By Susie Allen, AB’09, courtesy of Tableau magazine
Photo by Dan Dry

My sprockets engage with the chain of Chicago very tightly and neatly, and the bike is driven forward at every touch of the pedal.”
—Anthony Madrid
graduate student

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PhD student who is writing his dissertation about rhyme, he is also the author of a chapbook, the 580 Strophes, and an unpublished manuscript by the same title.

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, also have 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.

Getting Serious About Writing

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 commitment to their work came in stages.

Robbins, whose first book is forthcoming from Penguin in 2012, 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 20s, 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.”

Anderson, a third-year PhD student who plans to write a dissertation on small-press publishing in America, has authored four chapbooks, including In the Particular Particular, and runs her own small poetry press, Projective Industries. She writes whenever she can, sometimes challenging herself to craft a poem in the stray hour before dinner.

Waiting for Inspiration

Much of the time, writing is a painstaking exercise, but every now and then, inspiration strikes. That was the case with Robbins’ 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.”

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.”

Sparking a “New Chicago School”

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 circle of artists 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.”

“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.”