A Map and a Compass:
An Interview with Billy Collins
Former U.S. Poet Laureate
by Dallie Clark

Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate Intimate. Warm. Generous. That’s one side of poet Billy Collins. Throw in irreverent, gutsy, and side-splittingly funny—and another side of Collins emerges. But the blend works for the perpetually winsome writer, who continues to attract new followers and poetry converts well after his 2001—2003 stint as United States’ Poet Laureate.

When he’s not flying around the world speaking, teaching, and performing, the multi-award winning Collins serves as Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He is the author of eight poetry collections and the originator of the innovative “Poetry 180” program, which won critical acclaim from high school teachers during Collins’ term as poet laureate. Presenting a new poem each day of the academic year to high school students across the nation in an organic, accessible way, the curriculum lives on through Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry (Random House, 2003), an anthology of the poems used in the program. Collins later edited 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (Random House, 2005), which echoes his continuing mission to share the power of poetry.

Collins, who lives in Somers, New York, with his wife Diane, an architect, is looking forward to his 2008 release of Hope and Anchor (working title).

Dallie Clark: How do poetic craft and inspiration intersect in your work? Do they ever work against each other?

Billy Collins: When the writing of a good poem is underway, that is exactly where the poet finds himself gratefully standing, at that precise intersection. More often than not, I find myself standing at the crossroads of empty-headedness and inertia. And, of course, craft and inspiration exist very separately. They do not feel the need to cooperate with each other. So you are lucky to find yourself on occasion at the point where the two cross. Much unsatisfying poetry is the result of never finding that intersection, but instead, driving unproductively down the road of craft with no inspiration in sight or heading off down the road of inspiration without a care, and without carefulness. One road leads to a dull mosaic and the other to mere self-expression or, worse, tantrum.

DC: Even though you’ve mentioned inventing a romantic daydreamer as the speaker in your poems, the “I” in them appears to be consistently—and comfortably—autobiographical. Truly, is there much separation between the two, between you and the perpetually romantic observer?

BC: For me, “finding your voice” is not a matter of searching around for something you lost, nor does it mean tapping into your illusory “true self,” the life that has been buried. It means inventing a voice in the same way that a novelist invents a character. The big difference is that the poet has to invent only one character, while the novelist spends his career ushering dozens, maybe hundreds, into being. This poetic character (persona, mask, speaker—call it what you will) usually resembles the biographical poet in certain respects but is not his equivalent. When readers treat the two as synonymous, dire problems arise. My persona is a definite improvement over me. I wish I had his life, which seems to consist of daydreaming and taking long walks. You never see him going to work, do you?

DC: You seem to have a special respect for—and relationship with—your readers. Tell us how that relationship fuels you as both a writer and a performer.

BC: I think I require the reader’s presence to witness my showing off. That is what poets are doing with language. The poet wants the reader to look at him the same way his mother looked at him when he was doing something “daring” in the playground. Look, Mom!

DC: Many talented poets don’t engage their audiences when they perform their own works—yet your humor and lack of literary starchiness are apparent. In fact, your followers may see you as a poet whose public readings and recordings are as important as the poems themselves. What do you believe a poet’s obligations are, if any, to the performance and/or audience?

BC: Before Robert Frost blazed the trail by reading on college campuses all over the country, poetry readings were rare. Now, they are legion. At any given minute, maybe thirty poets are up in the air over America flying from one podium to another. And open-mic readings are so prevalent, one could find a place to read just about every day of the year. Of course, all this public display of authorship has nothing to do with the act of composition, which is, by its nature, a thing performed in solitude. I write for the page, not the microphone, but I have a listening reader in mind with every line I write, and if this reader suddenly multiplies into several hundred people willing to gather in some auditorium on a winter’s night to hear me, how can I object? But after the show, the auditorium goes dark, but the book remains dutifully on its shelf, ready to be opened at any time. Don’t need no ticket, just get on board.

DC: Who is the first person who validated the worthiness and cadence of your words?

BC: Several teachers encouraged me and so did several editors— notably Joseph Parisi of Poetry. But I was probably more “inspired,” if that’s the word, by teachers who dismissed my school poetry (usually for good reason) and editors who responded with rejection slips. I seem to have a keener appetite for revenge than for approval.

DC: You mention composing by a window in the poem “Traveling Alone” in your latest collection, The Trouble with Poetry (Random House, 2005). In your own writing process, is this window both literal and metaphoric? Are you a creature of habit when composing—or do you vary your methods?

BC: My persona likes to write near a window in the calmness of a rural house, but I myself can compose anywhere—on planes and trains, in bed and on walks. He has more preferences than I and a generally easier time of it. I think if I could be another person, I would like to be him. Or, failing that, Charles Simic. My persona drinks tea; I drink coffee.

DC: In this same collection, two persistent threads are the value of time and the inevitability of death, as exemplified by such phrases as “the priceless moments of the day,” “praying to the passing clouds / forever begging for just one more day,” and “let the fan blades on the ceiling cool us / as they turn like the hands of a speeding clock.” Please comment on the influence of time in your work.

BC: Well, to put it bluntly, prose is about History; but poetry is about Time. And History, as someone put it—is the violent misuse of Time. The oldest theme in poetry is carpe diem, and Time is the reason we feel the need to carpe our diems. After all, you only get so many diems. Remember yesterday? That’s a good enough example of a day that has gone.

DC: In your service as Poet Laureate of the United States (2001—2003) and as creator of the “Poetry 180” program during that time, what was your most rewarding and memorable experience?

BC: Most rewarding was hearing from high school teachers who had used the Poetry 180 program in their schools and managed to bring students into some kind of sensible, non-terrifying relationship with poetry. Somewhat to my surprise, the simple idea of placing good, clear contemporary poems in front of students actually worked to spark their interest.

DC: If you were stranded somewhere with just three books of poetry, what would they be, and why?

BC: The Divine Comedy, an anthology of Chinese poetry, and the complete works of Coleridge. Dante for music; Chinese poetry for simplicity and clarity; Coleridge for imaginative thrills. Poetry that featured all three would be great poetry indeed. But I would trade all three for a compass and a map.

DC: As an English professor, have you advised your students to avoid certain cardinal sins when writing poetry? What is your best advice to the novice poet?

BC: Afraid I have nothing new here. The best advice to the young poet is to read the poems of others to see what has been done and thus discover what remains to be done. If one is lucky in the process of this, you will find poets to be jealous of. The road to originality lies in imitating them.

DC: As a very popular, well-known poet with the American public, how do you handle the disparaging remarks sometimes hurled at you by poets in literary, academic circles?

BC: Disparaging remarks?! From other poets?! How could you suggest such a thing?

DC: Has a poem of yours been misread or do you ever worry that a poem may be misread? What happens when a poem becomes controversial?

BC: Poems are misread all the time, maybe more than they are read exactly. But how can there be a consensus when everyone brings to the poem a different colored jelly bean? Some readings are demeaning to the poem and the poet, and others are enhancing in that they reveal a richness to the poem that the poet had not been aware of, but now will take credit for, sheepishly we would hope.

DC: A final question—what creative outlets and/or projects are you planning for the future?

BC: I do have a potential collection, but I still can’t decide if it’s ready yet. It keeps inching toward the door, and I keep dragging it back to the desk. Another book should come out in 2008. The working title is Hope and Anchor.

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