By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
His collections sell so widely they break records. He has served as a two-term Poet Laureate, is a New York Times best-selling author, and has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. As one of the most popular contemporary poets in America, he hardly needs an introduction.
I first met Billy Collins at a Writers' Conference in Southampton during the summer of 2010. He wore blue jeans that fell casually at his hips. We ate lunch under a big white tent, and he told us how "poetry wasn't inspired by the breeze, but by other poetry." In 1975, Collins was co-founder of The Mid-Atlantic Review. In 1994 he was selected as "Poet of the Year" by Poetry magazine, and from 2001-2003 he held the title of U.S. Poet Laureate. During that time, in an effort to make poetry an active part of the high school experience, Collins created Poetry 180, which offered a poem for everyday of the approximate 180-day school year. The project mirrors on a small scale what his career has done at large: united readers and promoted the everyday function of poetry. Collins is the recipient of the Mark Twain Award for Humor in Poetry, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize amongst many others. His latest, Aimless Love, broke onto the New York Times Best Seller List for Fiction. I was lucky enough to catch up with the celebrated poet before he read to a packed house at the St. Louis County Library to discuss everything from the English Romantics to Paul McCartney.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: You recently visited with Paul McCartney and discussed everything from The Beatles to dreamscapes. How does music influence your poetry?
BILLY COLLINS: Sir Paul and I talked about both cabbages and kings, but I was most interested in the line we agreed on drawing between song lyrics and poetry. I said that I have a much lower expectation of sense when listening to pop songs than I do when reading poetry. "I shot the sheriff but I did not shoot the deputy" suggests that the guy needs a lawyer. And how about "Rock the boat; don't rock the boat." "A Whiter Shade of Pale" takes the cake for beautiful nonsense. I compared a couple of Paul's own poems—rather good ones in his collection "Blackbird Singing"—to the simple lyrics of "Yesterday" that really don't hold up on the page. But of course, the poems didn't sell millions of copies or get covered almost 3,000 times. Lyrics, of course, are not meant to stand alone unaccompanied by music, which is why they don't do that well in almost every case.
As for music in my poems; songs are just another source of metaphor. I have poems about Thelonious Monk, Precious Bryant, Johnny Hartman—even George Thorogood and the Destroyers get a mention.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: How would you describe your style?
BILLY COLLINS: I would leave stylistic analysis to others, but one could say I write in plain style, that is, I use a simple diction, and usually follow grammatical conventions. I use the sentence. I'm not trying to release a cloud of language; what I am after is imaginative travel, getting the poem to advance from its simple beginning (Kansas) to a wilder, more speculative place (Oz). This can be done with a fairly basic verbal palette. You can get to interesting places without a fancy car.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Some may be tempted to think Billy Collins the man is Billy Collins the public speaker. How do you personally differ from Billy Collins the poet? How do you adapt to the voice of your poetry?
BILLY COLLINS: I agree with Heaney's modest statement that he was poet only for a small part of the day. The rest of the time he was simply a man walking the dog or buying a quart of milk. The reason meeting the author is one of the most reliably disappointing experiences life can offer is that you have already met him or her under the best possible circumstances—groomed on the page. The character you encounter in the poems is just that, a character, a literary persona. In a Venn diagram you would see a lot of overlap between us, but he is my better, a definite improvement over the "real" me. He lives without a job, for example. He hardly has a past!
ABRIANA JETTÉ: You have compared the art of memorizing poetry to remembering the lyrics to a favorite song. Do you have a process for memorizing? Any rituals or tips for other poets?
BILLY COLLINS: No effort is required in memorizing a song; in fact one is not "memorizing," one is invaded by the song as one hears it hundreds of times. With a poem, you have to will it, though I suppose you could play a recording of a poem over and over until you could duplicate it. Every memorized poem becomes your companion, for life, if you pay it regular visits.
This companion can come in very handy while you are having an MRI, for example, or waiting for a bus, or spending a night in jail. As someone said, free verse or "informal" poetry may be easier to write, but it's harder to memorize.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: Your latest book, Aimless Love, speaks to the themes of love, loss, joy and poetry. How have your life experiences influenced and colored your poetry?
BILLY COLLINS: Personal life experience not only "colors" poetry but ever since Wordsworth it is the dominant subject of poetry. With the English Romantics, the ego is foregrounded, centralized. So yes. But one thing poetry illustrates is that my experience (you mention loss, love, joy) are everyone's experiences, just with different scenery, different background music, different degrees of exposure. It's why people read a poem at a time of crisis—because poetry brings us from the solitude of our emotions into a community of feeling, an historical community at that.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: In Voyage you reached out to children. What effect do you want poetry to have on the mind of a child?
BILLY COLLINS: "Reaching out" is not something I ever feel I am doing. Voyage looks and behaves like a children's book, but it's really a gorgeously illustrated poem. I didn't write it for children; I wrote it for John Cole, the head of the Center of the Book, when I was in Washington. But it's about a child, a young boy who sets sail and has an imaginative adventure by reading a book. All children are natural poets; they love clapping, dancing, rhyming, singing. Too bad much of this joy is lost when children disappear into the tunnel of adolescence.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: What would you consider your greatest achievement in poetry? How would you like to be remembered in 50 or 100 years?
BILLY COLLINS: It's hard to answer that question without sounding like a jackass, but I suppose Poetry 180, the program I put together for high school students, has been gratifying, largely because I hear from scores of teachers that it actually works. Students hear these clear, imaginative, contemporary poems and it changes their attitude toward poetry. They put down their poetry-deflector shields and let the poems come in.
ABRIANA JETTÉ: What can we expect next from Billy Collins?
BILLY COLLINS: More poems, I'm guessing. I'm writing one now titled "Autobiography of a Ball." All I know is that it spends its early years just bouncing around the country.
Header photo of Billy Collins (credit: Suzannah Gilman)