"Autobiographies of great nations are written in three manuscripts – a book of deeds, a book of words, and a book of art.
Of the three, I would choose the latter as truest testimony." - Sir Kenneth Smith, Great Civilisations

"I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine." - Leo Tolstoy

I have never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think the pleasures of not writing are so
great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again. - John Updike

"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour
is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." - J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Monday, September 26, 2011

What Is A Poet: Billy Collins Interviews, Biography & Poems

Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, Comes to Vanderbilt

By Liz Furlow
Published Sep. 14, 2011

Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, will be in residency at Vanderbilt until Sept. 22, visiting with students, lecturing on poetry, and giving a public reading.

Collins is the author of nine books of poetry and has received multiple awards honoring his poems. He has broken sales records for poetry and was the poet laureate during the Sept. 11 attacks, when he was asked to write and recite a 9-11 theme for a joint session of Congress.

When did you decide to be a poet?

I was interested in language as an adolescent. I like what the Irish poet named Patrick Kavanagh said in answer to the same question. He said something like 'You begin by fooling around with words, and then it eventually becomes your life.' It's all about fooling around with language and being attracted to language. People who see being a poet as an artistic goal usually don't end up being very good poets. You have to have an intense interest in putting two words together and creating an almost electrical field of energy - you have to love feeling the words interact in such a dramatic way. You go from one poem to another and then they start accumulating. You get rejected by magazines, accepted by a few, then rejected more, accepted by some of the good ones, then you get a book, and a bigger book. It's not that you decide to be a poet, it's that other people decide you are a poet. And then one day you recognize that you can't think otherwise of yourself.

What role does poetry have in the lives of the contemporary American population?

The role is minor. It's not what it used to be. There are too many competing media, there's the constant lure of pop culture, and a desire for acceleration. Information is instant, if it's not instant we get frustrated. Poetry, among other things, asks you to slow down. It runs at a fairly slow gear - for at least two reasons: one is that it causes you to fall into a more meditative, thoughtful state, to stop multitasking. Buddhists would call multitasking monkey-minded, when you're thinking of so many things at once. Poetry gets the monkeys out of our head—or it just leaves one monkey. Poetry offers the opportunity for you to get mentally and emotionally focused.

There's another pragmatic way that it gets us to slow down: it comes in lines, and doesn't rush out to the other side of the page as it does with prose. At the end of each line, the reader's attention is recirculated into the body of the poem. It asks you to kind of tap the breaks and slow down a bit. That's why poetry has been sort of a marginalized art, the poor little match girl of the arts, somewhat neglected. It does get recognition, though. The fact that we have a poet laureate, and not a prose or a ballet or a trumpet-playing laureate—that means that it holds some sort of central place in our culture.

Why do you like to write?

It's self-entertaining; it puts you in contact with the language in the most intimate way, one phrase and one word at a time. We tend not to know where we're going when we start a poem, and writing the poem is a process of discovery that can be mentally rather adventuresome. I kind of trust that a poem will take me somewhere. It's exciting to be carried by the poem in some unexpected direction, to be carried to a place that can be discovered. It's a process of imaginative discovery. I'm not writing with a pen to take dictation of what i feel, but using it to find something else.

Is your work autobiographical?

Very little of it is autobiographical—in the sense that it is writing about marriage, family, brothers and sisters. It is autobiographical in that I thought of it—my self is involved in it. But I don't talk much about past experiences that happened to me. I try to present a speaker in my poems who is existing pretty much in the present. He's in the present moment, observing something and indulging in some speculations in what he's looking at. You could read all my poems and still not know too much about me.

Why do you stay away from autobiographical work?

I don't think people care about my experiences. I don't particularly care about the experiences of others, either. My readers are strangers to me. I don't choose to burden my readers or myself—I don't want to carry autobiographical baggage and unload it on the reader. I want to carry my reader on a journey. I don't want to write about some trauma that might have happened to me at 20—that's heavy material—that tends to weigh down the poem. Other people find poetry a good way to explore their past experiences and to come to terms with them. My speaker is someone eating dinner or listening to something on the radio, and his mind starts clicking over, and moving in a different direction.

Why do you value poetry that is easy to understand?

Clarity. Clarity is not only desirable, but it tends to be a risk. You find yourself exposed—people actually understand what your saying. If you obfuscate, if you write dense, incomprehensible poetry—you're safe. Those poets hide behind the camouflage of difficult poetry.

What is your favorite poem that you have written?

I don't have any favorite, but that's because I haven't written a poem in a couple of weeks. I don't have interest in my own poetry. Once it's written, I'm not into it any more. I've been deep in the poem, as deep as I can go, and once it's done I'm out of it. It's like a door closing. The last thing I'd consider doing is picking up one of my books and reading it.

In your poem "Purity," you talk about how you write naked on Wednesdays... is there any truth in those lines?

