Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins lets us in on what it’s like to be the nation’s official versifier
His poems won’t fling you off a cliff toward ecstasy or coax you into foxholes to commiserate. Billy Collins, recent U.S. poet laureate, is less a sermonizer on a mount and more the guy standing next to you in line at the grocery store thinking about the same things everybody thinks about: clocks in bars set 15 minutes fast, the Monday-morning wooziness of a student about to flunk a test, a satisfying piece of meat, “soft as the leg of an angel.”
I called him on the phone, and this is what he said.
What does the job of the poet laureate involve?
Well, the poet laureate spends most of his time answering that question. Because no one really knows what the poet laureate does. On the one hand, there’s a very short checklist of obligations, which are very minimal. You have to have to go the Library of Congress and give a reading and a lecture.
Do you have to tour like a rock star?
You don’t have to do any of that. I do tend to, just because I enjoy touring like a rock star—I do that anyway. I was doing that before I was poet laureate, and I do it still.
That’s about all you have to do. They give you some money to give to younger poets. There’s a cool office in Washington that you get if you want. It’s got a view of the Capitol, and it’s got a secretary and a balcony and period furniture.
I’m curious, since you’re a government employee, if you have to do the usual fingerprinting and drug testing and security clearance and all that.
Yeah, you are kind of vetted. You get this—I think they call it government necklaces or jewelry, that you wear around your neck [on a] chain with a picture ID on it. And you need to put that on the elevator to get up onto the floor where the poet laureate hides. [Laughs.] So no one else can get up there to bug you.
I’d always wondered what the poet laureate really is.
Everybody who comes into the office kind of redefines the job according to their level of energy and their personality and their interests. So my focus pretty much ended up being on high school students, and … my plan was to try to encourage high school students not to be intimidated or freaked out or bored by poetry.
Did it work?
It did, pretty much. I started a Web site called Poetry 180. It’s on the Library of Congress Web site. There are 180 poems there that I chose.
By high school students?
For high school students. They’re by contemporary poets. It’s 180 days of the school year. The idea was that schools would read one poem over the public address system every day. That got a lot of play, and Random House just put out a book called Poetry 180, and we just put out a second book called 180 More, so we’ve got 360 poems out there in two volumes. And these are all clear, contemporary poems that don’t really require analysis or the intervention of teachers.
There’s the kind of art or text that sees life the way it is, and then there’s the kind that maybe creates another world or creates fiction. I can’t really tell which one you’re doing.
I try to go from one to the other.
The stories that you tell—there’s definitely a verbal authority behind them that makes me pretty sure that these are real events.
[Laughs.] Another reader fooled.
Well, are they?
I think authority is very important in poetry. The poems I enjoy, that lure me in, are poems where I trust the authority of the voice. And I don’t know why I trust them, and I don’t care if they’re lying, in a way, but as long as they make me believe them, but I like your point. The structure of many of my poems starts in that world we recognize and is representational, like in figurative painting, but it tries to end up sort of in some world of abstract expressionism, or some cloudier, less recognizable realm. If my poems have any pattern, I think it’s the pattern of traveling or shuttling between those two realms that you mentioned.
The best I could come up with is that you’re making fiction by using documentary and editing the hell out of it, so it’s not really fiction.
I’m starting with a little something that’s usually true, like something I see or something I’m reading or observing. And then, it’s really just kind of playing with that and seeing where it goes. It’s a little like being in prison, where you have just one thing to play with maybe, like a symbol or, I don’t know, like a cup or something, and you have to really make the most of that.
How much work do you put into writing a poem? What goes on behind the scenes while you’re doing it? And how long does it take to get one done?
Sometimes they’re very fast. I don’t work a lot at it. I should work at it more, I’m kind of ashamed to say.
Do the words just spring right out in their final form?
They spring forth from my forehead [laughs]. They don’t do that that often. But when they do start springing forth, in the best circumstances, the poem really doesn’t require a lot of revision. I just kind of go a line at a time, just seeing where the poem goes. If the poem has direction and momentum, it’ll go somewhere and, if it doesn’t, I just get rid of it. So the poems that I keep are the ones that have managed to travel from one place to another.
I was assuming you’d say you labor and labor over them.
Oh, you were, were you?
Yes. I was wrong.
Serves you right for thinking [laughs]. Sometimes I do. Other times it’s more difficult. I like to make it sound easier than it probably is.
You’ve had some practice over the course of your life.
That’s right. I think if a poem comes out rather effortlessly or pleasurably without a lot of sweating and fretting, it’s probably because I’ve been doing it for decades.
Has it always worked like that for you?
No. For many years I was faking it. I tried to sound like other poets. I didn’t have my own instrument, so I just pretended. I loved the idea of being a poet, but I didn’t know what to write exactly. So I’d try to be like a baby Lawrence Ferlinghetti or a junior Wallace Stevens. I hoped, after I read Wallace Stevens, the best I could possibly do as a poet is to be, like, a sixth-rate Wallace Stevens. If I could do that, I’d be happy.
How old were you when you wrote your first poem?
What’s it about?
Is it published?
No. I don’t think it exists anymore. I remember the afternoon I wrote it, but I don’t remember anything about the poem.
What kinds of other media do you consume? Do you read books? Do you listen to music? Do you watch TV?
[Laughing.] I don’t do any of those things.
Really? You live in a strictly poetry world?
No, I do. … I’m so leery of interviews like this because you’re having a lot of fun, and we’re having so much fun, and I’m laughing, but if you wrote down a lot of my answers, and if people didn’t hear me laughing, they’d think I was either crazy or a pompous ass or both, so after every comment of mine, will you put, parenthetically, “laughing”?
Or “laughing ever harder”?
I read books, and I watch The Simpsons. That’s all I watch on television. And I read widely.
Do you listen to rock music?
I stopped keeping up with rock music. I was into it for a good part of my life, but I got tired of it. I don’t buy the authority of most rock music. I don’t buy the lyrics because either the lyrics seem to be empty promises or vague threats. I basically listen to jazz, or I listen to more established music like bluegrass or blues.
Do you live near New York City?
About 45 miles north.
Do you spend a lot of time in the city? You teach there, right?
We have a little apartment there, so I’m in there now and then, yeah.
Does the atmosphere of New York have any particular effect on your work?
A destructive effect. It’s not good for me. That’s why I don’t live there.
Is it too much fun there to get much work done?
Yeah, it’s too distracting. We live in an old farmhouse with woods in the back. I would like to live in the city, but my poetry would die there, I think. This place is a little quiet for me, but my poetry seems to like it here. So I live here for the sake of my poems.
Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Reprinted with permission of the author.