Issue 159, Fall 2001
The big news, of course, is that Billy Collins has been appointed the new poet laureate by the Library of Congress, now the newest of a distinguished list that among others includes Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Pinsky, and most recently, Stanley Kunitz.
Collins’s credentials, despite starting a career as a poet at the late age of forty, are impressive indeed. His various wonderfully named collections of poetry include Video Poems, Pokerface, Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, The Apple That Astonished Paris, Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes and Picnic, Lightning. Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems will be published this fall. His last three collections of poems have broken sales records for poetry. A well-known voice on National Public Radio, his public readings, perhaps better described as performances, are invariably put on before packed audiences.
His work is identified largely by its humor, which he speaks of as being “a door into the serious”—a comment echoed by John Updike’s sentiment: “Billy Collins writes lovely poems . . . limpid, gently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides.”
Collins lives in Somers, New York, a few miles from Katonah, which is about an hour’s ride on the commuter train from Grand Central Station. The Katonah station is unique in that it is set in the middle of town, so that one steps out of the train just a yard or so from the main street and the arts and crafts shops that line the far side. Collins’s home, a few miles away, is a renovated farmhouse that dates back to the 1860s. His wife, Diane, was away at work (she is an architect), but on hand was the family dog, Jeannine, a mixed breed collie named after a song popularized by Cannonball Adderly. Collins often breaks away from work to play Adderly-mode jazz on a piano in the living room.
Jeannine made it clear she wanted to be taken outside for exercise—which entailed running down a steep slope of lawn to retrieve a frazzled-looking frisbee, so indented with teeth marks as to resemble (as Collins put it) “the end of a worried writer’s pencil.” Jeannine finally seemed wearied enough to allow Collins to invite his guest back in the house for the interview.
In manner, Billy Collins is very much like what one would expect from reading his poems—quick to add a touch of humor to whatever he has to say, however serious the topic, but leaving no doubt that he is a very dedicated practitioner of his art. He teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York; one envies his students for their chance to study comparative literature from such a source. And yet there is nothing of the formal Ivory Tower mien about Collins: he is, for example, a passionate golfer, and what time he can take off from the lecture circuit (he is in considerable demand, giving over forty readings a year) and his teaching duties at Lehman, he spends touring the historic golf courses of the country with his golfing friend and literary agent, Chris Calhoun. Perhaps his informal side is best reflected by his given name: he was christened William after his father, thus Willy for a while, and then Billy, which he has kept as his nom de plume as much in reaction to the pretentiousness of those writers who use their initials, or one initial and a given name, as in W. James Collins, or whatever.
The interview took place in the small comfortable study of his home—shelves of books, a pair of paintings, one an abstract by Dan Christensen, the other a 1930s subway scene by George Tooker.
I’d like to get something straightened out at the beginning: I write with a Uni-Ball Onyx Micropoint on nine-by-seven bound notebooks made by a Canadian company called Blueline. After I do a few drafts, I type up the poem on a Macintosh G3 and then send it out the door.
Well, that’s certainly the kind of information we’re after, but can you tell us about the actual making of what you send out? Could you go through the genesis of a poem?
There’s a lot of waiting around until something happens. Some poets like David Lehman and William Stafford set out on these very willful programs to write a poem a day. They’re extending what Catullus said about “never a day without a line.” But most poets don’t write a poem a day. For me it’s a very sporadic activity. Until recently, I thought “occasional poetry” meant that you wrote only occasionally. So there’s a lot of waiting, and there’s a kind of vigilance involved. I think what gets a poem going is an initiating line. Sometimes a first line will occur, and it goes nowhere; but other times—and this, I think, is a sense you develop—I can tell that the line wants to continue. If it does, I can feel a sense of momentum—the poem finds a reason for continuing. The first line is the DNA of the poem; the rest of the poem is constructed out of that first line. A lot of it has to do with tone because tone is the key signature for the poem. The basis of trust for a reader used to be meter and end-rhyme. Now it’s tone that establishes the poet’s authority. The first few lines keep giving birth to more and more lines. Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going. The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.
What inspires that first line? Is it something you see? Is it a passing thought, a line of someone else’s work?
There can be remote influences, but I think the line itself comes out of talking to yourself. It’s a matter of paying attention to the detritus that floats through your head all the time—little phrases that through your own self-talking, your talk monitor, sometimes pop up. Also, I try to start the poem conversationally. Poems, for me, begin as a social engagement. I want to establish a kind of sociability or even hospitality at the beginning of a poem. The title and the first few lines are a kind of welcome mat where I am inviting the reader inside. What I do with the reader later can be more complicated, but the beginning of the poem is a seductive technique for me, a way of making a basic engagement. Then I hope the poem gets a little bit ahead of me and the reader.
What about revision?
I try to write very fast. I don’t revise very much. I write the poem in one sitting. Just let it rip. It’s usually over in twenty to forty minutes. I’ll go back and tinker with a word or two, change a line for some metrical reason weeks later, but I try to get the whole thing just done. Most of these poems have a kind of rhetorical momentum. If the whole thing doesn’t come out at once, it doesn’t come out at all. I just pitch it.
You throw it out?
People say, Don’t throw anything away. This is standard workshop advice: Always save everything. You could use it in another poem. I don’t believe that. I say, Get rid of it. Because if it got into a later poem it would be Scotch-taped on. It would not be part of the organic, you know, chi, the spine that the poem has, the way it all should be one continuous movement.
What was that word you used?
Chi. I think they use that in feng shui. It’s the Chinese sense of energy that runs through things. Poems that lack that seem very mechanically put together, like a piece here and a part there. Because of the workshop and the M.F.A. phenomenon there’s much too much revision going on. Revision can grind a good impulse to dust. Of course, the distinction between revision and writing is kind of arbitrary because when I am writing I am obviously revising. And when I revise, I’m writing, aren’t I? I love William Matthews’s idea—he says that revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party! That’s the fun of it, making it right, getting the best words in the best order.
Could you tell us about growing up, your family?
Both of my parents were born in 1901 and both lived into their nineties, the two of them just about straddling the century. My father was from a large Irish family from Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town, incidentally Kerouac’s birthplace and the site of his first novel. I’ve never been to Lowell, but I was just invited by an editor of a magazine to go up there and write about my father and look at the Jack Kerouac place. I have a poem called “Lowell,” which is about the coincidence of my father being born in the same town as Jack Kerouac. You couldn’t find two more disparate characters. The end of the poem says something like, He would have told Neal Cassady to let him out at the next light.
My mother was born on a farm in Canada. She was the one who taught me to read by reading to me. I have a feeling that was one of the most important experiences of my life. At some point I could read by myself, but I didn’t want to be weaned away from that—I wanted to be read to. I have a secret theory that people who are addicted to reading are almost trying to recreate the joy, the comfortable joy of being read to as a child by a parent or a friendly uncle or an older sibling. Being read to as a child is one of the great experiences in life. Of course, I was always fascinated by the ability to read, and I’ll make this confession: before I could read, I pretended I could. My parents would have company over at our house, and I would get out a volume of Compton’s Encyclopedia, at the age of four or five, and sit there in an armchair and pretend to be reading—I would look very studious. I was the youngest phony in America. My parents would wink at their friends and, thinking that I had taken everybody in, I’d head off to bed.