WHEN ANTHONY MADRID thinks a poem is nearly finished, he gets in his car and makes the 15-mile trip from his Logan Square apartment to campus. He calls it “the memory test.” As he drives, he recites the poem back to himself, out loud and from memory. “I’m listening to see if the whole thing rolls right out,” he says. If he finds himself forgetting or stumbling over a line, he knows something has gone wrong.
“I make the line complicated and twisted around like a bonsai tree branch, because I think that’s cool and crunchy, but when I recite it from memory, it’s hard to remember how it goes,” Madrid says. He plays with the line until it’s “smooth—or it’s not smooth, on purpose.”
“I do have an eccentric way of going about business,” he says. Eccentric, perhaps, but it works: Madrid’s poems have appeared in the Cincinnati Review, FlashPoint, Forklift Ohio, and LIT. An advanced PhD student who is writing his dissertation about rhyme, he is also the author of a chapbook, The 580 Strophes, and an unpublished manuscript, “The getting rid of that which cannot be done without.”
Madrid is just one in a standout trio of graduate students in the English Department who write and publish original poetry: Stephanie Anderson, AB’03, and Michael Robbins, AM’04, have also made a mark on Chicago’s lively poetry scene. As poets and as people, they are not much alike: Anderson is contemplative where Madrid is effusive and Robbins acerbic. But they are united in the common challenge of trying to balance critical and creative work, and by the shared sentiment that they write poetry in large part because they can’t resist.
AT ONE POINT OR ANOTHER, nearly every humanities student downs an espresso, dons a black turtleneck, and tries to write a poem. After realizing poetry isn’t as easy as it looks, most move on. For Anderson, Madrid, and Robbins, the process of committing to their work has been a gradual one.
Robbins, who has three poems forthcoming in Poetry magazine and created something of a splash with two recent poems in the New Yorker, “Alien vs. Predator” and “Lust for Life,” says his devotion to his craft is relatively recent.
“I took myself seriously in my twenties, but it turns out I wasn’t very serious,” says Robbins, a fifth-year student who is writing his dissertation about the idea of the self in contemporary poetry and has taught courses on contemporary Irish and American poetry. “I had to stop [messing] around and take it seriously and work at it. All of this is a very late development.”
Although Robbins found his vocation as a poet slowly, Madrid’s began in high school and was nearly instantaneous.
“Ten minutes into writing my first poem, I thought I was going to make a career of it,” Madrid says. He admits his early efforts weren’t much—“they were like rock lyrics for a Doors song: weird, a lot of lizards” —but from the start, “I thought it was going to save my life.”
"This is a humming, buzzing, hive of poetry stuff,” Madrid says.
Anderson found her passion in childhood. “The first thing I wanted to be was an astronaut, the second was a detective, and the third thing was a writer,” she remembers. Now a third-year PhD student who plans to write a dissertation on small-press publishing in America, Anderson has authored four chapbooks, including In the Particular Particular, and runs her own small poetry press, Projective Industries.
Anderson, who wrote fiction before completing an MFA in poetry at Columbia, acknowledges that it hasn’t always been easy to balance creative and critical work. She squares the circle by merging the two: she once interviewed other micropress editors for an academic paper.
To keep momentum, she writes whenever she can, sometimes challenging herself to craft a poem in the stray hour before dinner. She is still figuring out how to organize a life around writing.
Robbins, too, worries about reconciling academia and poetry. “Not many poets are able to write a great dissertation and a great book of poems at the same time,” he says. “The person who can actually function well in both worlds is extremely rare.”
Simply finding the time and energy to write isn’t easy. Robbins summarizes the challenge this way: “You mean you can, like, structure a day?”
MUCH OF THE TIME, writing is a painstaking exercise, but every now and then, inspiration strikes. That was the case with Robbins’s best-known poem, “Alien vs. Predator,” which he wrote in one sitting, with no revisions. One of the poem’s most eye-catching lines—“I translate the Bible into velociraptor”—came in a flash, as Robbins hunted for a rhyme word to pair with “chiropractor.”
When a poem succeeds, “It must be because you’ve spent 27,000 hours trying to think of something and it’s not working and you’re writing terrible stuff about ponies…[but] you’ve trained yourself to get into the position where lines come to you. There’s a lot of unconscious work that gets done,” he says.
By contrast, Anderson has learned not to rely on bursts of inspiration. “That’s too mystical for how I work,” she says. “I need to allow things to settle for a while, and I’ll wander around and think in the world, and then write.”
For Madrid, the challenge is not writing. “The way that I work is that something presents itself to me as the beginning flash of a poem, the first couple lines of it, and I think, ‘Oh, that’s tasty, let’s start with that.’ The energy is radioactive off of that, and I have enough of a wave to write a whole poem. I can’t say no to that.”
IN SEPTEMBER 2009, poet Kent Johnson set the Chicago poetry community abuzz when he wrote a blog post arguing that the city had become “the most interesting and vital…‘poetic cluster’ in the country,” a cluster he dubbed the “New Chicago School.”
The post sparked a lively exchange among poets, some of whom—like Robbins and Madrid—had been included in Johnson’s “school.” Most were hesitant to see themselves as members of a formal group, but many feel they are indeed in the midst of some kind of golden age.
“All I know is, this is a great place to be doing what I’m doing. This is a humming, buzzing, hive of poetry stuff,” Madrid says. “My sprockets engage with the chain of Chicago very tightly and neatly, and the bike is driven forward at every touch of the pedal.”
He especially likes the low-key atmosphere that characterizes the city’s poetry scene. “It’s a friendly, wide- open environment. People help each other. That’s nice.”
Robbins sees his milieu somewhat differently. “I want to write more poems than the rest of them,” he says of his fellow poets, only half-joking. “I want to be more famous than the rest of them!”
“FAME" IS, OF COURSE, relative for poets. Poetry is unusual in that “the only people who consume the art are also practicing the art,” Robbins argues. For the most part, it’s a small community, writing for itself. Unlike fiction, where there’s at least a possibility that a first novel will bring fame and fortune, poetry almost never cracks the bestseller list or provides a sole source of income.
Anderson has learned not to rely on burst of inspiration. "That's too mystical for how I work."
By the standards of the poetry world, Robbins achieved something like superstardom with “Alien vs. Predator,” which attracted praise from seemingly every corner—including music critic Carl Wilson. In his blog, Wilson delighted in “a poem by a young poet that is not about mourning one’s spouse by the slant of winter light on lobster bisque.”
“It went to my head a little bit. Just what I needed!” Robbins jokes of his success. But ultimately, he says, “You can’t sit around worrying about it. You can’t write poems for the New Yorker.” Despite his accomplishment, he knows that it’s his academic work, rather than his poetry, that will pay the bills. “I need a job,” he says with a rueful sigh.
Anderson has watched some of her fiction-writing peers from Columbia attain coveted literary stardom, and it inspires mixed feelings. “Poetry really is a world where, if you’re involved, you’re doing it because you love it. And that’s an oversimplification—yes, it has its own dynamics, and yes, competitiveness is some-times entailed—but there’s a big difference that there’s no money involved.”
She is happy to focus on her graduate work. “I talk to my friends who have these book deals and are under a great amount of pressure, and I think to myself, it’s nice to be forced to have this really varied life, where I write my poems as I can, but it’s not really my primary obligation.”
Madrid agrees. “I’m inclined to a pretty romantic view of this [and believe] the fact that you can’t have Jonathan Franzen–like fame is a good thing. I see the impossibility of fame as good—I won’t make something in order to get it. Poetry is something I make just for the love of it.”