Of Poets and Critics: A Conversation Between Anahid Nersessian and Michael Robbins




THE LAST TIME I saw Michael Robbins in person was in December 2019. We had met up for our annual Christmas shopping trip across the used bookstores of Manhattan; little did we know that the idea of “the annual” was about to lose all meaning thanks to the protractions of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this interview, we connected (like everyone) over Zoom to discuss our recent experiments in intimately personal writing: Michael with his new book Walkman (Penguin Books), me with the essays in Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (University of Chicago Press). We spoke — as we usually do, and as we did for LARB back in 2015 — about poetry, riots, and pop music, and about what the last year has taught us, improbably, about hope.

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ANAHID NERSESSIAN: I went through my email and dug up the first correspondence we had about Walkman, way back in 2015. You asked if you could send me “like 5 pages of a totally new (for me) kind of poem” so I could decide if you’d lost your mind or not. Truthfully, I kind of thought you had lost your mind — the poem was so different from your previous work, and I can say now that I totally did not get it. Can you talk about why, after the success of Alien vs. Predator (2012) and The Second Sex (2014), you decided to abandon the more traditional forms of those collections and write Walkman instead?

MICHAEL ROBBINS: I wish I had a better answer than that I was bored with what I had been doing and wanted to challenge myself to do something new. Perhaps I was thinking, too, of how so many poets whose best work is very important to me calcify through repetition, writing progressively less interesting versions of the same poem over and over. I happened to be making my way through James Schuyler at the time, and he ended up being a kind of tutelary spirit for this book. I think I got better at the new mode in the later poems — the one I sent you was the first one I wrote, and it opens the book — but I think its rawness works to its advantage. I had to learn how to write like that on the fly, and I wrote the whole thing in one nine-hour block.

And while most of these poems were written before the pandemic, some were written during, right?

Yeah, only one poem overtly alludes to it, but weirdly another one seems to because it talks about the word for “epidemic” in Akkadian, but that was way before this happened. I wrote a review of a book about the 2014 Ebola outbreak and I was thinking a lot about epidemics and pandemics. My review, which was published in September 2019, says something like, “It remains unlikely that Ebola will spark a global pandemic, but it is almost certain that something else will.”

Wow.

In response to your question about why I stopped writing in my old style, I said I was bored, which is true, but those poems address social, economic, ecological crises in a sarcastic, angry, punk-rock, death-metal way, and somewhere between my second book and this book, my feeling about those crises became less angry and more melancholy — I stopped believing that we’re ever going to do anything about them. I know that’s not good praxis, but if someone asked me, “Are we going to solve global warming?” the answer is no, I don’t think we are. I think civilization’s probably going to end, not in some dramatic sense, but it’s not gonna be a whimper either. I think there will be a clear cliff off which we plunge, and I think we’ve already started to do that, and I think the pandemic is of a piece with that. I mean, why are novel viruses arising so often? It’s not a coincidence that they’re arising while we’re fucking the planet up: deforestation has a great deal to do with it, mining, extraction. It’s all of a piece. As I said last year, the accelerationists must just be loving this moment.

There was a recent review of Walkman that characterized it as hopeful, but my own experience of reading these poems is of falling down a well. With your first two books, the manipulation of rhyme and meter produced a certain sense of mastery and, with it, detachment from the same set of crises that preoccupy Walkman. Here you’ve totally taken that net out from under yourself, and the despair is never discharged in or given order by any formal contrivance, still less by any knowing comment on how we’re supposed to feel or what we’re supposed to do. It’s pretty grueling.

I agree with you, though I guess it’s good if it comes across as hopeful to someone. There is maybe one moment of real hope at the end of “CVS on Fire.” That poem was written before the George Floyd protests, during the riots that broke out in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. I do think, if there’s any hope, that it lives in the streets, in the crowd. I lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall, and what happened last summer feels more momentous to me, coming as it did at such a perilous time politically and globally, during the Trump presidency, during the pandemic. People poured out into the streets in the millions and braved the sick, sick violence of the police, and not just the police! The entire repressive apparatus of the state was turned against them and they still turned up. I felt hope then like I’ve never felt since I became politically aware. So if there’s any hope it lives there. But those moments are fleeting in the book, and part of that is because I wrote it “under the sign of the black mark,” as the black metal band Bathory calls it. That’s pretty much where I operate: under that sign.

You say in a recent interview that Keats can be “messy and a little embarrassing,” and perhaps both of us have written books that might, at times, meet that description. Keats’s Odes is in part an intimate personal narrative. What was behind your decision to read Keats via your own experience of, for instance, sexual harassment?

