Michael Robbins really hates living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The poet, whose book Alien vs. Predator was recently released by Penguin, is teaching there until June, and then he’s getting out of dodge. “Hattiesburg smells like a sewer,” he emphatically told me in the middle of our conversation. “You can go online and Google the Hattiesburg smell, it’s an actual thing. I think they actually have wooden water wheels to aerate the sewage. There’s just way too much sewage to properly aerate everything.” Robbins needs to be in a bigger city, and reading his poems it’s easy to see why. His work is energetic and irreverent, giving equal space to Rilke and Buju Banton in the same poem. Even though each line is heavy with allusions, a few of which he admits will be lost on almost everyone who reads him, the tone of Robbins’ work is actually at odds with obscurantism. There are references and jokes and meaning in there for everyone, from a casual hip hop fan to the student of 20th century poetry to the fastidious obsessives who have memorized every word of Dylan pre-Desire. We talked about TV, boring rap, Occupy, and countless other topics, always returning to the contradictions in what we like and why.
MR: I hate myself for it, but I actually don’t like the South at all, for the usual reasons that people don’t like it.
So what are those [reasons]? Racists?
MR: Well, yeah, the actual overt, Klan type racism, it’s here. I accidentally got my hair cut by a Klansman when I first came here.
You didn’t. Really?
MR: Yeah, that’s what people told me afterwards. I walk in there and there’s confederate memorabilia covering the walls, mixed in oddly with “Support Our Troops” memorabilia. The contradiction didn’t seem to occur to the guy. “Support the troops of the Northern aggressors!” I thought, “Well okay, this is the South, there’s going to be this shit.” There were pictures of Robert E. Lee everywhere. He also was armed. I’d never had my hair cut by an armed Klansman until I moved to Mississippi, and that is metonymical of my thoughts on Mississippi. People told me afterward, “Oh yeah, that’s the only place in town they really have Klan meetings anymore.” This is unsubstantiated, these are just rumors that I heard. It’s rare.
Of course [Hattiesburg] is a town in America. I’ve got a lot of gay students, a lot of lefty students. It’s not monochromatic, by any means, but it is a place where the dominant ideologies are grotesque as far as I concerned. The first thing I saw when I got off the plane and was driving to Hattiesburg was this huge billboard of Jesus. Jesus looked exactly like Barry Gibb. And I just thought, well, this is not what this Jewish Middle Eastern peasant looked like. Christianity down here seems to me to have almost no connection to historical Christianity. There’s no evidence, at least in the popular forms of Christianity here, of serious engagement with the grand intellectual tradition of Christian thought. There’s a great deal of really, really scary literalism. And then there’s the thing with the fucking politeness, which just drives me up the wall. Everyone’s so goddamn polite, which is just the most passive aggressive way of behaving to me. I’m not making any fans in Mississippi.
I know that whenever I’m in a city I don’t really like, I spend way too much time on the Internet.
MR: Yeah. Let’s just say that the government seizure of Megavideo was a major blow.
How many things are you torrenting?
MR: I don’t actually do the torrents because I’m afraid of the government. I just watch the streaming stuff. And I don’t have cable, which actually turns out to be a necessity in a place like Hattiesburg. But I don’t want to pay 80 fucking dollars for TV shows that I can watch online later. I watched Justified, which is the best television show on right now, except maybe Breaking Bad. I’m watching Girls, and I have been having this email argument with a couple of friends about whether Girls is as awesome as I say it is. My sister and I think it’s awesome, but my ex-girlfriend thinks it’s cloying and obnoxious. I think it’s amazing. Everything’s on Sunday. Veep. I just started watching Veep. Veep is amazing. In the Loop is the funniest movie I’ve seen in years.
Have you watched The Thick of It?
MR: I haven’t seen that yet! I’m going to have to get that sometime soon. There’s a French crime drama called Spiral, do you know about this? I ordered it from Amazon.co.uk because it just isn’t findable on the internet with English subtitles. It’s called “Engrenages.” If you like The Wire, then you’ll…that’s what everyone says about it, because it’s the obvious cultural reference. But it really is just an amazing series. I find myself unable to watch many police dramas anymore, just because I get so irritated that I’m actually watching and getting invested in police officers. Even if they’re fictional.
I know you were saying that you really can’t wait to get back to civilization, but New York City police officers just drive me up the wall.
MR: I’ve been following David Graeber’s tweets about Occupy and he was talking about cops smashing a kid’s head into the concrete during the May Day protests.
I believe that.
