A former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, he has appeared often on public radio, including Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.
He has recorded CDs and been the subject of a documentary film.
And his last three collections—The Trouble With Poetry (2005), She Was Just Seventeen (2006) and Ballistics (2008)—have, according to his agent’s web site, set poetry sales records.
Collins, you see, avoids what many casual readers see as the willful obscurity of most of the serious poetry written since the coming of modernism a century ago.
He writes books of verse that many of those same casual readers purchase willingly at the local Barnes & Noble without being forced to by English teachers.
“He's tapped into this huge audience of people who love poetry but are put off by the establishment,” Kenneth Clarke of the Poetry Center of Chicago once told The New York Times.
It is no surprise, then, that he packed the house for his appearance in Birmingham on Feb. 19 at the annual Southern Voices literary conference at Hoover Public Library.
Collins wowed a crowd of 250 while reading about 20 pieces (see the complete list below).
A polished performer, Collins did a good job of reading his own stuff and kept the audience—and their emotions—right where he wanted them from the beginning of his reading to the end.
The poet occasionally plucked the proverbial heartstring, but he spent most of his time pulling yuks with the ease and facility of a stand-up comic.
Collins has a polished, deadpan delivery that reminded me of a drier, flintier, more urbane Keillor mixed with a little Bob Newhart and a lot of Steven Wright.
I spoke to Collins briefly following the reading at a reception on the second floor of the HPL. Of course, I had to wait until Collins had signed books and/or posed for pictures with what must have been at least 100 fans. “I can tell a reporter a mile away,” Collins said when he noticed me waiting nearby as he posed for the last of the photos.
JC: Even though your stuff is accessible, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy, right? There are other places you intend to take the reader?
BC: Right. Well, I was introduced once by Frank McCourt, who was a friend of mine—and, uh. I’m coming around to answering your question.
And as usual he gave a very funny introduction. He said, “There’s nothing to this, you know. You just sit down. You look out the window and you describe a tree and you have a thought. And I went home and tried to do that, and I couldn’t do it.” So, I don’t know, as far as the movement of the poem, I do try to find a way to take something ordinary and push it into a zone that is full of questions or full of speculations, so the poem often starts kind of in the present tense, with a scene, like here we are, but it shifts at some point visually, because I’m just bored staying in that scene, but we shift out of that, and the verb tenses get much more complex. It’s like, if he would have had something or other. And we’re in, I hope, in a slightly undefinable zone that the poem has created by, you know, by working toward that, or by finding a way to slip into that little dimension.
You had a nice quote in a Q&A you did a couple of years ago, you said “a poem begins in clarity and ends in mystery.”
So you’re sort of taking them on that journey like you just described?
Well, I always think that a lot of the poems that I don’t tend to finish of other people’s begin in mystery, and I . . . I need a little clarity first, just to be oriented, and my feeling is, if you’re going to take the poem into someplace disorienting in a pleasurable sense, you really need to know where you are to begin with, so . . .
There’s no reference point otherwise?
Right. So I try to give coordinates, kind of like time/space coordinates early on. So many like Chinese poems, the title will be “Spring Afternoon Sitting by a Lake.” And then, OK, what do you have to say about that? You put the set-up early on, and then move off from there. So the beginning of the poem is more like a launching pad into something else.
You made an interesting remark in an interview. Someone asked you about your influences, and you were resistant to that question, because you said people tend to just drop names, and you said something about being influenced by people who made you jealous.
Can you think of even contemporary poets, even a younger writer, who sort of get under your skin, but in a good way?
Well, a lot of them. I mean, I don’t want to throw names around particularly, but anyone who’s doing something that I can’t do, or particularly a poet that is writing . . . has access, kind of a corner of a reality to write about that never would have occurred to me. That is infuriating. But often there’s room for me to rush in, too. You know often there’s a dream. I don’t know if you’ve had this dream. It’s a very common dream that you’re in a very familiar house, the house you live in, and you notice a door you’ve never noticed before, and you open it up, and there’s some kind of glorious place that you’ve never discovered, and often finding some fresh poem by someone else is like opening a door you never thought was there, and there’s room for other poets to come in and belatedly work the ground in a way.
If you get to the point where you no longer feel that kind of positive jealousy, is it time to hang it up?
I feel that one has a limited reservoir of ideas of even imaginative possibilities, so I don’t think it’s endless, and it’s sort of a young man’s game. Wordsworth is the only one who lived to be a crotchety old guy while remaining romantic, so . . . we’re going to try to keep going until at least next Wednesday.
The Billy Collins's “set list” at Southern Voices—
A Portrait of a Reader With a Bowl of Cereal
The Chairs That No One Sits In
A Dog on His Master
Poetry Workshop Held in a Former Cigar Factory in Key West
Oh My God
Hippos on Holiday
This Little Piggy Went to Market
On Turning Ten
Other information about Billy Collins
His web site, at www.bigsnap.com.
His biography at Wikipedia.
Billy Collins Live (2005)
The Best Cigarette (2005)
Billy Collins: On the Road with the Poet Laureate (2004)
Other Q&As and profiles—
Sound Authors (2009)
The Charleston (WV) Gazette (2009)
Planet Jackson Hole (2007)
Terra Incognita (2001)
Readings & interviews on radio—
Arizona Public Media (2009)
NPR's "All Things Considered" (2005)
Paula Gordon (2004)
NPR's "Fresh Air" (2001)
Library of Congress audio webcast
Readings & interviews on video—
At Aspen Institute
At Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival
Animated treatments of Collins's work—
Billy Collins Action Poetry
Lauren Adolfsen splices together old McDonald's TV commercials to give Collin's poem "The Dead" an unusual treatment.
Odds & ends—
“Inspired by a Bunny Wabbit,” Collins’s piece in The Wall Street Journal in which he pays tribute to cartoons (2008)
A review of The Trouble With Poetry written in verse by David Orr of The New York Times (2006).
Collins gives once-popular American poet e.e. cummings a shout-out in a piece for Slate (2005)
“The Selling of Billy Collins,” by Katherine Marsh of The New York Times (2001).
“On Literary Bridge, Poet Hits a Roadblock,” by Bruce Weber, also in The New York Times (1999).
Jesse Chambers is special projects editor for Birmingham Weekly and a regular contributor to bhamweekly.com. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.