Well, it wasn’t really a decision. The idea for the book came out of a conversation with my editor in September 2019, and he wanted to publish it around the bicentenary of Keats’s death, so that gave me three months to produce the first draft for copyediting; I handed in the final proofs in May 2020. Like you with the first Walkman poem, I was writing in a compressed time frame and in something of a vacuum, so I didn’t have room to plan, let alone second-guess myself. I didn’t sit down to do the chapter on “Grecian Urn” thinking, “Now I’m going to talk about that time my asshole high-school Latin teacher came onto me.” I began with explaining what the poem says and how it says it, and then that story presented itself. 

But I’m not really a planner in general. I get asked, “Why is your epigraph from George Oppen? How come you talk about Keats and Baraka and Pasolini instead of Keats and Dickinson and Stevens?” Well, I love Oppen and Baraka and Pasolini, and don’t really care all that much these days about Dickinson and Stevens. It’s not much deeper than that. For me, making those kinds of connections never begins with some idea of thematic continuity or affinity. It begins with sound.

It occurs to me that poetry itself is embarrassing. You have that bit early in the book about not wanting to be a poet, since poets are “people who dress as puns for Halloween,” which made me LOL IRL. I had a dream last night that I was at a party — it’s been over a year since I was at a party — and someone introduced me as a poet, and I cringed in the dream, and said, “I’m a writer.” Even “writer” is too affected for you, we learn from your book — you prefer “critic.”

I don’t think “writer” is affected, it’s just not a good description of what I personally do. When I say, “In grad school, I learned that good writer was a synonym for con artist,” that’s an affectionate joke about the University of Chicago, where (as you know, since we were there together) beautiful or stylish prose is seen as a threat to rigorous argumentation — and what could be better than rigorous argumentation? I’m kidding, obviously.

But yeah, the difference between poetry and criticism is very important to the book’s psychology. A poem doesn’t have to stand by its account of the world, but criticism kind of does, otherwise it’s not criticism — it’s just a bizarre leisure activity or a form of narcissistic projection. In Keats’s Odes, the emphasis is less on obligation than exposure: poetry can always take itself back or change its mind and say it didn’t mean it, but once you’ve committed, as I tried to do, to a prose that’s relentlessly transparent and referential, that says what it means even obliquely, you’re on the hook, and that’s a position with certain ethical and emotional consequences. Those feature especially in the chapter on “Ode on Indolence,” which opens with a letter Jenny Marx wrote to Karl before they were married, telling him in this very sly, passive-aggressive way how his particular combination of intensity and imperiousness makes her all too aware that he could retract his love at any time. She ends by imploring him to write to her but “no poetry, I can’t bear it!” The book’s postscript is essentially that letter in my own voice.

You mentioned Baraka — one of my favorite of his essays is on Wayne Shorter, in Black Music. The piece opens: “I knew Wayne Shorter first in Newark where we were both, malevolently, born.” And its final sentence: “I agreed happily and he shook my hand warmly as we parted, taking A trains north and south.” That concluding note of connection, leaving implicit a whole host of associations, seems poetic to me. Baraka mentions Duke Ellington in passing in the piece but not “Take the ‘A’ Train,” but the song echoes back across the preceding pages, so that we rehear and reconsider what we’ve just read by that music. That’s an effect I strive for in my poems and admire in the poems of others. Maybe I’m cheating by choosing the criticism of a poet. And, of course, criticism is parasitic literature, as I once wrote, which is its virtue. But I do think that it can also be a kind of poetry in the Shelleyan sense. As you imply, both forms give an account of the world. Is the difference, as you say, that poetry need not stand by its account? I’m not sure.

You know, I think William Hazlitt is probably right when he says that the language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. It can be lordly, high-handed, intent on the truth of its own experience whatever else it may try to represent. It seems to me that truly compelling examples of a left poetics — to name some that have been on my mind for different reasons: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Riot, Wendy Trevino’s sonnets, and a new book, Rosie Stockton’s Permanent Volta — intensify the contradiction between their own aims and the means poetry offers to articulate or advance them: they don’t consider themselves innocent, even of violence or cruelty. 

For me, being a critic is, again, a psychological predicament, with its own blockages and rewards. In Keats’s Odes, those are described in terms of a submissiveness or surrender that’s more erotic than political, hence the subtitle “A Lover’s Discourse.” I would use those kinds of words and attitudes rather than “parasitic,” though I get where that comes from.

One thing that you did in this book that I hadn’t thought possible is you made me rediscover an interest in and a love for Keats —

Oh, that’s great!

— because I don’t think I’d read Keats seriously since 1995 or ’96 when I was in Fort Collins, Colorado, and I had this old, ugly copy of the Stillinger edition of the Complete Poems. One of the things I did that summer was just read everything. I mean, I read “Sleep and Poetry” —

Terrible poem.

