Billy Collins is a deeply humorous poet—a description that only begins to suggest the wide talent of his writing. His work is both penetrating and unflinching in its portrayals of an often less-than-holy world, as well as delightfully unpredictable. A voracious reader, Collins creates a poetic world filled with historical figures and vivid facts that bubble up from all parts of the globe. His work negotiates a smart, lucid path between an outright love for the world and a healthy suspiciousness of it. Packed with powerful, original images, his poems turn unexpected corners and surprise the reader with their lush language and generous imagination.
Collins is the author of six books of poetry, including Picnic, Lightning (University Pittsburgh Press, 1998), The Art of Drowning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995) and Questions about Angels, which was selected for the prestigious National Poetry Series. A book of selected poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room, will be published this autumn by Random House. His wry, intelligent poems can be found populating the pages of most major literary magazines in the United States, such as Poetry, American Poetry Review and Paris Review. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as many other awards, he teaches English at Lehman College, City University of New York. In June 2001, Collins was named Poet Laureate of the United States.
This interview was conducted via a series of e-mails in January 2001.
Alexandra van de Kamp: In previous interviews, you’ve commented on how you see your poems as modes of travel that take the reader to unexpected places. You also describe the writing process in your poems as a voyage or odyssey of sorts. Can you explain this further?
Billy Collins: When I say that poetry is the oldest form of travel writing, of course, I mean imaginative travel as well as geographical. Like Borges, who described himself as a “hedonist reader,” I admittedly read for pleasure, and one of the great pleasures that poetry offers is to be moved from one place in the mind to another, often from a place that exists in reality to one that exists in the imagination, especially if that second place never existed before the poem was written. All poems do not aim for this vehicular power, but I tend to judge them by that standard. Actually, I am not really judging when I read someone’s poem. I am just waiting to go somewhere. Anywhere. Some poems fly into completely new realms, others never leave the hangar. Travel also relieves the boredom of writing. When I am composing, I am looking for a side road or an escape hatch so that I can leave the first part of the poem behind, which is usually just bait, or scene-setting, and go somewhere new.
Alexandra van de Kamp: How has geographic travel played a role in your poetic life?
Billy Collins: As far as actual travel, it has little direct influence on my writing. I just mean that when I get back from a trip to Italy, for example, I have no desire to sit down and start writing about Italy. Something I saw might enter a poem unexpectedly at a later date, so the influence is oblique. I remember being in Spain when I was a young man—on the Costa del Sol—and every day seeing a donkey chained to a post in the middle of a field, braying in the heat. Maybe twenty years later he turned up in a poem which was neither about Spain nor donkeys. A lot of the travel I do now is for the sake of poetry, giving readings, conducting workshops and whatnot. These trips are not conducive to writing. All I want to do is watch television at its very lowest level. I try to find the absolute worst program and watch it until I fall asleep. I am with Emily Dickinson who wrote several poems about the lack of a need to travel to write, and of course, she exemplified the notion in extremis. I write best at home—often about home. The title of my new and selected poems, after all, is Sailing Alone Around the Room.
Alexandra van de Kamp: This sense of home, of relishing the everyday places we occupy, seems to play a key role in the landscape of your poems. Can you comment on how “retreat” or “place” has figured in your work?
Billy Collins: Like the three secrets to a successful business, the poem for me needs location, location, location. This goes back to the idea of the poem as a means of travel. If the poem is to transport the reader to some Elsewhere, it must start in a Somewhere, and for me that is Here, where I am writing, usually at home. Poems that begin with a sense of place have somewhere else to go. By the way, I don’t mean “sense of place” in the regional sense that Southern writers keep applauding. The place can just as easily be the place of composition—this desk, this road I am walking. These poems are kind of occasional poems in that they begin by establishing a setting, an occasion for the act of composing. This begins, I think, with the Romantics, the poet usually located in an agreeable landscape setting. But Coleridge can be indoors as in “Frost at Midnight” or in his garden as in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” which opens “Well, they are gone and here must I remain.” The “here” in that line is fresh in poetry at the time. Coleridge is a poet of the domicile. Someone once called me an “indoor nature poet,” which is a charge I would have to cop to.
