What do you do?

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
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TRANSCRIPT

Billy Collins: What I do for a living?  Well it’s changed a lot.  I mean I used to be a professor who wrote.  Someone put it this way: I used to be a professor of literature who happened to write poetry on the side.  And over the course of really just the last 15 years, I’ve become a poet who happens to be a professor on the side.  So the two kind of switched positions there.  And I spend much more time now doing public performances, giving lectures, talking to visiting schools and kind of hitting, . banging the drum for poetry, which I never really conceived of myself doing.  I would rather just be in a room by myself writing.  One is dragged out into the public eye, and then you take on . . . I think you take on some social responsibilities.

Question: What is the joy in what you do?

Billy Collins: Well the joy in writing poetry is being down on your hands and knees with the language.  You know, if someone carves swans and animals out of soap, that person loves soap.  And if you write, you love language.  So it’s an opportunity . . . writing a poem is an opportunity to get as close to the language as pretty much you can get.  The other joy . . . because it is a pleasure, and I wouldn’t write . . .  I have no mission that drives me to write poetry.  It is a very hedonistic activity and I write for pleasure. I go there to get pleasure, and if possible to give pleasure. 

So one of the key pleasures is – and most poets would agree with this – is starting out not knowing where you’re going and finding a way to get there.  So the poem becomes not a whole expression of something you think or feel, but it becomes a journey through itself to an ending.  And that ending is unforeseeable.  And in fact, the ending is something that the poem is busy creating.  It’s almost as if the poem is the only way to access that particular ending.Billy Collins:  I have a poem called “Questions About Angels”.  And at the end of that poem an angel appears.  And I didn’t know she existed before I wrote that poem.  And I guess strictly speaking she didn’t.  So I think that that poem is simply . . . the job of that poem was to bring its own ending to being.Question: What is the struggle in what you do?

Billy Collins: The challenge of poetry writing?  Well when you’re not writing, there’s an anxiety about whether you will ever write again.  Of all the kinds of writers – well at least compared to playwrights and novelists – poets return to the blank page more frequently.  You know a novel can take you six month or five years to write; but a poem, you know, can get done in an afternoon or a couple of days.  And then you’re back to zero and you have to restart from nothing.  And at that point the question comes up, I mean, can you restart?  Can you boot yourself up again, so to speak?  Or was that it?  So that is probably the main anxiety, I think, that goes with poetry writing.  Poetry writing is a heavier exposure to the blank page . . . more regular encounters with blankness.

Question: What are you best known for?

Billy Collins: I always think . . . and I’m taking a lot time to get to this answer . . . but I sort of think that getting a writer to talk about his or her own work is a little like if you’ve ever tried to get a dog interested in looking in a mirror – especially a puppy.  You know you get this puppy, and that you take it over to the mirror and say, “Look how cute you are!  Look at you,” you know?  And the puppy doesn’t smell anything, so it doesn’t connect.  And I think it’s a little like that with writers.   I’ve become known for a couple of poems.  I mean, there’s a poem called “Forgetfulness” that I wrote quite a few years ago. 

And  it is about mental slippage.  And because of that it seems to have an ever-growing audience that can get on board that poem pretty quickly.  I just hear from people that’s the poem that people say, “Well that’s on my refrigerator,” or, “I read that over the phone to somebody.” I suppose if everyone has a “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” that’s become kind of a signature poem.  But again, if you ever see me sitting at home reading my own poetry, please come over and throw something at me . . . hard.Question: What are you working on right now

I just go poem by poem.  I don’t have an overarching sense of book as a project.  I probably have a manuscript . . . I do have a manuscript of poems that is just about ready.  You don’t wanna send it out too early.  It probably needs maybe two – or three at the most – really strong, good poems and then it’s . . . it’ll be ready.  So I’m just interested in getting that out of the house.  And maybe starting a poem this afternoon or next Wednesday.  Whenever.  Whenever.

Question: What are the recurring themes in your work?

Well the theme of poetry is death.  The theme of literature is essentially misery leading to death.  They asked Freud, “What is the aim of life?”  Death is what he says.  So that’s the subject of poetry.  Mortality is the overarching subject of poetry.  I mean some would say love is the subject of poetry, but it’s usually love in the context of death. 

Like the great poem by Andrew Marvell to his coy mistress, and the reason they should make love is because they’re not going to live forever.  And the oldest theme in poetry is “carpe diem”.  It’s seize the day.  And the reason you wanna “carpe” your “diems” is that you don’t have that many “diems” given to you!  So this urgency that floods into your life when you see it through this lens of death . . . I mean, that seems to be the basic theme of poetry.  And my poetry is no different.


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