The House of Song: An Interview with Michael Robbins


The Overlook Mountain House—near Woodstock, New York—features prominently in “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday.”

After his first two collections, Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex, Michael Robbins drew comparisons to poets like Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon. In those poems—with titles like “My New Asshole” and “Pissing in One Hand”—Robbins is concerned for the fate of the whales, and he’s unafraid to spit vitriol about banks, oil pipelines, Xbox, Jesus, Jay Z. He writes about the modern world with such referential range, and such sharpness, that you can almost miss his superhuman command of verse and rhyme, which Dwight Garner has called “dizzying.” Those poems are anchored by constant allusions and tributes to the music Robbins loves. Most memorably, in Alien vs. Predator’s “I Did This to My Vocabulary,” he exclaims the names of heavy-metal bands as Santa Claus roll calls his reindeer in “The Night Before Christmas”: “On Sabbath, on Slayer, on Maiden and Venom! / On Motorhead, and Leppard, and Zeppelin, and Mayhem!”

Two poems published in The Paris Review over the past year, Walkman” and “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday,” are more autobiographical and ruminative; they seem to follow in the tradition of the New York School. “Schuyler was too tender / for me then,” Robbins writes in “Walkman,” “but now / he is just tender / enough.” It’s this pivot toward tenderness—rich with memories, “beautiful experiences,” secrets, breakups, apologies, Schuyler-esque wishes—that might best characterize the departure from his earlier work. You can hear a little Taylor Swift (Robbins is a fan) in the last lines of “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday”: “Wherever / you are, I hope you stand / still now and then / and let the prayers / wash over you like the breakers / at Fort Tilden that day / the huge gray gothic / clouds massed and threatened to drop / a storm on our heads / but didn’t.” 

I met Robbins at a café in Brooklyn, where we talked about Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, his book of essays forthcoming in July, and the stylistic shift between his collections and his poems in the Review.

INTERVIEWER

The two poems in the Review recently—“Walkman” and “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday”—are a radical departure from those in your books.

ROBBINS

After The Second Sex, I didn’t want to write any more poems in the vein of my two collections. I just didn’t want to be one of those poets who write the same book over and over again. I knew that I wanted to write a different kind of poem. So the first thing I decided, before I knew what I was going to write, was that I wasn’t going to rhyme, and I wasn’t going to worry about meter. 

INTERVIEWER

Was that easy?

ROBBINS

Well, there’s not any strict meter in those first two books, but there’s the ghost of pentameter—well, there’s the ghost of the iamb, mostly. I just knew that the first thing I had to do if I wanted to write different kinds of poems was shake that off. But as I set out to write a poem, that rhythm was in my head. It’s not like you’re counting out beats and trying to make the line rhyme, but you think in rhyme and certain rhythms, after a while. When I was younger, I didn’t understand how Milton could have dictated Paradise Lost, when he was blind, to his daughter, because I didn’t understand how you could just extemporaneously compose iambic pentameter—I thought it was something you had to labor at. But people used to grow up writing in that rhythm, and it became the natural cadence for poetic speech.

First I wrote a couple things that were really just strange little ditties that didn’t escape that model, but I was just trying to think my way out of it by writing. And then “Walkman” just exploded out. I had no idea when I was writing it if it was going to be a success. I wrote that poem in a way that I had never written any poem before, which is I spent nine hours writing it. That’s just what I did one day. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I just started writing, and a few more lines came to me, and then I was writing for nine hours, and it was more or less in the form you see now. I revised it, but the basic skeleton was there after nine hours. And I had been reading a lot of James Schuyler, which I mention in the poem, and I sort of had his—he sometimes writes in long, looping lines, but also sometimes in very short lines, and I had those shorter-line poems in my head. But when you read the poem it doesn’t sound like Schuyler. And I hadn’t read Schuyler that deeply before. Before I started writing this, I read his entire corpus, at least his collected poetry, and I had never done that before, and that’s all I read for three weeks. And that’s an intense experience. You’re reading thirty-page poems, and they’re very much about what James Schuyler is thinking, and what kind of flower he’s interested in, and what the weather is like, and it was just a different kind of immersion for me. “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday” came in the same vein— that one was more imposed, it wasn’t like a breaking of a dam, like “Walkman” was.

INTERVIEWER

Does it feel like a permanent departure from that former style?

ROBBINS

Those two poems—I like them, but in some respects, they resemble kinds of poetry that I have disliked for most of my life. And that, too, was something where I was like, I’m just going to go with it, and people can think these poems are bourgeois or self-involved or precious or overly serious or what have you. On Facebook, on The Paris Review page, one of the first responses under “You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday” was just some guy who wrote, “Ew.” And I was like, Fair enough!

