Poet Michael Robbins suddenly became a name in the literary world in 2009 when The New Yorker’s then poetry editor Paul Muldoon plucked his “Alien vs. Predator” from the magazine’s voluminous slush pile and published it. Since then Robbins has written three collections, including the just published “Walkman,” the title poem of which was chosen for Best American Poetry in 2018. The Topeka, Kan., native earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and now teaches creative writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
ROBBINS: Lee Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution,” a book about the search for something to complete or replace quantum theory. It’s written at the level math dummies like me can understand. I’m also reading Henry Ansgar Kelly’s “Satan: A Biography” because I’m interested in how the myth of Satan arose. I’m also a big fan of metal, and Satan is a cartoonish figure in that music genre. Then I’m rereading Soren Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or,” and I have Natalie Shapero’s new collection of poetry, “Popular Longing.”
BOOKS: Do you always read that many books at once?
ROBBINS: I’m also reading a thriller but I can’t remember the title or the author. I try to have four or five books going in different genres. That’s partly because I get bored easily. Also after I read 20 pages about quantum theory, I want to read something else.
BOOKS: Why did you start reading about quantum physics?
ROBBINS: Quantum physics shows up as a trope in science fiction a lot, which I suspected didn’t perfectly represent it. I can only read the popular books at the level of David Deutsch or Roger Penrose. Actually Penrose is very hard.
BOOKS: Do you read novels as well?
ROBBINS: I read a lot earlier in the pandemic. I had all this time so I read a bunch I’d been meaning to for years. Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” some Balzac and I reread Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I started reading Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” but everyone started dying of a disease. I couldn’t deal with that at the time.
BOOKS: Which were you happiest to knock off your list?
ROBBINS: “Don Quixote.” It had defeated me a few times. I read only the first 50 pages in my 20s and then got through about 200 pages in my 30s. It takes time for the affect of the story to take hold, and you start to care about this crazy old man, who turns out to be saner than anyone around him.
BOOKS: Do you read contemporary novelists?
ROBBINS: Generally I’m not a fan of contemporary fiction. I did just get Elizabeth Knox’s “The Absolute Book,” but that’s a fantasy novel, so I’m not sure that counts. I do love Marilynne Robinson. The last contemporary novel that I read, the kind that New York Magazine writers enthuse about, was Sally Rooney’s “Conversations with Friends,” and I didn’t love it. I rarely find that contemporary novels match the rhapsodic rhetoric about them.
BOOKS: Which poets do you read the most?
ROBBINS: I go back to John Ashbery a lot. I started rereading his best books, “As We Know,” and I just read “Rivers and Mountains.” I go back to W.S. Merwin and to Gwendolyn Brooks a lot. I see a lot going on in her work that I might have missed first time around. I’ve been reading a new critical reading of John Keats’s Odes by Anahid Nersessian, which has made me dig into Keats again.
BOOKS: With school out, do you read a lot more?
ROBBINS: I always read a lot, and have read more than usual during the pandemic. Last summer I started walking four miles a day. Now I often read while I walk. In a park, I might pace back and forth while I read. No one seems to think it’s too weird
BOOKS: Do you ever run into anything?
ROBBINS: Back in the ’90s I would listen to my Walkman while I read and walked. I once got so engrossed Faulkner’s “Light in August” I walked into a parking meter. It hit my chin, my headphones shot off and I dropped my book. I stood there stunned. These two women about my age were noticeably trying not to laugh at me.