Michael Robbins shakes up poetry world with 'Alien vs. Predator'

Michael Robbins

Michael Robbins (June 5, 2012)

Michael Robbins called from the road. He explained he was driving back to Chicago from Mississippi, headed for his new apartment in Andersonville, white-knuckling at the wheel of a U-Haul too big for him, a drumbeat of imminent freeway death pounding in his skull. "I've been scared for, like, five hours," he said. "I got to get to a hotel. My cat's freaking out, the cars are nuts …" Drivers were cutting him off, truckers were bearing down, he said. So he started talking to himself, conducting a one-man theological debate, asking if it'd be OK if, you know, a few people died: "Would I be justified not shedding a tear if they accidentally flipped?"

How very dramatic.

But the guy is a poet.

In fact, Robbins, 40, Chicago resident, recent University of Chicago Ph.D. graduate, is the poet of the moment, a poetry world phenom, one of the most discussed and best-selling contemporary poets in the country right now. Here's the thing though: Whatever your mental image of a poet is — elbow patches, humorlessness, tweed and temperance — Robbins is not that guy. Take Mississippi. He hated it. He just wrapped up a year of teaching creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi and, in several interviews, he has not minced words. To the Paris Review, he called Hattiesburg "the ugliest place I've ever seen in my life," describing the school's campus as "just like if you opened a university in a Taco Bell."

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 Xbox." The kind of poet who titles his first book "Alien vs. Predator," alludes toGuns N' Roses, Beastie Boys, Kinko's, Forever 21, Mr. Peanut and the Tootsie Pop owl, then mashes those against everyday phrases, jargon and reworked lines from poets such as Ashbery, Frost and Swift (as in Taylor). For instance, his poem "The Smallest Accredited Zoo in the Nation":

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 New York Times compared his arrival to the thunder-clap debuts of Elvis Costello and Quentin Tarantino, dubbing the book a "linguistic booty call." And fans tweet stuff like: "I want to marry Michael Robbins. Seriously. Does anyone know him?" (He'll read from his book at 6 p.m. Friday at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park.)

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!"

The client?

"I do not know for sure, but it's a CAA client who really likes poetry, so I have a guess …"

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