Michael Robbins, whose poetry scrambles high and low (and gets spiritual about Guns N' Roses), celebrates his debut collection

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Michael Robbins (B. Michael Payne)
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Michael Robbins's poetry appeals to the ear and the mind, as poetry should. It's also very funny.

Before a reading on Wednesday at Housing Works Bookstore to celebrate last week’s release of his debut poetry collection, Alien vs. Predator (Penguin), I talked with Robbins about his recent influences and interests: Marilynne Robinson, David Foster Wallace, John McPhee, John Jeremiah Sullivan.

He’s working on a syllabus for a class he’ll be teaching in creative nonfiction (a term he thinks is nonsensical) at Chicago’s Lake Forest College next term. Walking among Housing Works’ upper-level bookshelves, Robbins said he was a fan of Immanuel Kant and Stanley Cavell, and laid out a short critique of the literal-minded objectivity of science writers Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet. All those disparate voices and issues, in the end, are what make Robbins’ poetry so incongruous and delightful.

Take “Dig Dug,” which concludes: “Slash is both sad and happy for Axl./ The nation’s pets are high on Paxil./ Memory is the bended grass where deer have lain./ It’s hard to hold a candle to the cold November rain.”

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What would Kant say?

Robbins might be like a latter-day version of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, watching the detritus of late-capitalist culture pile up behind him, then scooping it up, reshaping it into poems, and presenting them as something new. The mix of high and low has won fans and placement in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Boston Review.

Robbins selected his fellow readers for the event, and they were a nice, heterogeneous mix, too. The New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones was absent because of travel problems, but other readers included an Internet publishing maestro, a Riot Grrrl scribe, and a bona fide rock star.

Choire Sicha, co-founder of The Awl (which has published Robbins’ poems), read a chunk from his forthcoming, as-yet untitled book of nonfiction, which started out as a parable and ended like a real-estate column. Reading from his iPhone, he traced the wax and wane of the “corporate kings” of New York, a city he described as making itself through the human exchange of possibility, sex, fame, and (most importantly) money—until it reached its apex: a great glass pyramid housing the mayor, Peter Thiel, Beyoncé, and Brian Williams. At times simple and clear, at times thickly experimental, Sicha’s essay moved from the corporate holdings of NBC, the invention of insurance (in case of dead children), and the definition of a peach and raspberry pie, and he finished in a blustery rush before quickly leaving the podium.

Next up was Sara Marcus, author of Riot Grrrl chronicle Girls To The Front. Her reading was about, as she told it, how she “explained criticism to Jesus Jones.” Iain Baker, “the manager of the band and also its keyboardist,” had responded to a brief passage in Marcus’ book critiquing the band’s hit “Right Here, Right Now.” Gen Xers, she’d written, weren’t exactly on the front lines of history, as the song suggests; rather, they were mostly watching videos like “Right Here, Right Now” on MTV. “The triumph of capitalism,” she read, “trumps all the principled movements against its ugliest excesses. And best of all, one can own this alleged victory just as surely by hanging around on one’s sofa.” Baker took exception, and Marcus read his email, and her eventual reply. And so, she “explained criticism” to him by noting that works of art—especially great ones—lend themselves to multiple readings and meanings, which help explain the works themselves and the issues they explore.

Kristin Hersh, of the seminal '80s-to-'90s alternative band Throwing Muses and more recently author of the memoir Rat Girl, also described a generational understanding gap. Reading form Rat Girl, Hersh recounted a few of her unlikely experiences with Betty Hutton, an old Hollywood star and herself a former singer. The two met while Hersh was in college, and despite their great differences, their temperaments meshed.

“Betty sings about starlight and champagne. I sing about dead rabbits and blow jobs,” Hersh said.

Hersh and the former starlet got along famously. At Hersh’s early music performances, the sheer incongruity of Hutton’s presence—still playing the role of starlet (in scummy clubs, no less)—gave her the confidence to rock and wail. Hersh concluded with some verse, which was strange, violent, but also tender. In the poem she and her son talk, over cereal, about blowing everything up. “As far as explosions go, sizzling is the only one that is potentially a lifestyle.”

Hersh’s poetry provided a nice entry point for Robbins. He was introduced as “the Taylor Swift of American poetry,” and read from a manuscript for his next book, currently called Second Sex (“because I couldn’t think of a title,” he explained). One poem, which intertwined a Pitchfork review of a Can box set with Robbins’ feelings about turning 40, was particularly touching. But Robbins seemed most comfortable reading works from Alien vs. Predator. One poem, “My New Asshole,” got a particularly warm response from the crowd. Its final stanza landed like a punchline:

My new asshole says so much.
My new asshole is being bullied.
It occurs to me I am my new asshole.
I am talking about myself again.

Robbins loves alluding to and parodying music and culture. The rest is quotes, mash-ups, and pastiche. After Sicha, Marcus, and Hersh all grappled with the unstoppable grind of time, it made sense for Robbins to demolish it all and build it back again. Robbins concluded with a poem called “Space Mountain”: “I am a man of few words, each one a thrown switch./ Shall I name the mouth-breathers at whom I pitch/ with superstitious loathing these excretions oozing bile?/ Then pull up a chair. This could take a while.”