No, I don't write naked on Wednesdays. That is a completely non-autobiographical poem. It's a response to the morbid curiosity people have about how a person writes. Whenever a writer is in a Q&A—almost always from people who want to write. Do you write in the morning, with a pen, on the computer, in a special place - these questions are completely useless. I could tell people I write with a Mickey Mouse hat on and it would be useless. So this is sort of a joke poem about letting you in on the secret.

Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

Read, read until you are blind. There seems to be a false sense in younger poets—something about inspiration, that it comes from within you, that it's connected to some truth that's inside you. Poetry is really about something outside you, about all this other poetry that's been written. You read everything in this room, you internalize these voices, choose your influences, combine them in a certain way. Your life as a poet has an external source: all the poems that have ever been written.


Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

- Billy Collins, January 13, 2003


Dear Reader

Baudelaire considers you his brother, and Fielding calls out to you every few paragraphs as if to make sure you have not closed the book, and now I am summoning you up again, attentive ghost, dark silent figure standing in the doorway of these words.
-Billy Collins, January 13, 2003


Billy Collins, born 1941

Billy CollinsDubbed “the most popular poet in America” by Bruce Weber in the New York Times, Billy Collins is famous for conversational, witty poems that welcome readers with humor but often slip into quirky, tender or profound observation on the everyday, reading and writing, and poetry itself. John Updike praised Collins for writing “lovely poems...Limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides.” But Collins has offered a slightly different take on his appeal, admitting that his poetry is “suburban, it’s domestic, it’s middle class, and it’s sort of unashamedly that.” Collins’s level of fame is almost unprecedented in the world of contemporary poetry: his readings regularly sell out, and he received a six-figure advance when he moved publishers in the late 1990s. He served two terms as the US Poet Laureate, from 2001-2003, was New York State Poet Laureate from 2004-2006, and is a regular guest on National Public Radio programs. Collins has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts and has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, City University of New York, where he is a Distinguished Professor. He is also Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute in Florida, and a faculty member at the State University of New York-Stonybrook.

Collins was born in 1941 in New York City. He earned a BA from the College of the Holy Cross, and both an MA and PhD from the University of California-Riverside. In 1975 he co-founded the Mid-Atlantic Review with Michael Shannon. Though Collins published throughout the 1980s, it was his fourth book, Questions about Angels (1991), that propelled him into the literary spotlight. The collection was selected by poet Ed Hirsch for the 1990 National Poetry Series. A Publishers Weekly critic applauded the collection’s “strange and wonderful [images]” but believed that the poems—which are often “constricted by the novelty of a unifying metaphor”—”rarely induce an emotional reaction.” In contrast, reviews of Collins’s subsequent work regularly laud his ability to connect with readers. Discussing Picnic, Lightning and its predecessor, The Art of Drowning (1995), John Taylor noted that Collins’s skillful, smooth style and inventive subject matter “helps us feel the mystery of being alive.” Taylor added: “Rarely has anyone written poems that appear so transparent on the surface yet become so ambiguous, thought-provoking, or simply wise once the reader has peered into the depths.”

Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (2000) was the first Collins collection published outside the US. It selected work from his previous four books and was met with great acclaim in the UK. Poet and critic Michael Donaghy called Collins a “rare amalgam of accessibility and intelligence,” and AL Kennedy described the volume as containing “great verse, moving, intelligent and darkly funny.” Sailing around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), the US version of Collins’s selected, had a tumultuous journey to print. The story, which garnered a front-page slot in the New York Times, originally cast Collins’s first publishers, the University of Pittsburgh Press, in an unfair light, accusing them of refusing to grant rights for poems requested by Random House for inclusion in Sailing around the Room. However, it later emerged that Random House had begun to produce the book without first securing rights from Pitt Poetry Press, a highly unusual move for a major publishing house to make. Dennis Loy Johnson reported on the controversy for Salon, noting that “ultimately it was Random House, not Pitt, that chose to delay the publication of Collins’ selected volume.” The battle between Random House and the University of Pittsburgh Press was public and uncharacteristic of the sleepy world of poetry publishing. When Sailing around the Room was finally published, in 2001, it was met with enthusiastic reviews and brisk sales.

Collins’s next books Nine Horses: Poems (2002), The Trouble with Poetry (2005), Ballistics (2008) and Horoscopes for the Dead (2011) have continued his sales streak by offering more poems that mix humor with insight. Reviewing Nine Horses for the New York Times, Mary Jo Salter commented that Collins’s “originality derives, it seems, from the marriage of a loopy, occasionally surreal imagination…to an ordinary life observed in just a few ordinary words.” She added that “one appeal of the typical Collins poem is that it’s less able to help you memorize it than to help you to remember, for a little while anyway, your own life.” But Collins’s emphasis on writing—and writing “ordinary life” at that—can, for some critics, make his poetry seem pedestrian or one-note. However many readers find Collins a source of warmth, wit and surprisingly sure technique, and reviewers have consistently noted how Collins’s poems manifest a literal concern for their readers. John Deming in Cold Front Mag has discussed Collins’s concern for those reading his poems because “the transmission of poem to head takes place always elsewhere and in silence, in the mysterious space where poems live…Collins lets us access this place with alarming graciousness, and the openness of his voice probably helps account for his popularity.”

