The first time I interviewed the poet Michael Robbins, he lived in Mississippi; this time, he lives in New York, just several blocks from my apartment. This is not the only difference two years make—since we last spoke, his debut collection Alien vs. Predator has been called one of the best books of 2012 by The New York Times,The Boston Globe, the New York Observer, Slate, The Millions, and, well, us. He has explained metal for Harper’s, and he has written about drones, evangelicals, the New Atheists, country-pop, and his cat Perdita. His new book The Second Sex is more unguarded, more personal than the first, without losing the same intelligence and swiftness. Within the first ten minutes of our interview, Michael and I talked about the birds taking a bath in the rain water on his patio; we made fun of Jonathan Franzen; and we looked for a while at the framed page from the Geneva Bible that he displays on his wall. “‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher: vanity of vanities, all is vanity,’” he read aloud. “It keeps things in perspective.” We then talked at length about writing, fear, and what it ultimately means to be foolish.
What’s your favorite park?
Besides Central Park?
Besides Central Park.
I like Washington Square Park a lot. I like the fountain. But really the best place in New York, for me, is the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. When I first visited in 2007, I had seen it in movies, in Angels in America, the Mike Nichols version on HBO.
The angel in the Bethesda Fountain is… you know. The Angel. In America. One of them.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it.
What are their names? Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah are sitting there, and Hannah says, “You need an idea of the world to go out into the world, but it’s the going into that makes the idea.” My idea of New York after I saw that was always the Bethesda Fountain.
Did you read the Marilynne Robinson profile [in the New York Times Magazine]?
What did you think about what she said about fear?
It’s very true, isn’t it? We are just obsessed with our fear. We’re afraid of pedophiles, and we’re afraid of terrorists, and we’re afraid of everything except what we should be afraid of.
What should we be afraid of?
Just the fact that we’re all going to die.
Is that what you’re afraid of?
I’m afraid of everything. I spend so much time worrying about things, as you know.
But she also said that fear is opportunistic. It’s an excuse.
Well, sure. I suspect that what I fear isn’t really annihilation. Certainly, if I really feared annihilation, I would be living more passionately than I do. Instead of spending all my time in my apartment watching television and reading and playing with my cat.
Do you really think that’s true?
I don’t know what’s true! That’s the problem. I no longer know what one should do. “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to” is a very easy thing to say. But what does that mean? I think there’s this very seductive view that a lot of people have, which I noticed during my brief sojourn on OK Cupid, that to live all you can just involves going to exotic places. You just have to go backpacking in Thailand, and then you’ve lived. I resist that so strongly.
Do you want to know what I did to prepare for this interview?
I went looking for your metaphors, your “I am” statements. Because it’s interesting to me when people confuse your poetry as personal.
That’s interesting to me too.
I then took out all your “I am” statements and rearranged them.
All of them? Oh Lord in heaven.
Some are admissions of guilt, or limitations:
“I’m bad with dates.”
“I’m new to this.”
“I am small.”
“I am afraid.”
“I’m sick of my insane demands.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re screwed.”
But I also say things like “I’m the motherfucking the.”
You also say you’re a fraud.
And “I’m tying balloon animals,” “I’m keeping my options open,” “I’m paraphrasing.” That’s you expressing that there’s not a definitive present.
All of those are refusals to be literalized, right? A balloon animal, you can tie it into many shapes. Like when Steve Martin tied it into the shape of a small intestine in Parenthood.
But at the same time, that’s not an intestine, that’s not an animal, that’s always going to be a balloon.
It’s a balloon. The ‘I’ in my poems is like the ‘I’ in anyone’s poems. It’s just not me.
Then why say it at all?
That’s just what art is.
Masks, I guess. Nietzsche says art is lying. Things that happen to you can go into the poem, but your ultimate fealty is to the art, not to the fact. Any art is going to transform its material in a way that will remove it further from the realm of fact. Not being literal takes a hundred forms.
I also wanted to talk to you about how you sparingly, but noticeably, use tautological reasoning. You say, “The heart knows what it knows.”
I wrote a fragment of a poem that never went anywhere, when I was writing this book. It said: “It is difficult, or not difficult exactly, but impossible.” And then I couldn’t write anymore because that’s all I had wanted to say. You’re reduced to tautology sometimes when you try to say anything about yourself or the world.
Barthes says that’s anti-intellectual.
Of course Barthes says that.
But don’t you think that anti-intellectualism plays a significant role in what you do?
I mean, I’m straightforwardly not anti-intellectual. But the work sometimes flirts with… I wouldn’t even call it anti-intellectualism.
It’s very easy to appear wise. Steven Pinker gives the appearance of wisdom.
Richard Dawkins gives the appearance of wisdom.
I was reading Charles Taylor again, last night, and he makes the good point that what such people want is not actually a world free of belief. If the world were free of belief, they would not be distinguished in any way. At least since the changes that began to take shape after the Reformation, part of unbelief is predicated on a sense of superiority, a sense that you have embraced rationality and you see the world cleanly and as it is. You have set aside those foolish notions, those childish superstitions.
