People were pretty weirded out when New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon published a poem by Michael Robbins in 2009; its tone was much more brash than other poems that have appeared in the magazine. Fast-forward a few years, past a class teaching Muldoon (disclosure: I was in it, and it was OK) and a few more big-time publications and the March debut of Robbins’s first book, Alien vs. Predator. When the Times touted its “sheer joy and dizzy command” and compared it to Quentin Tarantino’s first movie, his star really got its shine on. —Asher Klein
I’m going to have a cigarette, even though I shouldn’t, to get the dopamine flowing. I become more articulate.
When did I first move here? I guess in the early 2000s. I had been in Spain and I didn’t have a visa, so it was hard to get work and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I must have been 30, I guess. I found this apartment living with two U of Chicago undergrads, then I got my own place in Hyde Park. I was near the University of Chicago and I didn’t really have anything else to do so I did a master’s there and then got into the PhD program in English. I was somewhat older than peers, because I spent more of my 20s bumming around trying to be a poet and failing.
I don’t think you could tell from my poems that I live in Chicago; they’re not really located in that way. But my writing is very dependent on my psychological circumstances. Frank O’Hara said “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” It’s funny because I grew up in Colorado and I liked going to the mountains. I spent a lot of time in the woods, camping and fishing. I still want to do those things but obviously I don’t have much opportunity to do them anymore. After moving to Chicago, I became much more ingrained in city life, even though I spend most of my time in my apartment. There’s something about knowing that those things are handy, as O’Hara says—knowing I can go to the Music Box or to the Seminary Co-op or to a comic-book store or the Art Institute. Just having culture nearby and having this massive grid of people and situations that I could explore if I wanted to makes a huge difference psychologically.
During the summer there were a number of weeks where the book was really hot, I guess, and I was on the best-seller list for a few months there. For maybe four or five weeks there, mine was the best-selling poetry book in the country, which was very strange. It also teaches you something about poetry sales—you can sell 100 copies of your book and be the best-selling poetry book in the country. I mean, we’re not talking about Jonathan Franzen or something. People keep saying in interviews that I’m famous, but in the poetry world that doesn’t mean what it means in real life. I’ve actually been recognized when I was walking around on two different occasions, but both of those completely stunned me and I don’t expect it to happen very often. I’m glad that doesn’t happen. I mean, I’m sure Jonathan Franzen doesn’t get recognized that often. I keep mentioning Jonathan Franzen because I think of him as the kind of writer I don’t want to be.
I have a real aversion to poetry readings, even when I’m reading at them. I don’t think I read very well. There’s something about my reading style that I’m not satisfied with. I feel fake when I get up and read poetry. If I got up and read ten Yeats poems, I think I would feel more natural. There’s something about performing my own poetry that makes me feel self-conscious in a way that other poets seem to be able to turn to their advantage. I’m not shy and I’m not embarrassed, it’s just that somehow when I’m in front of a group of people reading my own words, I don’t feel related to the words the same way I do when I’m just reading them to friends or when I’m reading them in my head. People are looking at you and you’re reading your poems and what I’m thinking is, I’ve been in your position a million times. I’ve sat there and listened to the poet and I know that many of you are not paying any attention at all, you’re only seeming to. I just feel like it’s a waste of time and I would rather people just didn’t bother.
There are people whom I have in mind often when I’m writing poems and who influence my poems because they read them before anyone else does. I had all the poems in Alien vs. Predator in chronological order. Anthony Madrid, a great Chicago poet, went through the book and came up with an order for all the poems that is rather subtle. Sometimes it’ll be something like a rhyme between the last line of one poem and the first line of the next, whether formal or thematic. If I didn’t know Anthony my book wouldn’t be the book it is. When you write in a small group of people with whom you’re exchanging poems and ideas of poetry, that influences what you do. It’s absolutely important to me to have that connection.
Somehow I have 25,000 followers on Tumblr, and I’m not able to translate that into anything meaningful. Does that mean 25,000 people are reading my every post? I don’t think so. There are so many think pieces about the way that the Internet’s changing our basic psychology. I’m just so skeptical of them. I use the Internet for e-mail and television and pornography. I’m just kidding about that last one.
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect Frank O’Hara’s quote.