Arts and Letters

A poet is not terribly unhappy that poetry has a small audience.
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TRANSCRIPT

Billy Collins: Well one of the challenges today is there’s a lot of competition. When I graduate from college back when the earth was cooling, there were, I think, two writing programs in the country. Maybe a couple of more, but two famous ones. But now there are about 300 universities that offer programs in your own writing, which is a little bizarre, when you think about, it to begin with. So there are all of these masters of fine arts programs graduating. Let’s say there are 250 and then they graduate 10 poets a year. Well that’s a lot of poets with degrees and I’m not sure where they’re going to go.

There’s a great deal of competition for publication, and people are in a rush to get published. I got my first book published when I was over 40. I didn’t plan it that way. I probably would have liked it to happen earlier, but clearly I wasn’t ready. For one thing my poetry hadn’t developed to the point where it would interest an editor or a reader. But also there was no pressure on me.

I wasn’t in a program where I sat at a seminar table and thought as these 12 other poets as my competitors. I did poetry not only privately, but covertly. And one of the reasons I was drawn into poetry was the whole romantic idea of isolation. Poetry seemed – and still seems – to me to be something that you do with your isolation and in isolation and solitude. The new idea of poetry is that it’s a kind of collaborative effort almost. That we sit around in workshops. We mail poems back and forth to each other. I don’t. I’ve never taken a workshop. I’ve conducted workshops, but I’ve never been in one except as a traffic director. And I’m convinced that not just my example but . . . Emily Dickinson never took a workshop, nor did John Donne or Wordsworth. You can do it alone. I mean my sense is that it’s better done by yourself. “The great teachers of poetry,” W.H. Auden said, “are not in classrooms, but they’re in the library.” Their books are waiting on the shelves for young poets to pick up and learn from initially through imitation and then; well I don’t know what follows imitation except originality at some point maybe.

 

July 4, 2007