INTERVIEWER

One of the essays in your forthcoming book, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, is “Red,” a review of the Taylor Swift album by the same name, a critical analysis of Swift herself, and a three-page bird-flip to all her haters.

ROBBINS

My favorite piece about Taylor Swift was Rick Moody’s takedown, because he singles me out, and some other critics. He just can’t believe that anybody likes Taylor Swift. It was nice to be singled out by Rick Moody as a Taylor Swift partisan.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever seen such a critical rush to defense for a pop artist as you’ve seen with Taylor Swift?

ROBBINS

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one as widespread. The notion that a teenage girl is going to come along and write country-music songs about breakups seems to invite, in many people, a dismissive response, sort of ipso facto. I thought that was interesting. And you see it not just with her, but with Britney Spears and Katy Perry, and a lot of so-called pop artists. So-called pop, where “pop” doesn’t just mean popular but designates a certain kind of ephemeral and chart-busting experience—bubblegum. I don’t see why we should rely on such preworked categories instead of just admitting that that is a perfectly valid experience. I’ve never been to a Taylor Swift concert. I would like to go to one, but it’s true that I don’t want to be around that many twelve-year-old girls. But at the same time, I don’t see any reason for dismissing the validity of twelve-year-old girls’ experiences.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think educated people are more likely to write off pop music?

ROBBINS

No—that’s been an interesting shift. You couldn’t really find an Adorno today talking about how primitive jazz is—I mean, obviously jazz today is seen as non-primitive, but you’re not going to find many people writing off pop music the way it was possible to do in the past. I think everyone recognizes that a lot of what Adorno said about the monetization of popular music is true, but he uncharacteristically did not view it as dialectically as it should be viewed. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of intellectual disparagement of pop music anymore—of course it happens—hi, Rick Moody—but it’s not as common as it was.

INTERVIEWER

At one point, you mention you’re not sure what poetry or pop music would look like after capitalism.

ROBBINS

Well, it existed before capitalism. Pop music obviously is a special case, but there was poetry before capitalism. There might be poetry after capitalism. I mean, partly what I’m saying is that we don’t know what will come after capitalism, so we don’t know what cultural forms will speak to that condition. But also what I mean is that poetry and pop music are now inseparable from capitalism. They’re not just reflections of it, they’re not even mediations— they’re a part of it. They’re imbricated as material social processes in capitalism now. So I don’t know, no one can know, what they would look like after capitalism, except that they would be very different. I don’t know if they would survive or not survive, but whatever they do, they wouldn’t survive in their current form.

INTEVIEWER

There are a few down-tempo moments in Equipment for Living when it seems like you become exasperated with certain critical approaches to both poetry and pop. “As for me and my house,” you say, “we serve the song.”

ROBBINS

The experience I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of—and I don’t and I can’t, and this book is actually a failure to do so—was nicely captured in a Facebook post by a friend of mine who wrote that her son kept playing the same pop song over and over again. I don’t remember the song, which is unfortunate, but she asked him, Why do you like it so much? And he said that the chorus made him feel haunted. And I was just like, Yeah! That’s it! That’s the thing. That hauntedness that you feel is a very strange experience, and I guess it’s what people mean by aesthetic, by the aesthetic, which is a term that has always caused more trouble than it has resolved. But there’s something about certain songs, certain poems, certain movies, that gives us that kind of experience. None of this is new. This is something that people have been trying to get to the bottom of since someone first recited the Iliad around a fire. But it’s a strange experience. It’s strange that words and songs can have that kind of power. And I don’t want to romanticize it, and I don’t want to just have recourse to the sublime. I want to try and understand it as it works in myself and as it works in social reality. It turns out that’s very hard to do.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give me any exclusive access to some B sides in the book’s final chapter, “Playlist”?

ROBBINS

I just made an actual playlist on Spotify for the book, which is over nine hours long. The online marketing manager at Simon & Schuster asked me to do it, and I realized that there were a few more songs that I might have liked to write about, just some perfect songs that have never let me down. Cyndi Lauper’s version of “Money Changes Everything.” Fleetwood Mac’s “Storms.” Swamp Dogg’s “Synthetic World.” Roxy Music’s “True to Life.” Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July.” Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version of “Pancho and Lefty.” And, most of all, “Dr. Wu” by Steely Dan. Those great lines: “All night long / we would sing that stupid song / and every word we sang I knew was true.” That’s pretty much the dialectic of pop music that I love. The words to the stupid song are true, and you know it.

Daniel Johnson is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s Press.

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