Interview with Billy Collins

Let’s begin with where you write? In your living room? At the dining table? In your study? And on a legal pad or computer? With pencil or pen?

There are two ways of going about writing, either you sit down at a desk at a certain time each day and spend a certain amount of time there, writing or not writing, but putting in the time; or you walk around in a cloud until you are struck with the possibility of a poem, then you sit down, wherever you happen to be, and work it out. I’m in the B school. I don’t have any work habits, and my desk is the last place I would write. It’s too cluttered to find an opening for a plain sheet of paper. I can write on the run, and I can concentrate in an airport, bar, or lecture to get something on paper then and there. Walking up Madison Avenue one morning, I was visited by a notion and an opening line, which is all I need to begin. It was caught out with neither pen nor paper—not like me—so I walked into a Chase bank and used a couple of deposit slips and a cheap pen on the chain to write some lines.

I got a funny look from the guard.

And, I should add, here at home, I have an easy chair near some French doors and that’s where I go if I feel an act of literature coming on.

When did you begin to write poetry? What was it that provoked you to start?

When I was about 7 or 8 I wrote something that might have been a poem. I saw a sailboat moving on the East River, and had a literary reaction. Maybe something about the boat using the natural force of the wind to make its way through a city. The next time I wrote poems, I was a teenage beatnik (in my fantasy life) and wrote wild, angry, rangy poems about social injustice and drug-induced visions. The fact is that I was a good student in a Catholic high school in the suburbs of New York. Later I entered a Brooding Romantic Genius period where I was too sensitive to write anything. I walked around, dressed a certain way, having expressible thoughts and feelings. In college, I admired Gertrude Stein and wrote versions of her poems; and John Donne, whose poem “The Flea,” gave me my first feeling of literary jealousy. And I was under the spell of Stevens for a while. Trying to imitate him, I produced travesties of his work.

What are the poets you go back to time and again? Tell us what poems you truly love?

I sometimes open a book of poetry just to get me started. Charles Simic most frequently. Or Donald HallAnn SextonKenneth KochWm MatthewsMark StrandFrostDickinsonWhitmanRon PadgettJames TateJack Spicer and some others. Or I’ll dip into a big anthology of Chinese poetry. But my real loves are earlier, especially the English Romantics, Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” and Coleridge’s “conversation poems.” “The Lime Tree Bower My Prison” is the title I use to respond to the question “What’s your favorite poem?”

If you were giving advice to someone who was not familiar with poetry, what 5 poets would you suggest they read?

I wouldn’t recommend a person to read a poet unless that poet would be useful to the writer.. I would try to judge from the person’s poems which poet would help the most. Like match-making, it’s customized. I wouldn’t suggest Bukowski if I didn’t think the student, say, would find his poems useful. Worth imitating or just stealing from. I would recommend Bukowski to a student who appeared to have a little inner Bukowski that badly needed to be released. It doesn’t help a student to read a poet whom he wants to write like but knows he’ll never be anywhere near that good. It’s one of those poetry dead ends.

In 2016 NPR interview you said, “…unlike some poets I’m not pouring out my misery. I’m really involved in some playful game with language – it’s a serious game in some ways, but it’s a game too.” I find this quote fascinating. Could you expound on it?

Despite my affection for the English Romantics, I don’t see my poetry as a vehicle for personal misery or even disappointment. A poem that begins “My heart aches…” would not survive my workshop, or possibly anyone’s these days. Poetry is way of taking my mind off myself. I’m not looking in my heart to write; I’m looking at the words on the page. I’m very clear-eyed and focused in the act of composition (that’s the hope anyway) because the aim is to make the reader emotional, not for me to get emotional on paper. To achieve that, I have to be remain dispassionate, calculating really.

What do you think of confessional poetry? Have you ever tried your hand at it?

“Confessional poetry” worked because the best of its practitioners (Lowell, PlathSexton) had something interesting to “confess;” serious psychiatric maladies. I’m pretty boring in comparison. I had a happy childhood and I love being alive. Some would think that alone should disqualify me from being a poet. Plus, the only thing I presume when I write is the total indifference of the reader. I need to persuade the reader to take an interest in the poem, and the way to do that is not with a sudden discharge of emotion. I react to “emotional” poetry the same way I would react to an emotional person: I take a few steps back.

Billy Collins is the author of twelve collections of poetry including The Rain in PortugalAimless LoveHoroscopes for the DeadBallisticsThe Trouble with PoetryNine HorsesSailing Alone Around the RoomQuestions About AngelsThe Art of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. He is also the editor of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, and Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds. A former Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, he is a Distinguished Fellow at the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and as New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006. In 2016 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Florida with his wife Suzannah.
Photo credit: Suzanne Collins
Illustration by Jasmine Flores