I think the sense of the place of writing is related to the connection between retreat and creativity. The writing workshop suggests that writing can be socialized, but I would throw in with Gaston Bachelard’s idea of “felicitous space,” private nooks where children hide and where their imaginations are formed. Poets and other creative types have simply managed to emerge from those hiding places with their imaginations intact, trailing clouds of imaginative glory—if that doesn’t sound too lofty.
Alexandra van de Kamp: You mention Coleridge. In other interviews, you’ve talked about how reading Keats played a pivotal role in the maturation of your poetic style and how the Beats were an important influence earlier in your career. Could you talk a little bit about these influences and who you are reading now?
Billy Collins: Influence is always a looming question for me. Danilo Kis said that when we ask a writer about his influences, we are treating him like an infant in a basket abandoned on the front steps of a convent. We want to know who his parents are. I think if any writer was aware of all of his influences, he would be like the centipede who fell over when he started thinking about how his hundred legs were able to move at the same time. The knowledge would be paralyzing. Also, talk of influences tends to be unreliable, because we tend to invent our influences, just as we invent our parents at some point in our lives. Our entire past.
But there are moments. I was a most impressionable teenager back in the days of Beatnik glory, so I responded fully to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind”—still a good title—Gregory Corso and others. I was in Paris for a summer in the early sixties and hung self-consciously around the corners of the scene on the Boul Mich, as they called it. I sat at the same table with Corso and others, and I even hung around with an American girl named Ann Campbell, whom Realities magazine had called “The Queen of the Beatniks.” (Let’s see...what did that make me??) But mostly I was a Catholic high school boy in the suburbs who fantasized about stealing a car and driving non-stop to Denver. I probably would have done it, but I didn’t have access to those special driving pills Neal Cassady had. Plus, there was always a test to study for, or band practice.
A more helpful influence came in the form of a little Penguin paperback—which I still have—called The New Poetry. It was edited by A. Alvarez and was my first exposure to poets like Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson and others. I carried this book with me everywhere I went in high school. I loved the clarity and the irony and the mostly simple language. Lines like:
The wind blew all my wedding-day,
And my wedding night was the night of the high wind
I didn’t know if Larkin was kidding or not, and that’s just the way I wanted to keep it. I would say something like that is the ideal tone for me in my poems, a tone that would be perfectly balanced between feeling and irony. Very difficult to do. Because it’s so easy to fall into one extreme or the other and write a poem that is sappy or too cute or hard-boiled. In that same little book was Lowell’s naked poetry, and Thom Gunn, who wrote poems about bikers and Elvis Presley. I was listening to Elvis around the clock, but I never knew you could write poems about him. I was the prisoner of an older decorum, and these poets showed me the way out.
The question of influence leads into everything eventually. I could go on. But when I am asked if there is a Biggest Influence, I have gotten into the habit of just saying “Coleridge.” Why not? Most of us first encounter Coleridge through the “mystery poems,” those dream-like poems where we are taken on a journey (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) or we get a tour of a dream-like landscape (as in “Kubla Khan”). One reason why Coleridge was fond of the dream state was that it allowed him to focus entirely on one thing at a time. He said that in dreams he never felt as though he were thinking of one thing while looking at something else as he almost always did while conscious.
But the poems I mean are the so-called “conversation poems” of Coleridge, like “Frost at Midnight,” “The Aeolian Harp,” and—my favorite—“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” These poems contain some amazing moves as his meditation shifts from the outside landscape (or room-scape) into the self, then back through memory, then off into some zones of wild speculation. The extended lyric was a perfect form to accommodate such musings. I learned from them how to write longer, more capacious poems and how to trust the movings of my own mind. Richard Hugo talks about this—about trusting your next thought simply because it is your next thought and nobody else’s. Trust the sequence. Here comes a thought. Write it down. These Coleridge poems have a very casual feel in the beginning, but they rise smoothly into the lofty. They seem to exemplify a piece of advice from Stephen Dobyns: that is, if you get the reader to accept something simple in the beginning of the poem, he will be more inclined to accept something difficult later on. I find I have little tolerance for poems that begin with some extremely complicated chord. Better to begin like “Hot Cross Buns” and end like Debussy.