MR: Oh, I totally believe it. What can you say about the police in this country and about the criminal justice system in this country that’s positive? I had to stop watching Southland because I was like, if this were the actual LAPD, they’d be hassling a lot of innocent people and beating them up quite a bit more than they actually do on this show. I could watch The Wire, because The Wire was about more than the police, and you couldn’t not love McNulty and Bunk.
Yeah, and they seemed like realistic jerks.
MR: Yeah. They seemed like actual fucked up assholes who were kind of likeable. But in general I find it really hard to get into fiction about the police anymore. I’m sure there are nice policemen out there, I don’t want to insult any cops reading this.
I don’t think any cops read Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
MR: I really doubt it, but…
Yeah, I really don’t think so. I think the overlap between cops and people who like Edward Gorey is pretty slim.
MR: That’s gotta be the world’s thinnest Venn diagram.
Although there is that Hipster cop! Have you seen pictures of him? He’s some well-dressed dude who is a cop and looks like he’s on the cover of GQ.
MR: I remember in the Chicago Reader there was this really, really smart, really well-educated, politically thoughtful guy who had become a cop, and he just wrote about the grind of having to listen to his fellow officers, his colleagues, saying shit about how we should just drop the bomb on Iraq. I imagine there are people who for whatever reason get involved in that line of work and have their own contradictions and difficulties to deal with. But on the whole I don’t know why you’d want to be part of an oppressive apparatus like that. Of course the police do good things. They help some people out. But they serve mainly the function of defending the interests of the powerful. If that’s your thing, then I don’t really want anything to do with that.
I’m still undecided about this, but I’m sensing a pretty strong ambivalence in your poems about late capitalism. Is it ambivalence? I don’t really know if it’s one way or the other. I do see a lot of anger, but also a lot of celebration at the same time.
MR: I wouldn’t call it ambivalence as much as a contradiction. I think that I’m drawn to the Marxist critique of capitalism, because of its dialectic. I feel like a douchebag saying a sentence like that, but you know, Marx is not simply bashing capitalism, he’s extoling its liberating aspects. At the same time he’s urging that the contradictions that it contains are oppressive and ultimately will lead it to its ruin. I feel a similar contradiction in late capitalism insofar as I’m wholly antagonistic to it as a form of economic life. Right now it’s a way of producing apartheid and slums. I feel like there’s no sensible person who could not see capitalism as an immensely destructive force that produces immiseration on mass scales. I’m completely opposed to capitalism politically, but I’m at the same time as attracted to its products as anyone else.
I think there’s something really shallow about people who decide they’re going to live off the grid and be outside the system. It’s a good way of pretending that the rest of the world doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t help anybody except it helps you feel better about yourself because the worms are composting your sewage for you, or something. Since I have to participate in the system, what is that participation going to consist of, and how am I going to do it? There’s always the critical argument about the way that mainstream hip hop celebrates consumerism and the way that its apotheosis of the good life involves having shiny jewelry and expensive cars. I think that that’s something that, as a poet, I’m going to have to come to terms with if I’m going to be as big a fan of hip hop as I am. The answer isn’t just to turn to the backpacker rappers that only talk about positive vibes.
Ugh, yeah. That’s just such boring rap.
MR: That’s the thing. The stuff that interests me is dangerous, and it’s not always designed to suggest the proper ameliorations, you know. Art is contradiction. It’s not something that’s going to conform to our nice, liberal values.
I wondered if there was a Dadaist impulse in your poems.
MR: I was just talking about Dada today. I’ve always preferred Dada to surrealism. I think there’s a kind of softened Dadaist sensibility in my work. Something like “Alien vs. Predator,” where I say, “That elk is such a dick,” wouldn’t make sense with a SparkNotes commentary on that line explaining what the elk is. There is a certain absurdity to being in the world, and I find it both useful and funny to jar people out of the poem in that way, or to upend expectation in that way. But the Dadaists were much more concerned with actually subverting the morals of their society, in a way that I think now would seem kind of ridiculous as an artistic gesture. Not that I’m against subversion, but the idea that you could accomplish it through art seems kind of outdated, unfortunately.
Do you think that subversion can happen with music now? Or do you think that that is equally outdated?
