A Brisk Walk: Billy Collins in Conversation
This interview originally appeared in Guernica Magazine and was conducted for the magazine by Joel Whitney. Guernica launched its first issue online in 2004, publishing writing and art, with a strong emphasis on international perspectives, writing in translation, and civic debate. The magazine is now read online in over 100 countries.
Billy Collins is the class clown in the schoolhouse of American poetry. It's earned him a rare spot between critical respect and wide appeal. A member of the academy (though he may throw stones) he teaches in writing programs like CUNY and Columbia—yet he is also read widely even by non-poets. It's not uncommon for three of his books to appear simultaneously on the bestseller lists for poetry, and he shatters the cliché that poets must be poor in their own lifetimes; his 2001 Sailing Alone Around the Room is rumored to have earned him a million-dollar advance. (Collins's publishers have confirmed that it was at least six figures.)
Collins was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001 and served for two years; one of his most recent collections is titled The Trouble with Poetry; and like his fellow Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, he advocates accessible poetry over "difficult" poetry. Perhaps he has done more to demystify poetry for American readers than anyone, though without trivializing it. But less well known is the fact that Collins himself was once a "difficult" poet who wrote from a place of inner torment, and only turned toward taking "potshots" at poetry, as he calls it, when he felt he had nothing to lose. He once even wrote about politics, though one wonders if the persona he's evolved in his collections—which he describes as more like the real Billy Collins than anyone on earth—could handle as much today.
Joel Whitney: What was your childhood like?
Billy Collins: I would say it was a fairly happy childhood. But they say he who says that is just better at repressing things. In fact, I think Howard Nemerov ... or somebody said that you didn't need to suffer extraordinarily to be a writer because adolescence itself is suffering enough. But factually, I was an only child, a very late child, born to parents who were both 39 at the time, which was very late back then. That kind of confirmed my sense of being the center of the universe, which I guess every child feels—children and poets both tend to feel. What else? I went to a lot of Catholic schooling. I went to kindergarten in a public school and then I went immediately into Catholic first grade and stayed there—not in first grade but Catholic institutions—all the way through college—I went to a Jesuit college—and finally returned to secular education not until I went to graduate school at the University of California. That's a quick ride through my childhood.
Whitney: When and how did you get into poetry—when did you write your first poem?
Collins: I had this early memory. You know how sometimes you just have a memory of looking up and seeing a face looking over your crib and then remember nothing until tenth grade?—I have one of these early memories where I'm in the back of my parents' car, a place I loved to spend a lot of time as an only child, not having to fight with venomous siblings over the only toy. And we were driving up the East River Drive—I was born and raised in New York City. And I saw a sailboat tacking its way up the East River. And I immediately had a literary response to it. I mean, I could have been seven—I don't know. Whenever you're able to make letters, maybe a little older. But I wrote something down. I don't remember what I wrote but I remember writing it. It was my first observational poem, observational poems being where the poet says, "I saw something and I felt something about it."
And that's when it began, and it continued. I mean, it's kind of a long story, but it continued through the throes of adolescence. And in that period I was writing kind of covert, dark, wounded, misunderstood—I would say Gothic—poetry. Bad, you know—terrible. And then I suddenly came under the influence of, first of all, people like Karl Shapiro and Howard Nemerov and Reed Whittemore and a lot of other contemporary poets that I was exposed to only because for some complicated reasons my father used to bring Poetry magazine home. And so I got to hear not just school voices, like William Cullen Bryant and John Greenleaf Whittier and all these extremely dead guys, but the voice of living poets that rang with speech and sounded like talk. And that was my first exposure to I guess what modern poetry was.
And then there was just a series of influences. I was influenced by the Beats because I actually just began to commit adolescence around 1955, when "Howl" and Rebel Without a Cause and a lot of other new things were popping up. (Again I'm trying to give you a finite version of this career.) And then I came under the sway of Wallace Stevens when I was in college and graduate school, and basically set as a life goal the ambition of writing third-rate Wallace Stevens. I thought I would be completely content if I was recognized at some later point in my life as a third-rate Wallace Stevens.
