Q & A: Michael Robbins
Who is the “you” of this poem?
Robert Wrigley wrote to me in the spring to say that he’d been teaching two of my poems in his class at the University of Idaho. One student—the only one in the class to recognize that a line in my poem “Lust for Life” is a quote from a pop song by Pink—seemed, Wrigley wrote, “particularly stricken.” “Every time I think I know what poetry is,” she said, “I find out I don’t.” What better response could any poet hope for? I’ve been thinking since then that she’s my audience, she’s the stranger I write for. She’s my “you”—the person who isn’t sure what she thinks of poetry, who didn’t know you could quote Pink in a poem in the New Yorker. I don’t mean that to sound self-aggrandizing. I think anyone should write for someone like that—with the intention of letting her know it’s all right, it’s good, if you find out you don’t know what poetry is.
Tell us about your upbringing and whether it—and your personal experience generally—enter your work.
I do believe that personal experience enters anyone’s poetry, at least obliquely. “I still consider myself very charming,” as Tristan Tzara said. And I am interested, as a reader and a critic, in poetry that springs from and explores what the novelist Marilynne Robinson calls “the felt life of the mind.” But I don’t believe that my upbringing is reflected directly in my poems, or that it needs to be.
I don’t want to be too specific about my upbringing in case my parents should read this, but for much of my childhood I spent part of the year in a conventionally dysfunctional middle-class household that was comfortable enough and part of the year in the careless and tacky condition of the very poor, in which I got to learn at an early age about eviction notices and food stamps and roach clips. And I learned how to make myself very small, nearly invisible, during the seemingly random explosions of casual violence that I spent much of my time dreading.
It is, as I wrote on the blog Digital Emunction, the aesthetics that I remember most: oversized T-shirts printed with stylized unicorns and wolves, garish sweaters with fake Indian designs; wall hangings and miniatures that I would learn, much later, to refer to as “kitsch.” I remember dogs everywhere, sofas stained with their urine. I remember drinking milk from jumbo containers given away by Hardee’s and Burger King, promotional tie-ins emblazoned with blockbuster characters, now fading.
I don’t want to make too much of this. Many people—hundreds of millions—have it much, much worse than I did for those few months out of the year. But our neuroses come from somewhere, and we work them out as best we can, perhaps by writing poems. I’m fascinated by Lacan’s idea that the goal of psychoanalysis is not to get cured, but to confront the human condition. But then I’m also drawn to Origen’s and Gregory of Nyssa’s speculation that everyone might get saved, even Satan and his minions.
Would you say these ideas are expressed in, or somehow underlie, these three poems? If so, how?
The idea that redemption is possible underlies all poems, underlies the very will to create. But as Allen Grossman reminds us, poetry is not consolation. “I heard of a thing called ‘Redemption’—which rested men and women,” Dickinson says in one of her letters to “Master.” “You remember I asked you for it—you gave me something else.”
Where does the rhyme come from? Is it ironic or satirical?
Byron’s or Pope’s rhymes are sometimes ironic or satirical, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love rhyme. I saw where someone on a message board was mocking the simplicity of my rhymes in one of my poems—I need to turn off Google alerts—and it never occurred to her that I might be in control of my materials enough to have intended that simplicity as a kind of formal reflection on the subject matter. Or perhaps that’s my dream of mastery again. I’m very fond of rhyme, at any rate, and their use of it is part of what draws me to Paul Muldoon and Frederick Seidel and Lil Wayne. I always begin my poetry classes by telling my students a version of something Auden said: that if they want to write poems because they feel they have something important to say or something to express about themselves, they should take up creative nonfiction. But if they like playing around with syllables, they might be poets. Then I tell them that there will come a point when they’ll want to completely disregard that advice.