Of course, at some point, you start consciously picking your influences. You read knowing that you want to be influenced. Right now, I am reading Max Jacob. He was Picasso’s roommate for a while—imagine saying, “I’d like you to meet my roommate, Pablo”—and was killed by the Nazis, or they let him die of pneumonia at a way-station. I read him with the intention of getting under his influence. Or of just stealing his moves. Translating his language into my language.
Alexandra van de Kamp: Your work also seems to have been influenced by jazz—you’ve written some of the best contemporary poetry on it. Can you talk a little about your relationship to the music?
Billy Collins: A long time ago, when I was in my early teens, my parents used to send me to Canada for part of the summer to stay with my uncle John, to work on his farm bringing in hay and such, and to mow the lawn and the like at this hotel he owned on Lake Simcoe in Ontario. One day when I was mowing the lawn, a motorboat pulled up to the dock with two couples in it. They tied up, set up a record player, poured some drinks and laid around the deck, sunbathing and listening to what turned out to be the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. That was the first time I heard jazz. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but this was 1954 and they were hipsters. One of the girls was beautiful, and I fell in love with her (without ever speaking) and with jazz. I decided to devote my life to becoming someone like her boyfriend. I have been listening ever since. Recently, I have been taking piano lessons, and now I can play some standards and some blues. But I cannot seem to play if anyone else is in the room.
As for the references to jazz in my work—jazz is just something that is part of the atmosphere I live in, the part I can control. I write about jazz the way I write about the weather. It is part of the background that I sometimes move to the foreground. People like to make comparisons between jazz improvisation and the improvisational quality of some contemporary poetry. That’s worth talking about—I try to write poems in one sitting to get into the mood of spontaneity—but let’s be real. The poet can go back and erase, the trumpet player on the stand in a club cannot.
Alexandra van de Kamp: How would you describe the contemporary American poetry scene to a foreigner who may not know very much about it? In your opinion, what are its limitations, its depths?
Billy Collins: The American poetry scene is very lively and has been over the last 20 years or so. Pick up any recent volume of The Best American Poetry and read the introductions and you will get a sense of how poetry activities have escalated in number. Poetry readings, once the province of a literary elite, are now ubiquitous. They occur as often as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings. The venue is the local library, not the church basement. Our instinct is to applaud this kind of increase in a cultural activity. Fine--but what is not mentioned enough is that in the case of poetry, the growing audience for it is composed almost entirely of poets. Their motives, you see, are not entirely pure. They attend a reading sometimes not so much to hear a poet as to introduce themselves to the poet and maybe slip him an envelope of poems with a letter that begins, "I know how busy you must be..." Many people in the audience of poetry readings are there so they can get up and read their own poems at the "Open Mike". They are too busy making last minute improvements to their poems to pay attention to the featured reader. In other words, the good news is that the audience for poetry has grown exponentially and poetry has become a more noticed and respected activity in American life. The bad news is that it is a closed circuit. The audience for poetry is other poets. It would be like going to hear a symphony orchestra and noticing that everyone in the audience was holding a violin case on their lap. That is why I am most pleased when I hear that someone who doesnt generally read poetry (and definitely doesnt write it) enjoys reading my poems. As Joyce Carol Oates put it: the number of people who read poetry is about the same as the number who write it. I would change that to "is slightly less than" because some people who write poetry have no interest in reading it. Strange but true.
Alexandra van de Kamp: Much of the sense of irony and surprise in your poems can stem from a reverence for mundane, near-at-hand things often after the poem has invoked more dramatic, exotic locations and figures. In “The Death of Allegory” you juxtapose “those tall abstractions” of the past against, “The black binoculars and a money clip, / exactly the thing we now prefer, / objects that sit quietly on a line in lowercase, / themselves and nothing more.” This placing of the past against the often humbler artifacts of the present occurs frequently in your work. Can you comment on this?
Billy Collins: It took a long time for poetry to be able to include the everyday, and now it devotes a lot of energy to celebrating it. In mentioning the simple array of things around us, I am trying to evoke a kind of haiku-like presentation of the world in an unadorned condition, without the enhancing lift of metaphor. I think one of the devices that seems to reoccur in my poems is ironic deflation. I use the pedestrian detail--the dog asleep on the floor, the bird out the window--to reverberate against the loftiness of literary tradition. I mean Milton is dead, but the dog is breathing there by my chair. Haiku is saying that the present moment is everything. Nothing exists outside it except two abysses on either side. If one particular moment happens to be filled by a cherry tree in blossom and a sliver of a moon, then to merely mention those things (in a 17 syllable enclosure) is to celebrate the fact that you exist, that you are the only creature in the universe who occupies these exact time/space coordinates.