Whitney: You once told an interviewer that if you're a novelist you have to invent dozens, sometimes hundreds of characters. If you're a poet you have to invent just one. So I guess you're an advocate of efficiency—
Collins: Or laziness.
Whitney: Or laziness. To what degree is that one character you?
Collins: Well, to back up a little bit first—there's this pet phrase about writing that is bandied around particularly in workshops about "finding your own voice as a poet", which I suppose means that you come out from under the direct influence of other poets and have perhaps found a way to combine those influences so that it appears to be your own voice. But I think you could also put it a different way. You, quote, find your voice, unquote, when you are able to invent this one character who resembles you, obviously, and probably is more like you than anyone else on earth, but is not the equivalent to you.
It is like a fictional character in that it has a very distinctive voice, a voice that seems to be able to accommodate and express an attitude that you are comfortable staying with but an attitude that is flexible enough to cover a number of situations. The character I invented, if I had to describe him, is probably an updating of a character you find strolling through the pages of English Romantic poetry. He is a daydreamer, obviously unemployed, plenty of time on his hands, spends a lot of time by himself, and has an unhealthy fascination with his thinking process, his own speculations and fantasies. So he is not a really new character. He is kind of a remodeling of this earlier Romantic character, the poet who would find himself daydreaming on a wayside bench somewhere.
Whitney: He's also been described as "affable, congenial, polite, welcoming." You've spoken pretty consistently for accessible poetry. Is difficulty your biggest gripe, is difficulty the "trouble with poetry"?
Collins: I think there are kinds of difficulty. Some difficulty is warranted and other difficulty I think is gratuitous. And I think I can tell the difference. There are certainly very difficult poets that I really enjoy reading. I could mention six or seven but I'll mention John Ashbery and Jorie Graham. I find their difficulty enjoyable. More often than not in poetry I find difficulty to be gratuitous and show-offy and camouflaging, experimental to a kind of insane degree—a difficulty which really ignores the possibility of having a sensible reader.
So that kind of difficulty is one trouble with poetry. And the second trouble with poetry—and I'm gonna stop the list at two—is the presence of presumptuousness in poetry, the sense you get in a poem that the poet takes for granted an interest on the reader's part in the poet's autobiographical life, in the poet's memories, problems, difficulties and even minor perceptions. I try to presume that no one is interested in me. And I think experience bears that out. No one's interested in the experiences of a stranger—let's put it that way. And then you have difficulty combined with presumptuousness, which is the most dire trouble with poetry.
Whitney: You say that you were once a perpetrator of some of these more troublesome aspects of poetry. Tell me about this shift from difficult poetry to more accessible poetry. Was it sudden, was it gradual, was it just a matter of changing influences as you suggested earlier?
Collins: Particularly when I thought of myself as a Wallace Stevens acolyte, I wrote very difficult poetry and I was really guilty of not knowing what I was talking about. I was going for a kind of clever verbal effect. I was trying to sound linguistically or verbally interesting. I had a sense, I guess, from just reading a lot of poetry of how a poem would start and how it would end but really I didn't know what I was doing. It had very little connection to my life. I was committing these acts of literature—there was no wiring that was connected to thought, feeling, or experience—it was purely literary. And I think I kind of bought into the assumption that poetry had to be extremely gloomy and incomprehensible, or nearly so. And when I wrote I took on the role of the despondent and difficult to understand person. Whereas in life, I was easy to understand, to the point of being simple-minded maybe.
