Billy Collins
Poet; Former U.S. Poet Laureate

How did your childhood shape you?

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Collins' childhood was filled with poetry and practical jokes.

Billy Collins

One of the most popular living poets in the United States, Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941. Collins is the author of nine books of poetry, including She Was Just Seventeen (2006), The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005), Nine Horses (2002), and Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001). His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Poetry, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Harper's Magazine, and has been featured in various textbooks and anthologies, including those for the Pushcart Prize and the annual Best American Poetry series. Between 2001 and 2004, Collins served two terms at the 11th Poet Laureate of the United States. In his home state, Collins has been recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library (1992) and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004. Other honors include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and the first annual Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where has taught for over thirty years. Ideas recorded at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival on: 7/4/07

Billy Collins: Well I had a lot of influences as a young person, obviously the parents. I’m proud of my father for his sense of humor.  He was a joker, and he had a lot of formal jokes; but he also had zingers, these one liners that had enough . . . a zinger for every occasion.  And he was a practical joker as well.  We don’t have time to go into his practical jokes, perhaps; but suffice it to say, the kind of pranks he pulled on office workers – he worked on Wall Street – would qualify as psychological harassment.  In those days, the practical joke still was, I think, unprosecutable.  My mother for her . . . basically for her more relevantly for her interest in poetry.  

Both my parents were born in 1901 and they lived well into their 90s both of them.  And she was born and raised on a little farm in Ontario, Canada which is my big claim to ethnicity.  I’m half-Canadian, I guess.  But as a child she memorized lots of poetry, and that was the thing to do in those days.  Memorization was not thought of us “old hat” or “little red school house”.  So as an adult, she was a storehouse of poetry and could produce lines of poetry for . . . just as my father had zingers for every occasion, she would have to lines of poetry for every occasion.  So poetry was in the air.  It was in the house.