MR: I don’t think anyone knows what can play the role of subversive agent right now. We’re at a point in history where it just doesn’t seem as if there’s a way out. The people I’m attracted to politically are the so-called new communists, like Zizek and Badiou, but it’s not as if they know what the hell to do. Occupy Wall Street is a gorgeous gesture, but it seems to me that we won’t really know what can actually play a subversive role until it happens. There’s a great sense of being locked into our capitalist destiny that is so pervasive that I don’t think people have political will anymore. The gestures toward that will, like Occupy, are extraordinarily important and significant, but we’re waiting to find out. The crises of economic life and of ecological life have progressed so far that it seems like there must be something, but I don’t know more than anyone else what that will be or what that will look like.
What was the first hip hop record you remember really loving? Was it Public Enemy?
MR: Yeah, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I remember, my friend put it on. I’m embarrassed to think about it now, but the melodrama of that opening where the guy is introducing them on stage in London, and Chuck is saying, “If you all really like to rock the funky beats, let me hear y’all say ‘Hell yeah.’” And then the Bomb Squad drops in. You have to stop laughing. It’s like metal in that respect. Absolutely just unkillable. That record changed my life. That was the same year as Daydream Nation. Those two tapes could have been glued into my Walkman, for all I cared. They actually toured together, and I missed it.
They actually toured together?
MR: Oh yeah. Chuck D. was on Goo, he was on “Kool Thing.”
Oh, that’s right.
MR: I liked Goo a lot. It came out after I graduated from high school. There was a sense among people who were listening to it that it was kind of a letdown after Daydream Nation. But I don’t know what wouldn’t have been a letdown after Daydream Nation.
I feel like reviewers are just jumping over themselves to talk about the pop culture references and it kind of gets in the way of any sort of talk about the actual construction of your poems. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I wanted to know if you could talk about it, because it seems like an interesting obstacle.
MR: On the one hand I definitely don’t want to complain about the reviews the book has been getting, because it’s just been way beyond anything I could have imagined. For Entertainment Weekly, the Boston Globe, and the fucking Weekly Standard to write positive reviews? I mean, really positive reviews. I don’t want to complain about it. And I know that there’s a lack of space, and you have to attract readers, and the surfaces of the poems offer an attractive way to do that. They’re kind of flashy and attractive, and they engage with pop culture in a way that people probably don’t expect from poetry. And John Ashbery says “The surface is what’s there,” you got to attend to it. But I do feel as though I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a pop poet. If I were just writing nasty poems about celebrities and rap artists, that’s not interesting. The poetry has to be good, and I hope that it is. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be the novelty.
Someone like your friend…I assume you guys are friends, since you dedicated a poem to him.
MR: Anthony [Madrid]?
Yeah, he has a poem that quotes Prince.
MR: I actually put that on my Tumblr, sort of as a way of saying, “See, I’m not the only one who does it.” Nick Demske, who’s also a friend of mine, he writes really, really smart poems using pop culture in similar ways. He has a book out on Fence, which is called Nick Demske. I was going to title my book Nick Demske, but he got to it first.
Some of your poems are titled after albums, so you get the feeling that these are riffs off songs you’re thinking about, or music videos. Are there any specific poets that you’re riffing on?
MR: “Dream Song 1864” was based on one of Emerson’s journal entries about Thoreau. Really just because I’m a nerd, I started thinking about Henry as not Henry David Thoreau but Henry of The Dream Songs, and imagining what Emerson was writing about that Henry. I’m kind of amazed at how it came together because I wrote it in ten minutes. The material was all right there, I just had to take the material and turn it into a Berryman poem. Whitman obviously, in “From Karpos.” That is sort of intended to send up the nature of an epiphany poem a la Mary Oliver. No one’s noticed this but in “Sway” I repurpose James Wright in the second stanza. There’s some Dickinson, there’s some Frost. There’s a lot, I don’t even know what all there is. Ginsberg. Robert Haas is alluded to in a kind of cheeky way.
MR: “Human Wishes,” which is the name of one of his books. It’s my favorite Robert Haas book. In general, some of the rhythms I borrow from Yeats. There are allusions in here that I don’t think anyone would really get unless I pointed them out. I feel like the radio. Jack Spicer talks about how the poet is a radio receiving signals from the martians.
It’s like pirate radio, where I don’t get the complete signal sometimes. Some lines come through clearer than others.
MR: I remember when I used to have to listen to the radio when I was a kid, and there would be songs, this would be in the 80s, so I would want to tape “Africa” by Toto, and I would want to hit record right when the DJ stopped talking and right when the song started and hit stop right when the DJ came back in, and I could never get it right. Sometimes I would lose the signal in the middle of taping and frantically move the antenna around, so there’d be a little static on my recording of “Africa.” There would always be that awkward clunky sound of the record button being pushed at the beginning of the song, I could never get it perfect. It wasn’t very long until I just started buying the music, or having my Dad buy it for me. I was so into Journey when I was a kid.
