Friday, January 30, 2009

To: Michael Robbins, RE: "Alien vs. Predator", Poem in The New Yorker, Jan. 12, 2009


Someone told me about your poem when I was running a workshop on "Inscrutability in Poetry" at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival last week. At that point, I'd seen the title in the table of contents but hadn't read it--I have a subscription but with the festival coming up I'd fallen behind in reading it. I loved the title; I mean, how can a poem called "Alien vs. Predator" be bad? and made a mental note to read it, but again forgot about it until I came across your comment on Kenny's G. "it's always a bad time for poetry" thread in Harriet.

So now I've read it--several times in fact. I even printed it out and put it into a notebook I keep of poems that I think will be useful for teaching because I think the publishing of your poem represents a notable shift in the art-form. It's not that I think "AvP" is radically new or successfully performs any unheard of poetic operation (though I think it carves out a nice niche for itself somewhere under the wings of Mattea Harvey, Dean Young, and K. Silem Mohammad), nor do I think the poem's notably fantastic (though I really admire the music from "I fight the comets" to "I sleep on meat."). It's a good poem, one I feel lucky to have gotten to share with you, and one that made me want to try to get a little more "avantish" (as you refer to it) in my own work, even though I know that's probably not going to happen. I think, in the end, our poems choose us rather than the other way around, and experimental/conceptual poetry (which I think your poem harkens towards but doesn't--admirably--go all the way) knows that I don't love it enough to write it. For instance, I really appreciate what Kenny G. does, and I think it's important and necessary, but I know that I'll never become a vessel for language to the degree that he dictates. Or should I say I think of myself as a different kind of vessel. Or should I say that I want to risk cliche and sentimentality. Or should I say that I believe poets like Gerald Stern and Martin Espada when they claim to be "truth-tellers." How old fashioned, but when I heard them say it, I believed them, and like Stanley Fish says, "Theories are something you can have, but beliefs have you."

I wondered reading "AvP" what beliefs you have and what theories? (And I don't pose that question in any argumentive sense, as if I already had some pat answer like, "None, I bet!" or "Whatever your graduate professors gave you!") I read the poem almost like a list of likes/dislikes, as in "Rilke, Tibetans, Buju Banton, staying up all night, pop culture = good" and "Bible, Nature imagery, animal world = bad". And in that sense, your poem was an ars poetica that dovetailed with what you've said in your interviews, and it dovetails with a lot of contemporary poetry that seeks to overcome the tired subject matters of our high school anthologies. And (here's one of my main points) it is decidely NOT the kind of poem that the New Yorker publishes. Or should I say, had published until Paul Muldoon came around. And this is where I think your poem represents a shift.

You're a young poet, with no published full-lenth manuscript, writing in an ultra-modern diction, so when the Establishment (New Yorker) taps you, it's tapping your entire ethos/zeitgest/demographic, etc. which I think in the future will become a water-mark for when poetry shifted wholly out of the 20th Century. (Let me also say I don't believe in these linear narratives of poetry, especially not now, when poetry's more diverse than ever, but linear narratives of the art form will continue to be constructed anyway and that's what I'm commenting on). And here's my question: did you mean to do that? Or did you just dictate what the poem was telling you to do?

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