Poet Richard Howard has said of Collins: “He has a remarkably American voice…that one recognizes immediately as being of the moment and yet has real validity besides, reaching very far into what verse can do.” Collins has described himself as “reader conscious”: “I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.” Collins further related: “I think my work has to do with a sense that we are attempting, all the time, to create a logical, rational path through the day. To the left and right there are an amazing set of distractions that we usually can’t afford to follow. But the poet is willing to stop anywhere.”

(Updated 2010)


Lehman College, City University of New York, Bronx, NY, professor of English, begining 1971. Writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College; served as Literary Lion of the New York Public Library. Performs poetry readings; has appeared on National Public Radio.


  • Pokerface, limited edition, Kenmore, 1977.
  • Video Poems, Applezaba (Long Beach, CA), 1980.
  • The Apple That Astonished Paris, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1988.
  • Questions about Angels, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1999.
  • The Art of Drowning, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1995.
  • Picnic, Lightning, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
  • Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, Picador (London, England), 2000.
  • Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
  • Nine Horses: Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
  • The Trouble with Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
  • She was Just Seventeen (chapbook), Modern Haiku Press (Lincoln, IL), 2006.
  • Ballistics, Random House (New York, NY), 2008.
  • Horoscopes for the Dead, Random House (New York, NY), 2011.


  • (Contributor) The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, edited by David Citino, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
  • (Editor) Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
  • (Editor) 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
  • (Editor) Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2009.

Further Reading


  • Booklist, March 1, 1998, p. 1086; November 1, 1998, p. 483.
  • Library Journal, June 15, 1991, p. 81.
  • New York Times, December 19, 1999.
  • Poetry, January, 1989, p. 232; February, 1992, p. 282; February, 2000, p. 273.
  • Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, p. 59.

A Sense of Place
If things had happened differently,
Maine or upper Michigan
might have given me a sense of place–

a topic that now consumes 87%
of all commentary on American literature.

I might have run naked by a bayou
or been beaten near a shrouded cove on a coastline.

Arizona could have raised me.
Even New York's Westchester County
with its stone walls scurrying up into the woods
could have been the spot to drop a couple of roots.

But as it is, the only thing that gives me
a sense of place is this upholstered chair
with its dark brown covers,
angled into a room near a corner window.

I am the native son of only this wingback seat
standing dutifully on four squat legs,
its two arms open in welcome,

illuminated by a swan-neck lamp
and accompanied by a dog-like hassock,
the closest thing a chair has to a pet.

This is my landscape–
a tobacco-colored room,
the ceiling with its river-like crack,
the pond of a mirror on one wall
a pen and ink drawing of a snarling fish on another.

And behind me, a long porch
from which the sky may be viewed,
sometimes stippled with high clouds,
and crossed now and then by a passing bird–
little courier with someplace to go–

other days crowded with thunderheads,
the light turning an alarming green,
the air stirred by the nostrils of apocalyptic horses,
and me slumped in my chair, my back to it all.
 - Billy Collins, July 2005


Region’s Poets Convey a Sense of Place

published: January 1, 2009

MAYBE January is the cruelest month. The holiday bills fester, the garden catalogs have not yet arrived with their immodest promises of spring, and escaping to warmer climes is harder now that the economy has stopped working.

NATIVE Billy Collins, 67, a former national poet laureate, grew up
in White Plains and lives in Somers.
By , Publ: January 1, 2009
It’s a perfect time to sit in a chair, calmly, with a lap robe and a comforting book of poetry, and to think about where we live, listen to the heartbeat of here, and learn how words mean home.

An abundance of talented poets write and live in the cities and towns outside of New York City, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, Philip Schultz, of East Hampton.

For this first Sunday of the year, a time for resolutions and the contemplations that go with them, we have asked some of the area’s leading poets what they find close to home that inspires poetry and what their poems can tell us about where we live.


Billy Collins, the national poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, has published nine books of poetry, including “Ballistics” (Random House, 2008). Mr. Collins, 67, has lived in Somers for the last 18 years.

“The location for most of my poems is generally between my ears,” he said during an interview at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which attracted 19,000 people last fall in Stanhope, N.J. “Coleridge was one of the first poets to begin his poems in domestic settings — the living room, the fireplace, the backyard. I learned how to start a poem in a very familiar place and move away from that and use it as a launching pad to abstract territories.”