MR: I was in the Journey fan club. They had a newsletter called Journey Force that they would send to members of the fan club, and I would devour every issue. And I grew up in a small town in Colorado called Woodland Park, a really tiny little town, and in those towns everyone listened to metal basically. Everyone was listening to Dio, Ozzy, Def Leppard, and I had my Journey t-shirts. It was a source of much ridicule, and kind of a reverse pride on my part for sticking with my band in the face of constant humiliation for liking what they called “fag music.”
Now I don’t listen to much radio. The iPod for me is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It would take me two months to listen to every song on my iPod. If I had had this at 17, I don’t think I would have become a poet, because I wouldn’t have done anything else but listen to my iPod. Whereas when I was 10 or 12, I had my Walkman and I had to throw ten or twelve cassette tapes into my backpack and lug them around if I went somewhere.
Must have been noisy.
MR: Oh my god, the Walkman used to drive me crazy. Because it would just start slowing down, or there would be something wrong with the earphone jack. It was bad. There’s something kind of wonderful in retrospect about having my formative musical experiences be via cassette tapes, which is almost as bad a medium for me as the 8-track. I’m glad it was like that. These days, I can’t believe the kind of shit I would settle for.
What bands did you hate back in the day but now actually like a lot?
MR: There were so many. You’ve got to realize that when I was in high school, Top 40 was actually really great. There was Madonna, Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson. REM. U2. The big bands at my high school were U2 and the Grateful Dead. That’s what all the popular kids listened to. The girls listened to the Smiths and New Order and Yaz and Erasure. All that stuff seemed Euro-faggy to me or in the case of U2 this pseudo-bombast. I was more into Negativland, but now I think U2 is a great band. The singer needs to learn how to write a decent lyric, but you can get past that. New Order, of course, I realized quickly in college, is maybe the greatest band in the history of music. Yaz follow not far behind. Also the Pet Shop Boys. Erasure, I never had a taste for. Depeche Mode, too. I never got into Depeche Mode. I tried, I have Violator on my iPod.
There was a Denver band called the Warlock Pinchers, who opened for the Butthole Surfers whenever they came to town, and they had a song called “Morrissey Rides a Cockhorse,” that makes fun of “Girlfriend in a Coma.” Morrissey and the Smiths were just endless sources of ridicule in my small, geeky circle. There was a lot of benign homophobia involved. For me, punk was the thing, so I was all about smashing shit, and the Pet Shop Boys are not very likely to do much more than accidentally knock a tea cup off the amplifier.
When or how did you start writing poems?
MR: I never know how to answer this question. I wrote “poems” in high school, but I really started “writing poems” in college, but I don’t think I wrote a single good poem until I was 26 or so, and then it was probably another five years until I wrote another one. I fell into it. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I heard a character on some TV series reciting Yeats—magical, incantatory—and checked out Yeats’s poems from the library. Couldn’t make heads or tails out of them, of course. But I could hear “The wandering earth herself may be / Only a sudden flaming word, / In clanging space a moment heard, / Troubling the endless reverie.”
I still have a soft spot for early, Romantic, yearning Yeats, because I didn’t know any better than to start at the beginning of the collected poems. “The Rose of Peace” was the first poem I ever memorized & I still say it to myself from time to time. Then I took workshops with Lorna Dee Cervantes at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and discovered James Wright and Vallejo and Artaud and Rilke. It was an unorthodox education. I don’t think I read Eliot in earnest until I was a senior in college.
Also, when I was around sixteen or so, I began to get heavily into Dylan—I’ve listened to Blonde on Blonde more than any other record besides Exile on Main Street—and for Christmas my dad gave me the poems of Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas, Dylan’s favorite poets. This led me to write a number of unreadable exercises in Thomas-style obscurantism.
Why Exile on Main Street? Besides the fact that it is awesome, I mean.
MR: Exile was my favorite Stones record (although Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet weren’t far behind) when the Stones were my favorite band, which was a period of about ten years, so I listened to it a lot. It was released the year I was born, so I suppose I have a sentimental attachment to it.
But again it’s more a question of technological determination: I backpacked around Europe for a month when I was 22, and I didn’t have room for more than a few tapes. The ones I listened to most were New Order’s Substance and Exile. I listened to both of them every day, but Exile I listened to at least twice a day for a month. Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes.