Even if you've made a lifelong habit of ignoring poetry, you've encountered the work of Billy Collins. Maybe you saw one of his pieces while strolling through the Bronx Botanical Garden. Maybe you idly read "Grand Central" while stuck on the subway. Maybe you spotted him on the cover of the NY Times here or there.
It's not that surprising, considering that Collins, the former poet laureate of NY state and of the entire country, is widely considered America's most popular living poet—he's certainly the most famous poet named Billy, give or take the blinking fists of Billy Corgan. Collins, born in 1941, is a lifelong New Yorker, having grown up in Queens before moving to Westchester. He taught English at Lehman College of the City University of New York in the Bronx for thirty years, and is currently a teacher in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.
His poetry career has rocketed him into the realm of national recognition, affording him the ability to travel the world reading poems, promoting poetry, and lecturing at various universities. His twelfth collection, The Rain In Portugal, was released recently. Collins will be giving a reading at the 92Y tonight as part of his book tour, and we recently spoke with him about his New York roots, the waning popularity of poetry, and why people are so resistant to the form.
You grew up in Queens, right? Yeah, but I was born in Manhattan, on West 30th Street. We lived in Queens, then moved to Westchester when I was about 12.
Have you lived in the city at all since then? Yeah, I’ve lived in the city. And I’ve lived for years in Westchester in Scarsdale and I still have a house in northern Westchester. And I have a 914 area code.
Me too. I’m holding on to that for dear life.
The 914 and 212 are the two you don’t want to— You don’t want to throw those away.
I’m always interested in the convergence of everyday life with poetry, and the sorts of ways that people have tried to make it more normalized. I don’t think a poetry reading ever normalized anything. But poetry in public places, I’m all for that.
I’m on the board of the Poetry Society of America, we’re the ones who started Poetry In Motion. And that’s in eight or nine cities now. You find poems where you don’t expect to find them. People expect to find poetry in the classroom, and later maybe in the library. But they don’t expect to find them when taking a bus to work, or on a billboard, or have what I would call an "ambush quality," that a poem can have. It gets into people before they have time to resist it.
You know, you say to someone, "I’m gonna read a poem to you," they’re either gonna run away or cover their ears, or just think this is a curiosity, but if they hear one on the radio when they’re not expecting it or see one on a billboard or on commuter trains, then it gets into them before they’ve deployed their anti-poetry shields.
Another example of this: when I was poet laureate, I initiated and directed a poetry channel on Delta Airlines, which lasted for a couple of years. So instead of listening to soft jazz or whatever, you could listen to poems recited by me, with jazz in between them.
Why do you think many people are so initially reluctant or resistant to poetry? I think it’s because they first come across it in school. If we set aside for the moment the basic natural childhood love of clapping, rhyming, mother goose, all the ingredients of poetry, children love to dance, they love to clap, they love rhyme. But that’s all lost when they enter the tunnel of adolescence. And then with their first memory really is of reading poetry in school, and so it’s just a subject in school. When they graduate from school, high school or college, they tend to leave the subject of poetry behind along with, I dunno, social studies, trigonometry, New York state history, and other useless bits of information.
And of course, the teaching of poetry is often brutally centered on interpretation. This gives teachers power because they kind of "know the answer." And I think there’s a streak of sadism in it as well as they watch students get the wrong answer by guessing.
Anyway, there are some great teachers, but there are some not-so-good teachers. And the temptation is to assign difficult poems to validate the teacher’s necessary role in priestly interpretation. And that’s why when I was poet laureate, I started this program, Poetry 180, which was an online collection and, later, two anthologies of modern day poems that were clear and contemporary—you didn't have to bang your head against the desk—as an alternative to the kinds of difficult texts and interpretive pressure that students find in the classroom.
I think there’s a lot of pressure on explaining meaning, or understand meaning rather than experiencing it, listening, which is why Poetry in Motion and other projects that bring it into our everyday lives are so fascinating. Yeah, people in Miami sometimes trail a line of poetry behind an airplane over the beach. There are all sorts of ways to insinuate poems because of their brevity into unexpected places.
Do you find as you are going about your day, wherever you are, are you coming up with ideas for poems? Or is it more of a solitary pursuit that you can only access under certain circumstances? Well, it’s both. This is not happening all the time. I mean, as Seamus Heaney once said, I’m only a poet part of the time, when I’m writing it, and most of the other time I’m just doing the dishes or picking up dry cleaning like everyone else.
But I think, in terms of finding things to write about, a poet has to train oneself to be opportunistic about everyday experiences. You have to be a little vigilant and hope for an opportunity. And you never know where you’re gonna find it. I mean, I was just, before you called, reading a poem by Tom Lux about eels who just live on eating the tails of other eels and he’s an interesting poet because he writes about plants and geology and all sorts of things. But there’s something that struck me: eels don’t die by killing each other. They just eat their tails. And when you have your tail eaten, you just eat the tail of a smaller fish. Up forms an interesting community compared to the murderous human scene that we find all around us, in every newspaper we pick up.
Do you think that mainstream culture has failed poetry in a sense? That it doesn’t seem to give it as much respect as it does with novels, nonfiction, and the like? Well, I think they failed each other. I think poets, back in the day of high modernist poetry in the '20s and '30s, clearly moved away from what you’d call the general audience that poetry used to have by writing poems that were much more difficult, demanding and arcane, and that began a drift. I think it’s partially the fault of poets who aren’t writing poems that are generally comprehensible.
And then readers have lots of distractions. Poetry is a lot like newspapers—nobody reads the physical newspapers anymore under the age of 50 basically. If you’re on an airplane, as I will be in a few hours, I’m usually the only one reading a newspaper. They’re reading online or playing games, or looking for the Skymall, which no longer exists.
I don’t want to blame anyone really, but I also don’t really care if more people don’t read poetry. It’s not for everybody really. It’s like croquet or chess or jazz; I don’t want everyone to listen to jazz. It would make my listening to jazz less special.
There are quite a few jazz references in the new book—Bill Evans is front and center in the opening poem. Do you ever listen to music when you're writing? Not necessarily while I’m writing it, I try not to. Although it’s sometimes in the background. As long as it doesn’t have words it become background noise. I’ve been listening to jazz since I was 14 years old. I have a piano and I work at playing a little jazz piano. I’ve been listening to it since the early, mid '50s really.
Do you find that the rhythm of jazz lends itself to writing poetry? Not at all, no. The rhythms in my head are the rhythms of English poetry.
When you are writing, do you ever have any sort of specific reader or audience in mind? Just a solitary person. I’m not writing for the lectern or the auditorium. I’m writing for the imagined person. I don’t have to delineate the person, just the person who appreciates poetry—or particularly my poetry. And they’re sitting in a room by themselves in silence and opening a book. So even though I give a lot of public readings, I think of the communication as being very private and actually intimate.
Do you see yourself as an ambassador for poetry? A representative in a sense? Well, through no interest of my own I happen to be. Once you're poet laureate, you’re put into a sort of ambassadorial position.
But I found it very difficult to represent all poetry and say, "Come on Americans, get out there and read more poetry." Because I think the majority of contemporary poetry isn’t worth reading. That’s why I put together these anthologies. I wasn’t saying, "Go out read all poetry," I was saying I think you should read this poetry. It's clear, it's humorous, it's witty, it speaks to the heart, and does all those things at once. I’m, selfishly, an ambassador for my own poetry.
There is no title poem in the new book, but there are in almost all your other books. Was their any significance to this? The title comes from one of the poems, "On Rhyme," and it's just a line of poem. And the title is kind of a trigger warning to the reader, to warn the reader that I’m not particularly a rhyming poet in the traditional sense, otherwise it would be called, "The Rain In Spain."
There's also a reference to Portugal in "The Day After Tomorrow." I’m not really obsessed with Portugal, but I think that's a pure coincidence. I’ll have to look that up.
Do you find yourself reflecting back on your childhood and early experiences in the city? No, because my persona is really not a city person. A very few poems of mine take place in the city. No, he’s more of an updated version of a character in English romantic poetry, nature poetry. He usually finds himself either in a pleasant domicile, or he finds himself in a natural setting. I like the city, but my persona doesn’t like it. There’s too much going on.
So you separate yourself from the 'you' that is in the work? To some degree, yeah. He’s an idealized version of me. He is free of a lot of things: he doesn’t have a job, you don't see him taking out the garbage, although he could I suppose. He drinks tea, I drink coffee. He’s a more sensitive version of me. He is my better.
Is he a professional thinker? He’s a professional daydreamer. Yeah, thinking is... he’s too delicate for actual thought, but yeah. He’s a speculator, daydreamer, hypothesizer. He seems to have a lot of time on his hands.
That makes me think of the poem "Dream Life," which is all about dreaming about poetry as an abstract concept. I have a lot of poems about poetry, even though I’ve been doing it for a while. I’m still kind of self-conscious about being a poet. I don’t want to jump right in and assume that everything is okay. I refer to a lot of poets in my poems. I have poems about workshops, and about poetry because I like to admit that this is not really a natural activity. It’s an artificial activity.
And you’re also part of a continuum of different writers who have been and will be. That’s because I taught literature in college for over three decades. If you do that, you’re teaching Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson and all these major voices every semester. You kind of internalize these voices and you end up being influenced by them without even knowing it in some cases.
I do see myself as part of this long conversation. So I could call my next book, My Two Cents. I’m adding a little something to do this big conversation.
What poet would you most want to converse with if you could— Dead, you mean dead. Yeah, because I could call some of them up. I could give Charles Simic a call, I like talking to him.
[But of the deceased poets,] Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I'd like to show him my poems and sit around talking. I learned a lot from him.
I was curious about your relationship with the Bronx Botanical Gardens and how that came about? I taught in the Bronx for a long time and the Poetry Society Of America—like I mentioned I’m on the board—started some years ago co-programing events at the Garden. We did a program on Emily Dickinson, on Frida Kahlo, and I became part of that, I went out and gave a few readings and was part of the programs.
And every year I started reading poetry about winter and trains at the annual Christmas train show, and I guess I stuck around long enough so they appointed me New York Botanical Garden Poet Laureate. There’s another little title for me.
You’re accumulating quite the titles. Yeah. I don’t have too much time left.