Billy Collins
Poet; Former U.S. Poet Laureate

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Collins says he hopes he's brought people back to poetry.

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: Oh I have no idea!  I have no idea.  Whatever impact my work has is . . . it’s either . . . it’s comic relief or probably mental _______ somewhat in that I see these poems as little acts of travel, or little acts of imaginative journeying, or looking through the woods for something and finding a clearing at the end of a poem.  And to be able to take people on that little ride, I imagine it’s pleasurable for them because it gives pleasure for me. 

And since I’m the first one to take the ride, I figure others would enjoy it too.  But I don’t see any impact beyond that.  I don’t think you can think about that and still write, or still play or whatever your form of expression is.  You do it and then it falls into the world.  And the fact that the world doesn’t completely ignore it is probably enough of a . . . enough feedback for one.

Question: What impact have you had on poetry?

Billy Collins: That I’ve changed poetry?  I don’t . . .  I don’t really know.  People . . . a few people have said, “Well, this new poet is kind of imitating you,” but I never see it.  I think it’s like when someone says, you know, “That person over there looks a lot like you.” 

You never see that yourself because you don’t think you look like what the first person thought you looked like.  So I don’t really recognize these influences.  I don’t know.  Insofar as my poetry, it’s not difficult.  It’s readable.  It follows the etiquette of a sentence.  If if you know English, you can step into the poem without any initial problems.  I think those courtesies . . . I see them as courtesies, because I see willfully obscure poetry as simply a kind of verbal rudeness which begins by ignoring the reader. 

It’s like being in a room with someone and they’re just ignoring you.  They’re looking out the window or looking at their shoes.  So I suppose in that sense I’ve brought a few people back to poetry who had been scared away from it by teachers and by the rigors . . . the rigors of school . . . of the way poetry is handled in school.