Fifteen Minutes with Former U.S.A. Poet Laureate Billy Collins

Former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins delighted and audience of faculty, students, and guests with a poetry reading in Kemper Auditorium last weekend. The event, hosted by the faculty of the English Department, was sponsored by the Sandra Isham Vreeland Fund. Afterwards, Collins agreed to an interview with The Phillipian. Did you always know that you wanted to be a poet? Not always. I think from high school – or maybe a little before that. I’m not sure how it started. My mother knew a lot of poetry by heart and recited it a lot. But I wasn’t really interested in poetry until I discovered contemporary poetry back in the late 50s. When I was in school then, the poems that were being taught were written by very traditional poets like Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant. But I discovered through my father a magazine called Poetry – it’s the oldest poetry magazine in the country. And my father would always bring this magazine home. So, I started looking in there, and I discovered these very different voices that sounded more contemporary. It was poetry that didn’t necessarily rhyme. That really spurred my interest. When did you decide to pursue writing as a career? To decide to be a poet as a career is extremely foolish. I stayed in school. I went to graduate school. I got a Ph.D. Then, I started teaching college, so I’ve been a professor most of my life. The poetry evolved much later. I really started as a professor who happened to write poetry. At this point of my life, I suppose I’ve become a poet who happens to be a professor. So one kind of took over the other. You have been tremendously successful in drawing large numbers of people to poetry. What do you think about your work is different and allows you to appeal to so many people that don’t otherwise enjoy poetry? You know, I really don’t know. It’s curious. It’s true that I’ve sold a lot of books – more books than you would expect for a poet to sell. My audiences tend to be much bigger than you’d expect for a poet. It’s all gravy to me. I think that I observe, as best as I can tell – and its hard to analyze your own virtues without embarrassment – but I try to observe a kind of etiquette in my writing toward the reader. The etiquette involves writing in full sentences, trying to make every line clear, and trying to make every line contribute some way to the poem. I try to begin poems on a common note so that the reader can follow. I try to begin poems with something very clear, but the idea is that it will lead into something mysterious toward the end of the poem. I think maybe readers enjoy that kind of imaginative travel – where you begin in a known place and then you move on to a place that’s a little cloudy. How did you feel about being selected to serve as the United States Poet Laureate? What exactly did that position entail? Well, I felt great about it. It’s difficult to call yourself a poet; it’s something that other people have to call you before you call yourself a poet, because it seems like you’re honoring yourself by describing yourself as a poet. But I think once your appointed Poet Laureate, it removes all doubt that you actually are a poet. So it was good to know that I was really a poet after all those doubts. The job description was very simple, there’s just a short check list of responsibilities, which include giving a reading and a lecture at the Library of congress once a year. You run a poetry reading series at the Library of Congress, and you are given some money at the beginning of the year to give out to younger poets. That’s about it. You don’t have to write ceremonial poems or move to Washington. And you don’t have to have any dealings with the White House either. So the responsibilities are quite minor, but the opportunities are quite vast. Some of my predecessors and I took advantage of this position to start national and international poetry initiatives, such as Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools. What advice would you give to aspiring writers and poets? Read. I think the great inspiration for poetry is jealousy. You have to find a poet or a novelist or a dramatist that really infuriates you because they are so good and makes you think that maybe you could be a little like that person. At that point, you begin the first step toward being a real writer – imitation. You begin by imitating these writers that you admire and envy. If you stick with it, imitation will eventually lead to something close to originality.