I think they mistake what it is. Because it is what it is. But what it is might not be what it appears to be. The hardest thing in the world is to know that tautology: “it is what it is.” We know that it’s true, but what it could possibly mean, no matter how fine our telescopes are, is completely impossible. For us, anyway.
Does this stuff even show up in my work?
I think people who read your work as aggrandizing—especially with this book—are misreading it. Flat out.
I should hope so.
But you’re also not vulnerable, and I think that catches people off guard.
I think the new book is vulnerable. “Sunday Morning” is pretty vulnerable.
That’s the poem with “the heart knows what it knows.”
And the ending of “Lose Myself” where I say, “It takes three miracles to make a saint, just one mistake to make a man.”
“Lose Myself” has the most “I am” statements in it, of any of the poems.
That poem started out being a rap braggadocio poem. And I realized that it couldn’t just be that. This self-assertion in the face of impossible structural defects of the world and human existence is so insecure, in a way. It’s like, “I am, I am, I am.” You just keep repeating it. You just keep asserting your puissance, and it’s always disguising something.
You keep saying “impossible.”
Are you familiar with Joseph Fourier? He wrote a lot about utopias. He says that he doesn’t want to change human nature, because that would be impossible. He just wants to accommodate it.
My friend Anahid Nersessian is publishing a book called Utopia Limited. I actually have been thinking about utopias a lot because of it.
What have you been thinking?
I think people have a mistaken notion of utopia, where it’s where everything is perfect. You can demand the impossible all you want. But to reconfigure what you’re demanding as not impossible, but as nevertheless not without its privative dimensions, is what we should be doing.
I just had a discussion with an editor of mine about why he’s so opposed to socialism and communism, given that he’s a Christian and these things seem to me, despite the antipathy that exists between them, compatible and mutually supportive. And he said that he’s never been able to get a clear answer of “what it would look like.” We can see achieved socialisms in certain states in Europe, but communism… one doesn’t want it to look like the Soviet Union, so it’s very easy to say, “Well, we’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work.” But one discovers what something’s going to look like in the process of making it. And the question is not whether we’re going to eliminate all the structural defects of human life—because we’re surely not—but whether we can build something that will channel those structural defects in more productive directions.
Why did you call your book The Second Sex?
Let’s just skip that question. It doesn’t even have to be asked.
Yes, it does.
Well, I’ll just look up what Paul Westerberg said when he called his album The Second Sex.
It would be so much more interesting if you gave an honest answer.
But this is honest. Westerberg said, “[Naming our album Let It Be] was our way of saying nothing is sacred.”
But it’s clear why he would choose the Beatles. Why would you choose Simone de Beauvoir?
The issue of sex is prominent in my work. Isn’t it?
But that’s a book about women. Your books are all about you.
But they’re not about me! We just settled that.
Eh. They’re not about women’s sexual desires.
Well, the question that she poses is one of being defined, in your very being, through external forces and processes. One isn’t born woman; one becomes woman. So although my poems take male sexual desire—sometimes—as a topic, they certainly aren’t intended to panegyrize male sexual desire. They’re meant to ask questions about sexual desire in general. If one writes sometimes with a certain lens, it doesn’t mean that one is endorsing that lens. One of the things that I don’t believe is what Foucault calls the repressive hypothesis. The idea is that we’re all repressed sexually, and then sexuality is repressed through censorship and prohibition, and that opening up about it will liberate us in some way. We’re awash in discourse about sex, but I don’t know how liberated we are really, in any sense. Sexuality is a darker thing than that hypothesis would allow. That hypothesis allows us to see ourselves as superior. To those buttoned-down Victorians, for instance. We need more ways of looking at sexuality. Forget this dualistic notion of repression and liberation. We all know which side we’re on.
Of course, it’s not just about sex. The Second Sex isn’t just about sex; it’s about ontology. It’s about how we become who we are. And many of my poems, as we’ve been talking about, are concerned with what one is, how one knows what one is. I don’t really think any of my poems are about sex. They take sex as a kind of trope. Because what sex is, really, is messy.
Right, you use a lot of cliché.
I think that, for all our enlightened thought, we are still entrapped by certain ways of viewing the world. We think we’ve gotten beyond them, and we haven’t. My poems work with those ways of looking at the world. The clichés, as you mentioned. Advertising slogans, popular culture, the received wisdom of the canon. It’s not as if I hate or distrust popular culture and the canon. Obviously I love them, just as one loves sex and one loves certain aspects of capitalism. But we have a background assumption that conditions what we can think. One thing that Beauvoir wants to do is try to get those assumptions straight.
I know that the relation to my poems might seem attenuated. But these are the things I think about. In retrospect. When you’re writing the poems, you’re not really thinking about them.
You don’t know what it’s going to look like before you make it.
You have no idea.
Of course… there’s a sort of perverse impulse in titling it The Second Sex. Perhaps one is anticipating a certain humorlessness.
Yes. One might be.
And that’s a good place to stop.
Photo: Mike Peters