The change came I would say when I began to dare to be clear, because I think clarity is the real risk in poetry because you are exposed. You're out in the open field. You're actually saying things that are comprehensible, and it's easy to criticize something you can understand. But I think when I transitioned to a poetry that was clearer, it really was about shifting influences. I started moving away from poets like Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane and started reading poets like, again, Karl Shapiro, Howard Nemerov, Philip Larkin, and the British poets who were imported through that important anthology put together by Alvarez—and those would include Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes. And I think these poets gave me assurance that there were other ways to write besides the rather involuted style of high modernism whose high priests were Pound, Eliot and Stevens, and Crane perhaps.
Whitney: One of your habits is to mock poetry, to knock it off its altar. Was that something that you became conscious of early on, that poetry could use some mocking as Americans simultaneously are mystified by and disdainful of poetry, maybe even a little patronizing toward it?
Collins: I think I was not able to dare to do that until I had a few books under my belt and I had some kind of little reputation. I felt at some point that I had nothing to lose, and [laughs] maybe I was wrong. I think, you know, there's always these little autobiographical secrets behind things. I think I was really attacking my earlier self, and this kind of pretentious figure. I just think that the world of workshops—I've written a poem that is a parody of workshop talk, I've written a poem that is a kind of parody of a garrulous poet at a poetry reading who spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the poem before reading it, I've written a number of satirical poems about other poets… I have a poem coming out in the next humor issue of Poetry magazine, which is not gonna make me any friends because it's a sort of a parody of, well, Irish poetry generally, but more specifically you'll recognize maybe [Seamus] Heaney's style in it perhaps—I love Heaney's work, but there are excesses that I'm trying to satirize. The literary world is so full of pretension, and there's such an enormous gap between how seriously poets take themselves and how widely they're ignored by everybody else. So I appointed myself the poet who's gonna feel free to take potshots at the whole enterprise.
Whitney: You said in one interview that "One way to mark the progress of the poem is that we leave these known coordinates and move off into some terra incognita, a place that is attracting our desire to get disoriented, to get lost." So getting lost but avoiding confusion—is that the game?
Collins: That's a better way to put it than I can think of. Because by clarity I don't mean that we're always in kind of a simple area where everything is clear and comforting and understood. Clarity is certainly a way toward disorientation because if you don't start out—if the reader isn't grounded, if the reader is disoriented in the beginning of the poem, then the reader can't be led astray or disoriented later. So yes, I see the progress typical in some of my poems as starting with something simple and moving into something more demanding. This is certainly the pattern of weird poetry. Coleridge is an example; we start with someone sitting in a backyard, and we go off into these levels of airy speculation. Frost is a good example. We start by coming across a divided road in the woods, and we're talking a couple of lines later about decision-making and the road of life and the rest of it—I think I'm just following what is a common pattern of lyric poetry and, for that matter, it's a common pattern of songs. Singers know that you start kind of soft and you go out bigger.
Whitney: Are poems easy for you to make?
Collins: Poems are not easy to start, and they're not easy to finish. There's a great pleasure in—I wouldn't say ease, but maybe kind of a fascinated ease that accompanies the actual writing of the poem. I find it very difficult to get started. There are just long gaps where I can't find a point of insertion, I can't find a good opening line, I can't find a mood that I want to write into. But once I do, once a line falls out of the air, or I get a little inkling of a subject and I recognize that, it's like the sense that a game has started. Part of writing is discovering the rules of the game and then deciding whether to follow the rules or to break them. The great thing about the game of poetry is that it's always your turn—I guess that goes back to my being an only child. So once it's under way, there is a sense of flow. Usually the poems are written in one sitting. There's always a groping towards some satisfying ending. But I'd say the hardest part is not writing. Once the writing starts, it's too pleasurable to think of it as a difficulty.
Whitney: Who are you speaking to in your poems?
