Who are you?
Billy Collins: I was born on West 30th Street in New York City.
I should point out there’s a difference between the “me” that was autobiographically shaped and the persona that says my poems. New York has had no influence on my persona. Well it’s influenced me, I suppose, that I grew up in a fairly cosmopolitan, crazy environment. So I guess I’m not too easily impressed by eccentricity for one thing; since if you walk down one block in Manhattan, you see . . . you know, it’s like going to the opera.
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; 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 today qualify as psychological harassment. In those days, the practical joke still was, I think, unprosecutable.
My mother 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.
Billy Collins: And I was influenced by teachers of course. The one thing about being influenced by teachers . . . I could remember – in terms of my poetry writing – a number of teachers 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. 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.
Billy Collins: I mean writing poetry, or painting, or dancing, or playing the trumpet, all of these activities that we consider art – for lack of a better name – are really, I think, just extensions of natural childhood activities, childhood desires that are enacted.
I mean as children we are painters, dancers. Just give a kid a flute and he’ll start playing it. And writers. I mean all children love rhyme. I think poets/artists are just people who somehow didn’t allow that natural ability in childhood to be killed off by bad teaching, the self-consciousness of adolescence. A lot goes down the drain because of that.
Billy Collins describes growing up in New York with a mother well-versed in poetry.
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