Re Verse: Billy Collins on His Craft and His Poet Laureateship

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Billy Collins

The purpose of the United States Poet Laureateship as stated by the Library of Congress is "to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." Billy Collins, who recently ended his term as the 11th U.S. Poet Laureate, did as much as could be expected of one person to further popularize his craft. He did so through his writing, of course, and through many interviews, teachings, and readings across the country.

His last three books -- Nine Horses; Sailing Alone Around the Room; and Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, a collection for which he served as editor -- hold the top three positions on the May Book Sense Poetry Bestseller List. Nine Horses is on the Spring 2003 Book Sense 76 Top Ten, and Sailing Alone Around the Room was a Spring 2002 Top Ten pick.

Trish Keady of Christopher's Books in San Francisco, who nominated Sailing Alone Around the Room for the 76, had this to say about it: "It's not like I have a crush on Billy Collins. Not like my otherwise sturdy heart lurches sideways in my chest and smacks against a rib when I open his book after a long time away. Not like I can't wait to read again about dogs and jazz, bells and books, with a sigh and a silly, lopsided smile."

Collins recently answered questions from Bookselling This Week about his writing and his term as Poet Laureate.

As you've said in the past, we have no U.S. Short Story Laureate, Novel Laureate, or Film Director Laureate. What's the significance of having a U.S. Poet Laureate?

I suppose one could take that special kind of attention as a sign of poetry's need for official support due to its neglect, but I prefer to think of it as a sign of poetry's centrality to culture. Poetry is the most ancient form of human expression, and it forms the only true history of human emotion. It's where the emotions go to finishing school. If we had to start throwing the "arts" overboard one at a time, I would hope that poetry would be the last to go, but I know it would be television and that we would live to regret it.

The Laureateship has always been a flexible position to allow the poet to work on his or her own public or private projects -- Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King's Men; Rita Dove invited writers to explore the African Diaspora through the eyes of its artists. Looking back over your term, what were some of your goals and were you able to realize them?

My goal was the same as that of previous laureates, that is, to spread the word of poetry. I especially wanted poetry to pop up in unexpected places, like the daily announcement in high schools and on airplanes. I created a Web site [] (with much help from the Library of Congress) called Poetry 180, a list of 180 clear, hip, very contemporary poems --one for every day of the school year. High schools all over the country have been using the poems -- the Web site gets over a million hits every month -- and Random House just published an anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. Same idea except for a wider readership.

I am now working with the company that provides in-flight entertainment for commercial airlines to create an audio poetry channel. You can put on your headphones and listen to Sharon Olds while you look down at the clouds.

Both of these programs are not just trying to propagandize with poetry but are giving people a chance to reclaim an interest in poetry. We all start out as children with a love of language but most of us take a wrong turn somewhere.

But now that I think of it, I should have just written All the King's Men. After all, Borges wrote Don Quixote again.

In Poetry 180 you also say, "clarity is the real risk in poetry." Why do you think we have this rivalry between academic or "difficult" poets and accessible or, as you've called it, "hospitable" poetry?

The simplified version of the background is that in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, poetry turned down an alley of experimentation (see Pound's Cantos) and lost its audience. Beginning with the roof-top screaming of the Beats and the simplicity of William Carlos Williams, that audience has been gradually reclaimed. Difficulty has a legitimate place in poetry because poetry is a camping grounds for ambiguity and paradox. But difficulty is also a place to hide. To hide from judgment. A willfully obscure poem resists specific criticism. It has become fashionable to ignore the reader as a bourgeois throw-back, but I consider that attitude a form of literary rudeness.

Yours is an ineluctable hospitality. What's to be gotten from being got?

Why, thank you. To be got is to be loved and to be loved is to beget, you see?

Not to be got is to be misbegotten.

If you could suggest or require a certain surrounding for readers of your work, what would it be?

A poem for me is a wire connecting one solitary person to another, each inhabiting a quiet room of their own, preferably one with a jasmine plant in bloom and a big piano with the lid up. Oh, and a small oil painting of a nude.

You received the largest advance for a poetry book in history from Random House. Do you think this bodes well for the world of poetry?

Well, it boded well for me and my poetry, I know. If the effects of that advance were to extend to "the world of poetry," I think "the world of poetry" would have to have my agent.

Your poems have great wit. I've heard readings of "Litany" where people have laughed at almost every line, particularly these:

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

But "Litany" has struck me as more of a lyrical love poem than funny. Are you often surprised by audience reaction, or do you find people laugh where you expected?

I have said this before, but the perfect poem for me would be one in which the reader/listener could never be completely sure at any given point whether the poem was being serious or amusing, grave or droll. The closest word we have to describe that condition is irony. "Litany" and a few other poems of mine flirt with this state of being funny/serious. Most of them fail because they lose their balance and fall to one side or the other. Waiting on one side of this balancing act is sarcasm and on the other side, sentimentality. I am susceptible to both. Because "Litany" is a series of love poem conventions -- these traditionally enhancing comparisons of the woman to whatever -- we seem to recognize the familiar tone of the love lyric, but, of course, the poem is busy deconstructing (did I say that?) these conventions. Okay, making fun of them. Actually, that poem follows the movement of many Shakespeare sonnets -- it starts out being about the beloved and ends up being about the poet. What else is new?

What are you working on now?

I just work poem by poem -- no master plan. This morning I wrote a poem about a man who wants to roll the world up into a map when he dies so he can look at it in the afterlife, so he can "maybe reminisce about a country I once visited/ or a strait where a naval battle once took place."

More nostalgia, right? The true curse of the Irish. --Interviewed by Karen Schechner