We live in lower-case times, which is to say allegory is dead. You can no longer open a poem with the figure of Charity, not to mention Chastity, the deadest of the virtues. Underlying this procedure in poetry is the assumption that the things around us--the tree, but also the broom and the ice cube--might hold clues to the world beyond--might provide access to spiritual or at least abstract dimensions. Emerson called it the "speaking language of things," the capacity of the material world to lead us beyond. William Carlos Williams cleared the literary table so that it could be occupied by a simple object. And Charles Simic presents the objects of the world (broom, store window) in a way that all the historic and archetypal significance of the object is gathered into the moment. When I conduct poetry workshops, I ask the poets to take off all the modifiers and see what they have left. Often, what is left is more. The adjective can be a parasite that feeds off the noun and eventually kills it. There's nothing like a good noun standing there on its own. Cup. Hat. Bone. Each one tells its own long story. "Chair" is an epic.
Also, starting small is a way of establishing authority in a poem. If I tell you that I am listening to the rain against my bedroom window tonight, you will accept this without question. Why not? But if I begin a poem by saying that...what?...misery is a snake that curls itself around the neck of the cosmos, you might question who it is that you are listening to, and why. It's no secret. All singers know this: come in soft, go out strong.
Alexandra van de Kamp: Your work in general expresses a very keen awareness of the reader. The Art of Drowning opens with the poem “Dear Reader,” and ends with “Some Final Words,” and your latest book, Picnic, Lightning, begins with “A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal.” There is a wonderful sense of the old epic poems here, with their prologues summoning up the help of the muses. It also reminds me of the narrators in Elizabethan plays who would open and close the performance with an address to the audience. Do you see your books as modern day sequences invoking the reader/muse in the opening pages and closing in the same way? Or does some other concept guide your arranging of poems?
Billy Collins: You make it seem so intelligently premeditated, I have no choice but to admit the truth of all you say. I am extremely reader-conscious, perhaps because I am tired of reading poems that seem to ignore the reader. I feel that I am talking to a reader/listener as I write, so that a good deal of my effort is just to make the poem clear. To get things in the right sequence so that the poem is easy to follow. Not just easy, but easy to follow because the poem is going somewhere, and I want the reader along to share whatever surprises the journey may hold. I try to begin the poem on a common ground, which is a way of assembling a little group around the campfire of the poem. Scoutmaster Collins will then tell some scary stories.
In terms of a whole book being reader-friendly, I have opened my last few collections with a kind of prefatory poem whose purpose it is to welcome the reader, to let the reader know I am aware of his/her presence and that this book is aimed at them. Of course, no one reads a book of poems from front to back except editors and book reviewers, but if you read one of my books that way, you would find yourself guided over a certain terrain. I wouldn't want to--would not be able to--explain this progress conceptually, but the book and the sections have a dramatic organization. What I do when I have enough poems for a book is to lay them all out on the floor and to start figuring out which poems want to be with which others. I try to stay out of it and let the poems decide. I think the first and the last poem in a book (and the first and last poem in each section) should show a kind of awareness that they are occupying these positions. But most readers, including me, skip through a book of poems like a flip-book, looking for something to grab their eye--a short poem, a sexy title, whatever. Auden realized the vanity of an author sweating over the arrangement of his/her work when he put the poems in his Collected Poems in alphabetical order, thus eliminating the need for an index. And that is another welcoming aspect of a book of poems: you can jump in anywhere. You can't do that with a novel unless you are merely taking a stylistic soil sample.
I like your idea of the Elizabethan play. Yes, I would like to come on stage before the first act to welcome the reader. I want to get the reader on board at the beginning of every poem. So why not make sure he or she is on board at the beginning of every book of poems by throwing down a welcome mat, an address to the reader before the book (or the play) proper begins? And like anything, it's good to end with a flourish.