The audience must have the highest piercings-per-square-inch ratio in Chicago. Festooned in all manner of zippers, fishnets, tattoos, and leather collars (in varying shades of black), crammed into Voltaire’s dank performance space, they’ve come for “Deadly Variety,” a once-a-month late-night hootenanny of gloom.

Robert Robbins, aka the Death Poet, an organizer of the event, inspects a slide projector recently knocked from its perch by a profusely apologetic woman in a tight silver outfit she probably scored at a NASA tag sale. The projector was supposed to flash macabre images on a bedsheet strung up in the middle of the room, images designed to complement Robbins’s poetry reading. But the machine is dead–technically problematic, but thematically appropriate.

Robbins gives up on the projector and scans the crowd, making sure everyone who wants a seat can find one. He’s dressed in tight black pants and T-shirt, menacing spikes circling one wrist, his head clean-shaven save for a circle of hair on the crown of his skull teased and sprayed to resemble a tower from a nuclear power plant. But in this crowd it isn’t the hair that shocks; it’s his sweet smile.

The emcee for the evening, a superhipster who seems plucked straight from the beatnik era, steps up to the microphone and bellows, “Allrightwooooooo!” Someone in the audience screams, “Rock and roll!” First up is a guy in a black suit, black sunglasses, and black face paint introduced as the Bogeyman. “Chicks dig Santa Claus,” he begins, then goes on to describe his lonely and lurid life as the embodiment of unspoken fears. Robbins stands just offstage beaming. When the Bogeyman’s finished, the emcee returns and starts hurling plastic fangs into the crowd.

Robbins steps up to the mike. While two guys strum minor and diminished chords on electric guitars, he reads a half dozen characteristically bleak poems from a notebook overstuffed with paper scraps. “It is the shade darker you must worry about / Where I breathe,” he reads. When he finishes his first piece a few people clap. “You can save that crap till the end if you want,” he says.

Robbins, now 25, began writing poetry as an alienated high school student in Sterling, Illinois, where he says he and other skate punks received their share of abuse. “We’d always get cornered by the jocks,” he recalls. “You know, they would beat us up, cut off our hair. You couldn’t go into McDonald’s without getting pinned. They were just smashing the spider on the wall.” When he and his friends went out skating on the weekends, they made sure to stash a few baseball bats in the backseat. “They weren’t much protection against these huge, drunk, corn-fed motherfuckers. You could hit them, and they wouldn’t feel anything.”

He left Sterling to attend Liberty University, a Christian institution founded by Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia. “I got a scholarship, it was far away from home, and they have awesome hills to skate,” he says. But it was hardly an oasis of acceptance. Soon after arriving he was skating one of those awesome hills when a pickup truck full of locals ran him off the road. “We’re talking redneck. ‘Lynchburg’ says it all.”

He says he studied “art stuff” for a few months and hung out with the “progressive, darker bands” on campus. Then one day he came home to find a Lynchburg police officer in his dorm room. His parents had been trying to reach him for several days, the cop explained. The phone lines were down. His grandmother was dead. The funeral was yesterday. “It totally cashed me out,” he says. Six weeks later his other grandmother died. “I went to Sterling for Christmas break, and everyone else was in LA for the funeral. I had Christmas by myself–and I’m 18, you know?”

Soon afterwards he gave up on college and moved to Champaign, where he joined a writers’ group called the Red Herring Poets. After hearing some of his work, they christened him “Rob Robbins, Death Poet.” He put out a small zine, read poetry on the radio, and ended up managing Boneyard Press, which published graphic novels. When Boneyard moved to Los Angeles he followed, but he moved to Chicago when the job became financially untenable.

“I showed up on January 16, 1995, with two bags and $8.50 in my pocket,” he says. He took out a $4,000 student loan from a bank but ended up looking for a job. Most interviews went sour the moment Robbins took off his hat and revealed his unusual hair. Then he applied at the Alley. He was offered a position as a shoe salesman. “I’m thinking, ‘I’ve managed a deli, I’ve managed Boneyard Press, I shouldn’t be working retail.'” But he took the job and within a year worked his way up to become a buyer. The Alley even sent him recently to a footwear trade show in Las Vegas, where the Death Poet must have seemed even more incongruous than the ersatz pyramids.

Robbins’s small publishing venture, Sang Productions, recently put out a second run of his 1995 debut collection Free Confinements. “I Want You / To Kill Me / With Your / Bare Hands / So You Can Say / So I Can Say / We Were Really / Into Each Other,” he writes in the book’s first poem, “Sleeping Chamber.” Before the assembled ghouls at “Deadly Variety” he performs a few pieces from the book, dropping each poem on the floor absentmindedly as he finishes reading it. He speaks of “this gaping, breathing, aching sore I call me,” then shuffles offstage. Still, he can’t help but flash that tired bunny smile.

This Saturday Robbins will perform his poetry at the Alley, 856 W. Belmont, as part of a free showcase of local bands who record on the Baby Factory label. The show runs from 1 to 5 PM and features Teenage Frames, File Underwater, Plastic Princess, and 1,000 Liquors. Call 773-525-3180. Robbins will preside over “Deadly Variety” at 7 PM on Sunday, November 2, at Voltaire, 3231 N. Clark. It’s $3; call 773-528-4234. –Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.