Q & A: Michael Robbins

The title is a reference to Jack Spicer’s last words. What made you take up and rework them? Does the poem owe something to Spicer?

Every poem owes something to Spicer. But the title expresses, as titles often do, a dream of mastery. Spicer was trained in the Sapir-Whorf tradition, so he knew whereof he spoke when he spoke of whereof he spoke (assuming he really said “My vocabulary did this to me”). I am opposed, generally, to linguistic determinism, especially as it has played out in the soi-disant avant-garde over the last few decades, but when I was writing this poem I was reading Daniel Everett’s amazing Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, his account of life among the Pirahã Indians of Brazil, who allegedly have no number system, an extremely limited pronoun set, and an exclusive focus on the present moment. Everett argues that it is the dearth of tenses in the Pirahã language that accounts for their inability to conceive of the past beyond living memory: their vocabulary did this to them. There are several problems, as I understand it, with Everett’s thesis, which fascinates me precisely because I resist it so strongly, but it’s a terrific book.

Anyway, the idea that language is in charge, that it does this to us, is now as familiar in literary theory and psychoanalysis as in linguistic anthropology. Spicer says, in Language, “Graphemes are voluntary,” but by now you can’t prioritize speech in that way without running up against Derrida. I apologize for mentioning Derrida. “I did this to my vocabulary,” then, expresses a probably futile wish for an opposing wisdom. “One fights against language,” as Gottlob Frege said. What this has to do with the poem is for the reader to work out, if she cares to. 

 

If your “lume” is “spento,” how does Ezra Pound figure, if he does at all, given this reference to the title of his first book?

What a precious little twit he was in those days! Nothing like the cute old codger he was to become. Inside is the only kind of baseball in poetry, which is why it’s so hard to keep score. 

 

Do your own tastes run to, or against, heavy metal? Why are there pop music references in the poem?

I love heavy metal now, but with the exception of a few canonical heavyweights—Sabbath, Slayer, Motörhead—I came to it quite late. When I was in high school, listening to Television and the Clash, I sneered at the metalheads smoking down by the fence. I try to make up for that now by blasting Peste Noire and Pig Destroyer, which causes my neighbors to sneer at me. I first began to listen to metal out of a sense of its comic potential, but as John Darnielle says somewhere, Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast will always defeat your irony. There’s a tremendous class bias against metal, as there is against country, which I also love. I suppose the frequent earnestness of the lyrics, in each case, invites the insecure mockery of sophisticates manqués.

There are pop music references in my poems for the same reason there are biblical references in George Herbert’s. 

 

“Till wonders are taken for road signs”: this line, like the lines, “An unseen force propels the carts/Across the Whole Foods parking lot,” seems to make light of “religious” or transcendent experience. True? If so, why?

Not at all. Whole Foods, that union-busting paragon of “new age” liberalism, is a metonym for an entire parascientific culture that makes light of transcendent experience. Any thinking person should oppose the smug ignorance of fundamental ontological questions that characterizes today’s atheism at least as strongly as she opposes the historical tragedy of religious literalism.

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This poem originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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