Collins’ childhood was filled with poetry and practical jokes.
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.