Awful! I tried to read Endymion, gave up on that. I even read The Eve of St. Agnes, which I have no memory of, except I didn’t hate it the way I hated “Sleep and Poetry.” But my point is that, while I was reading your book, I was very struck by the degree to which you don’t read Keats as a silly youth in love with romantic tropes, and you kept surprising me with how much Keats is kind of like a horror movie: he’s just frightening and death-obsessed and sexually provocative. So while Keats is pretty — he’s one of the prettiest poets I’ve ever read — I hadn’t appreciated how much he would have walked on the knife’s edge of death even if he hadn’t died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. It’s interesting to me that a poet like Keats has become a kitsch object. It’s as if Glenn Danzig were held up as a cute little puppy or something. You really made me think of Keats as a dangerous poet, is what I’m trying to say.

I do think the commodification of Keats is a response to the sense that his work is dangerous. There’s a reason why the book begins by saying you should read Capital and the Paris Manuscripts to really understand Keats. Just like Capital, his poems are full of severed body parts and episodes of just astonishing savagery and terror. Some readers have taken it as some kind of provocation to put Keats and Marx together, but if Keats had lived, they would have been contemporaries, almost certainly would even have met each other at some point, and of course, their writing responds to the exact same historical moment. It’s not especially scandalous or mind-blowing to connect them, and anyway, George Bernard Shaw did it first. Most importantly, though, Marx and Keats share a certain defiant optimism grounded in the embrace or activation of relationships between human beings, not as personalities but as bodies at once limited and liberated by sensation.

What you say about Keats becoming kitsch makes me think of another Romantic poet who’s suffered that same fate: William Blake, whose poetry explicitly says we should tear down the prisons, abolish private property, and so on, but that’s not the Blake most people know.

Well, I think it’s a mistake to group Blake with the Romantics; I just don’t think we can categorize him at all.

Or else he’s in a line with the Diggers on one side of him and Diane di Prima on the other.

Someone said if Blake was a Christian then no other man ever was.

Speaking of Christians, in your acknowledgments, you say, “The first line of ‘The Seasons’ is lifted from a sermon by Jeremy Taylor. Other borrowings should be obvious.” When I was reading Walkman, I was thinking that the borrowings here are less obvious than they are in your earlier work, where the allusions to both a canonical body of poetry and to popular music come hard and fast, with a playfulness and audacity that draws some readers in while repelling the ones you don’t want. In Walkman, the effect is much more muted — how come?

Partly I was being cheeky when I said that, but something that’s interested me for a long time is the way that poetry becomes part of our common idiom and vocabulary — there are all those expressions that Shakespeare coined but no one even knows they came from Shakespeare, or how the phrase “hell broke loose” is from Milton. In the first two books, it was really easy to work in bits of poetry and song because they were already in meter and it was easy to fit them into the rhythms of my own poems. But in this book, allusions operate less as common coin and more as private obsessions.

More like equipment for living? Obviously I’m thinking of your book of criticism, Equipment for Living (2017), but it does seem to me that in Walkman, poetry and pop music do the job of sustaining some kind of attachment to life within an existence that often feels unsustainable.

Yeah — they’re less playful and more shards that have lodged themselves so deeply in my mind that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between them and my own thought. You know, sometimes I forget that some phrase I put in a poem I got from somewhere else. One of the things people don’t appreciate enough about poetry is that, yes, it gives you equipment for living, and one of the things Kenneth Burke meant when he used that phrase is that it provides you with strategies for negotiating different situations — he means it in an almost military sense. Another thing people don’t appreciate enough about poetry is that it gives you quotes. That seems like a trivial thing, but those quotes actually help you to address the world and situations that arise in it — or they can, some of them.

Your audience is probably a bit different from mine in that you, I imagine, have three kinds of readers: people that can recognize an allusion to Milton, people that can recognize an allusion to the Wu-Tang Clan or who know who the Wu-Tang Clan are —

— and then people like you and me and others, and of course some of our mutual friends, who can do both.

Yes, whereas I would think the majority of people reading my book are mostly picking up on the canonical material, but I’m playing just as much to the reader who can find the pop lyrics I snuck in for my friends and whomever else can find them. It’s obviously hugely gratifying if someone reads me saying Keats had a face full of water and thinks of that line from Neruda, “Sometimes I get up early and even my soul is wet” —

Incredible line.

— because I had it in mind when I was writing, for the whole book really, trying to capture that same total saturation by grief and longing. Ultimately, though, it’s not a surprise if someone who buys Keats’s Odes can spot a reference to Frank O’Hara, but when people I don’t know email me — and it’s happened a couple times now — and say they clocked the name of a Carly Rae Jepsen song in my discussion of the ode to Psyche and it added to their understanding of the poem, that just thrills me.

