoon to clarify the meaning of a word in Muldoon's poems. He also asked if he could send some examples of his own work. Robbins' poems were "smart in all the right ways," Muldoon wrote back. A few months later, when Muldoon became poetry editor at the New Yorker, Robbins was in. Which led to Wrigley mentioning Robbins' poems to his own editor at Penguin.
Which gave Robbins the confidence to push, agitate.
One of his pieces after his New Yorker debut was a Poetry review of poet Robert Haas' new book. While not entirely dismissive, it was harsh, annoyed with Haas' sincerity and piety. The final devastating line reads like an oomph: "People are always wondering why Americans don't read more poetry. It's not a question that occurred to me once while reading this book."
"That's one of the most notorious pieces we've run," Share said. "Haas (a former U.S. poet laureate) is not used to strong criticism directed at him. And here comes this young smart guy unafraid about playing nice."
If you read poetry and you didn't know who Michael Robbins was, you did after that. Back in his apartment, Robbins smiles when the last line of that review is read to him. He doesn't apologize or soften his stance. Instead, he says something that sounds a lot like a mission statement, and as arrogant as it is meaningful:
"Rimbaud said, 'One must be absolutely modern.' I believe that. It doesn't mean carbon dating poems with