Q&A with Billy Collins

Two-term U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins shares insight into the life of a poet as well as some thoughts on how he judges the work of others.

Billy Collins reads a selection of his poems to the audience in Tiedtke Concert Hall. (Photo by Scott Cook) Billy Collins reads a selection of his poems to the audience in Tiedtke Concert Hall. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Billy Collins has been rocking the poetry world since the appearance of his first collection of poems more than three decades ago. Little wonder, then, that on a warm November evening, Rollins College’s Tiedtke Concert Hall is filled to near capacity. Many are, in the words of Gail Sinclair, executive director of the Rollins Winter Park Institute, “our repeat attendees” eager to hear “our repeat performer” whose works are “meaningful, often playful, and always entertaining.” Collins, a two-term U.S. poet laureate, became the Institute’s inaugural scholar in 2008, “and he’s been with us ever since,” Sinclair said.

Like a rock star, Collins chose from among a playlist that included new work as well as classic favorites, such as “Cheerios” and “The Lanyard.” Introducing two newer works, Collins offered, “Some of you know my poems well enough to know that I am in the dog camp,” speaking of his affinity for canines. But now that Audrey, the cat, has joined the family, he’s becoming something of a cat person as well, adding “The Lucky Cat” and “Predator” to his lineup.

After reading a couple of dozen poems, Collins turned the stage over to the winners of a high school poetry competition now in its second year. “If you do something twice in America, it’s a tradition,” Collins said, smiling. Four “outstanding poets” were chosen from among the more than 80 writers who submitted their work to the master poet. Amy Sukserm, a 10th-grader at Trinity Preparatory School, whose poem “Asian for Dummies: A Guide” received first-place honor, said the experience of having her work judged by Collins was really humbling. Other winners: West Orange High School 9th grader Kira St. Juste, second place; Winter Park High School 12th grader Volanta Peng, third place; and Timber Creek High School 12th grader Lorina Morton, fourth place.

Dixie Tate: Tell us a little about the process of selecting student poetry winners. What do you look for in students’ work? How do you critique without dashing hopes or building unrealistic expectations for those who may be dreaming of becoming the next poetry rock star?

Billy Collins: I find it easy to find winners in any poetry competition. Good work rises to the top. First thing I notice is a voice that seems to be speaking to me. A connection is made. If the voice sounds like it’s daydreaming or lost in an obscure meditation—usually based on personal misery—that has nothing to do with the reader, I stop reading. Next, I look for attention to formal design. I admire the patterns of poems, signs of human intelligence, a feel for the poem as a verbal system.

First-place winner Amy Sukserm. (Photo by Scott Cook) First-place winner Amy Sukserm. (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: How did you feel about poetry as a high-school student? Did you write poems during this period of your life—or entertain any notion of becoming a poet?

BC: I felt an attraction to poetry as an adolescent for some of the usual wrong (or insufficient) reasons, i.e., to “express” myself when I had next to nothing to express. And I was captivated by the romantic notion of the poet as an isolated expert on his own melancholy, what you might call a brooding romantic genius. I was 16. My high school was far from fertile ground for poetry or any of the arts. It seems every other boy—it was an all-boys school – had an interest in being vocally anti-poetry. Looking back, I can appreciate how this gave me a realistic picture of how poetry is thought of by most Americans.

DT: Beyond proving to ourselves and others that we can, what is the intrinsic value of memorizing a poem, particularly in this instant-access Age of Google? How important do you think it is for students to be required to memorize a poem?

BC: Students tend to wince whenever I tell them that they must memorize a poem. But once they have the poem, they can’t wait for a chance to recite it. Some have come to my office to practice before reading in front of the class. What they feel is part mastery and part the thrill of having internalized a poem. The poem is no longer just out there on a page; it’s inside the person, and if you keep refreshing your memory of it, you have a companion for life.

Second-place winner Kira St. Juste. (Photo by Scott Cook) Second-place winner Kira St. Juste. (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: You’ve said that teaching is a “very mysterious process” because you never quite know what is being taken away by those on the receiving end. Could you say that about poetry as well? Are the hopes and expectations similar?

BC: That is a common thread. Once the poem leaves the house and lands in the hands of strangers, who knows what will go through their minds? I try to write with enough clarity that the range of possible reactions is limited, but irrelevant associations are always possible. A single image in a poem can trigger a personal memory that drives the reader far from the poem’s insistence on saying what it says. Of course, the difference is that the writer doesn’t have to confront his or her readers, at least not on a regular basis. But a teacher is performing in front of an audience, so the feeling of possible failure is more palpable. But if I required measurable results, I should have been a builder of birdhouses. But, wait, then I’d wonder what the birds thought of my work. What if I forgot to drill the hole!

DT: What words of wisdom do you have for students—or anyone, for that matter—seriously considering life as a poet?

BC: Besides making sure you have a day job, my only advice is the only advice, and a rather blunt one: READ. Read all the poets you can. Ten thousand hours of reading may be too much, but it’s a nice round number to shoot for. Poets are pretty wrapped up in themselves. Ever since Wordsworth, the poet’s personal experiences (outward and inward) have become the dominant subject of poetry. For that reason, a young poet may feel all he or she needs is themselves. But if their poetry is to be of any interest, they must know the poets of the past. Poetry is one great conversation; before you can join it, you first have to listen to it long and hard.

DT: How do you choose from among the hundreds of poems you’ve written which you will read to an audience?

BC: I almost always start with one or two poems that directly address the reader to establish rapport. And I have maybe four poems that I think are good to end with. So a hospitable beginning and a strong ending. What I read in between is up to how the audience is reacting. I have a playlist in front of me, so as not to waste time looking up page numbers, and I jump around in it. I am usually trying to create a balance between poems that lean toward the funny and poems that lean toward the serious. I think my better poems lean in both directions at once. The best teacher for this is John Donne.

DT: You have been called by many “the most popular poet in America.” Your two terms as U.S. poet laureate and countless appearances before and since, one could argue, have served to elevate poetry from supporting character to lead role on the literary stage. How do you see the role of most popular poet? And, indeed, what is the role of the poet in today’s world?

BC: At the risk of sounding like an echo of Oscar Wilde, the role of the poet in this or any culture is to write good poems.

Third-place winner Volanta Peng. (Photo by Scott Cook) Third-place winner Volanta Peng. (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: What was the genesis of your recently published children’s book, Voyage? Are there more children’s books on the horizon?

BC: Voyage looks, walks, and talks like a children’s book, but I never intended to write one. It’s really a beautifully illustrated poem about reading, which I wrote for John Coles, director of The Center for the Book, when he was being honored by the Library of Congress back in my poet laureate days. Someone saw it in Coles’s office and thought it would make a good kid’s book. I got to choose the illustrator. It’s all about some of my favorite obsessions, like boyhood, solitude, and the absorption of reading.

DT: Stints on NPR. TED talks that draw virtual audiences of nearly a million. Chatting it up with Stephen Colbert. You’ve traveled all around the world and talked to goodness-knows-how-many groups. What haven’t you done that you’d still like to do? Where haven’t you been that you’d still like to go? And could there possibly be a person or group you haven’t talked to that you’d liked to?

BC: I’d like to read at the Republican National Convention. They could use some poetry in the air. The Democrats, too, for that matter.