Collins: I'm speaking to someone I'm trying to get to fall in love with me. I'm trying to speak intimately to one person. That should be clear. I'm not speaking to an audience. I'm not writing for the podium. I'm just writing, trying to write in a fairly quiet tone to one other reader who is by herself, or himself, and I'm trying to interrupt some silence in their life, which is utterance. I don't really have a picture of this person. But as soon as I start to write I'm very aware, I'm trying to be aware that a reader just might well pick up this poem, a stranger. So when I'm writing—and I think that this is important for all writers—I'm trying to be a writer and a reader back and forth. I write two lines or three lines. I will immediately stop and turn into a reader instead of a writer, and I'll read those lines as if I had never seen them before and as if I had never written them. And if they still make sense and if they still have good cadence and if there's something interesting going on there, then I'll go forward, turn back into the writer, and write another two or three or six lines, and then go back and bring the reader out and see what he thinks of it.
Whitney: You were made poet laureate in 2001, an interesting year to be foisted into this role as the public poet of the country. You told the New York Times "In times of crisis it's interesting that people don't turn to the novel or say, 'We should all go out to a movie,' or 'Ballet would help us.' It's always poetry. What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear." But don't they turn to all of these, don't they also turn, say, to iPods?
Collins: I hope not. I think that—if you bring up technology—I know people who are working on this now, and I think that within a year or two you will find iPoetry, which is an interesting phrase because poetry is always about the I. You'll find iPoetry, you'll find that you can download poetry, that you can stuff your iPod with recorded poetry. So just to answer the question that way, I think that poetry is gonna catch up with that technology quite soon.
Whitney: Have you ever been tempted to tackle politics in your poems?
Collins: I think when I was in my Lawrence Ferlinghetti wanna-be period ... I wrote some poems in high school—and no, you're not gonna see them—which are diatribes against conformity and capitalism. They had this kind of ranting rhetoric, crying out against social ills. But I am glad I got them out of my system.
Whitney: You said I'm not going to see them? Does that mean they still exist?
Collins: [laughs] I shouldn't even have said that. No, they've been destroyed.
Whitney: How important is humor to your poetry?
Collins: I think it's vital. It's odd to me because many people say we live in these awful times and we need culture and art especially in times like these, in these dire times. Well, first of all, I don't think these times are more dire than other times. People who say that just need to go back and read Herodotus, read any book of history, read a biography of Attila the Hun. If people are going to wring their hands over these troubled times, I would think that humor should be indispensable. I find it strange that—at least in my take on it—the people who are the most alarmed about the dire times we live in are the ones who seem to be humorless, in their taste for poetry anyway. Humor is just an ingredient. It's always been in poetry. It kind of dropped out of poetry I think during the 19th and up to the mid-twentieth century. But it's found its way back. And it's simply an ingredient. It's one of the humors—if you will—of the human spirit, as well as grief and loneliness and whatever other emotional notes we are able to flag on ourselves. I don't see why it needs to be questioned. You could just as easily ask why is there so much seriousness in poetry?
Whitney: Last couple of questions. True or false: Billy Collins's poems are prose vignettes cut into verse?
Collins: Well, false because I write one line at a time. I'm a line-maker. I think that's what makes poets different from prose-writers. That's the main way. We think, not just in sentences the way prose writers do but also in lines. So we're doing these two things at the same time. When I'm constructing a poem, I'm trying to write one good line after another. One solid line after another. You know a lot of the lines—some hold up better as lines than others. But I'm not thinking of just writing a paragraph and then chopping it up. I'm very conscious of the fact that every line should have a cadence to it. It should contribute to the progress of the poem. And that the ending of the line is a way of turning the reader's attention back into the interior of the poem. So in other words: false.
Whitney: True or false: you perhaps more than any poet living today have challenged the cliché that poetry necessitates poverty?
Collins: [he laughs for a long time] True.
Whitney: Last question.
Collins: You keep saying that.
Whitney: For real this time, I promise. Do you think that your poems will last? Do you care?
Collins: There's just no telling. I don't know. I always think [W. S.] Merwin's poems will last of anyone writing today. If I had to bet on posterity I would bet Merwin. My poems could easily evaporate. So I don't know. If you find yourself as a writer thinking about posterity you should probably go out for a brisk walk or something.