I want to stress, though, that to the extent anyone knew who I was, or knew who I was as a poet, a lot of the interest in my work had to do with its mixing of cultural registers.

For sure, that was the hook.

And that always irritated me because I had never understood there to be a distinction between them. I mean, obviously I know there’s a difference between John Keats and Carly Rae Jepsen, but it had never occurred to me that I shouldn’t use both of them in the same way. When Alien vs. Predator came out, and I was doing interviews, people would ask about my incorporation of, say, Wordsworth and Jay-Z into the same line: “I wandered lonely as Jay-Z.” They often used the word “mashup,” which is fair, I guess, but doesn’t reflect how I think about the world. Wordsworth and Jay-Z operate on more or less the same level in my response to the structural defects of human life, and I don’t personally make a distinction in their operation upon my soul.

“Mashup” is too smug — neither of us is trying to prove how clever we are by closing the distance between high and pop culture, and we’re not trying to deflate the idea of Great Literature, which both of us probably believe exists. I mean, look, I think “Hounds of Love” is as good as anything in Petrarch, but it’s not an argument I feel like making because the notion of quality or aesthetic value is just not that interesting to me.

Your review [in the journal Contemporary Literature] of Alien vs. Predator was the only one that, for me, really got the connection between the kind of quotation I was doing and the political … rage, I suppose, of the book.

It’s also the only one that, as far as I know, talks about “Remain in Light,” your elegy for Rachel Corrie — or it was the only one at the time. That’s still my favorite poem from your first two books.

Ah, thank you. I’m sure you’re right — if you go back and look at my early reviews I don’t think many of them mentioned that poem or Rachel Corrie. “Remain in Light,” which is of course the name of a Talking Heads album, actually borrows a little bit from Edwin Robinson’s old poem “Richard Cory,” and it alludes to “Song of Myself”: “If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles / […] I stop somewhere waiting for you.” At the end of the poem, I combined Whitman with the traditional saying “Next year in Jerusalem,” which signifies the endless deferral of messianic hope, which is something we have to deal with whether we’re communists or religious believers or both.

In a way, that combination of popular music, the Israeli occupation, Walt Whitman, resistance, and messianic hope telescopes all my concerns.

In that poem, hope arrives in real time, in the form of a committed global solidarity that’s almost incomprehensible insofar as it involves knowingly giving your life in the name of others. That’s Blake as well: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” My colleague Saree Makdisi, who wrote what I think is the best book on Blake, actually uses lines from another poem, “The Divine Image,” as the epigraph to his Palestine Inside Out.

Yeah. I knew I had to write a poem about Rachel Corrie because I was just so mad, I was just so broken up, and I had a friend at that time who had been to the West Bank and participated in these resistance movements where people just put their bodies on the line, standing in front of bulldozers. If anyone ever gets saved, it’s through that kind of sacrifice; that’s the tragedy of it. I think if there’s anything poetry can do it’s just to gesture at that kind of sacrifice and say, “Here’s something that I don’t have the strength to do myself.”

And, of course, Corrie stood there in the name of the Palestinian people, who are, as we speak, once again under attack, digging out their children from beneath the rubble of bombed apartment blocks, and bravely resisting.

I think often of the probably apocryphal line in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, where Hugh Latimer turns to Nicholas Ridley right before they’re about to be burned at the stake and says, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as shall never be put out.”

“Remain in light.”

Exactly, that’s what I was about to say. You know, I probably had that connection in mind when I wrote the poem, but I had forgotten about it until just now, thinking about martyrs. Even if he didn’t say that, as he probably didn’t, that’s one of the most moving things I can think of, both of you tied to the stake with the wood being lit at your feet, and having that level of conviction and that level of good comfort. I guess maybe the reason I admire it so much is that I’m so ridden with anxiety just living in this world normally, I would be a quivering heap of utter dread at that moment, and I don’t know if I could summon that spirit. None of us does, but the idea that someone could … if there is any hope it lives there.

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Anahid Nersessian is associate professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Harvard University Press, 2015), The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life (University of Chicago Press, 2020), and Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (Chicago, 2021). With Nan Z. Da, she founded and co-edits the Thinking Literature series published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Michael Robbins is the author of the best-selling poetry collections Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex, both published by Penguin, and a book of criticism, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). His third book of poems, Walkman, was published by Penguin Random House in June 2021. He is also the editor of a collection of Margaret Cavendish’s poems published by New York Review Books. He teaches creative writing and English at Montclair State University.

 

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