Billy Collins
Poet; Former U.S. Poet Laureate

How have your teachers shaped you?

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Billy Collins, on his fraught relationship with his teachers.

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: The one thing about teachers . . . about being influenced by teachers . . . I could remember – in terms of my poetry writing – a number of teachers who . . . who encouraged me to keep writing and seemed like an innocent thing to do at the time.  But the teachers I really remember vividly were the two or three teachers who were very discouraging to me, and very dismissive of my poetry, and were quick to tell me that it was nothing but a bunch of teenage, hormonal overdrive or overspill. 

And they might have been right in an aesthetic, literary, critical sense; but they really inspired me to keep writing to prove them wrong.  And I think . . .  I mean, I know I have a much keener appetite for revenge than I do for approval.  So the teachers that approved me I . . .  Approval never meant that much to me.  I think I got it so much from my mother I didn’t need outside approval.  But if you discouraged me, that would get me going.  And when I got a phone call from the Library of Congress in 2001 telling me I was Poet Laureate of the United States, I thought of those teachers who discouraged me.  And that added a little bit of sugar to the experience.