Mr. Collins grew up in White Plains. “The suburbs have such a terrible rap as being neither here nor there, neither city nor country,” he said. “I didn’t learn about getting along in the city, or about deer hunting. They have a reputation for boring blandness. It’s not until I got this house that I found my surroundings leaking into poetry, with a very attractive set of images.”

Patricia Smith’s fifth book of poetry, “Blood Dazzler” (Coffee House Press), was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, and she won the individual National Poetry Slam four times. Ms. Smith, 53, has lived in Tarrytown for the last nine years.

“I’ve explored so much of myself through my poetry, I feel strong and rooted wherever I am,” she said. “You kind of take your community with you.”

But she remembers touring the county in search of a new place to call home before she found Tarrytown. “From sitting in a little bench outside the CVS in the middle of town, I heard people beep horns at each other, and saw people walking their dogs, and it looked like a place you could fold yourself into,” she said. “Everyone’s face seemed open, and everyone seemed happy to be living there.”

The town’s natural beauty, while not appearing in her poems, helps feed them. “I live so close to the Hudson, and it’s very inspirational,” she said. “I get solace when I need solace.”

New Jersey

Joe Weil, 50, consistently draws on the muse of Elizabeth, where three generations of his family attended St. Mary of the Assumption High School. His books include “Painting the Christmas Trees” (Texas Review Press) and “What Remains” (Nightshade Press), which includes an imagined encounter between the actress Susan Sarandon and a boozy and besotted narrator.

Mr. Weil explained the long-gone setting of the poem, a seedy bar on the Newark border called Two Friends: “It was owned, literally, by two friends who then stopped being friends, but still ran the bar together for 25 years. We called them Surly and Surly. They were both absolutely bald and never smiled.”

He added: “It’s not just people who are in love with each other who start to look alike. Sworn enemies start to look alike after 25 years.”

For Mr. Weil, Elizabeth has become part of his muscle memory. “In a poem, it becomes part of the rhythms, the speech patterns, the rhythm of your lines. I speak Elizabeth. I have a voice somewhat like Joe Pesci’s, but two bus stops over.”

BJ Ward, 41, is the author of “Gravedigger’s Birthday,” “17 Love Poems With No Despair” and “Landing in New Jersey With Soft Hands,” from North Atlantic Books. He grew up in Warren County and lives there in Changewater, which straddles the Musconetcong River. His poems don’t tell us about where we live so much as they create places that are even more compelling.

“For me it’s a question of does the place help define your poetry, or can your poems help redefine the place you live in? Would Rutherford be the same if William Carlos Williams hadn’t lived there?” he said during an interview at the Dodge Poetry Festival.

Later, he said: “Place is what we reinvent in a lot of poems, in order to make it truer. So often we forsake what people might call accuracy for the sake of truth or truthfulness. If my hometown needs a priest to try to shut down the library, I will invent a priest to shut down the library if that’s what my poem needs, even if that’s not what occurs. In the act of writing a poem, your fidelity shifts from the world outside you that you observe at first, to the world inside that’s asking to be expressed.”

He loves living in rural Warren County in part because “it’s largely unimagined.”

“I’d find it much more difficult to reinvent Manhattan,” he said.

Long Island

Grace Schulman, 73, has written “The Broken String” (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) and five other books of poetry. She teaches English at Baruch College and was The Nation’s poetry editor from 1971 to 2006. She spends much of her time in East Hampton.

Her poem “Headstones” describes how the graves of Montauk Indians were marked with nothing but wampum.

“I think if it is concentrated on and seen with accuracy, and with sympathy, the image can reveal all we are,” she said in a recent phone interview. “The Indian shells were specific to the Indians, yet those shells reveal me, myself and my own ancestry.”

In the poem she visits the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett, but realizes that neither Wyandanch, the Montauk leader, nor her ancestors Dave or Schmuel, would be welcome there.

“An image of the Montauk Indians captured for me the truth of my past, their past and the present as well,” she said. “As much as poetry reveals who we are, place provides the imagery which allows poetry to reveal who we are.”

Julie Sheehan, 44, has published two books of poetry, including “Orient Point” (W. W. Norton, 2007). She won a 2008 Whiting Writers’ Award and moved from New York City to East Quogue in 2001.

Since then, she has become engrossed in economic and class strains, “when your economic life becomes divorced from your place, and you end up working at a Wal-Mart that could be anywhere, instead of on a ship that by necessity would be sailing into the Peconic Bay.”

Poems, more than other art forms, tackle thorny social issues through metaphor, she said.

“I’m not a nature poet, I’m a people poet,” she said. “Nature in my poetry will always be there as a figure for something else that interests me a lot more.”


Vivian Shipley has published seven full-length poetry volumes, including “Hardboot” (Southeastern Louisiana University Press, 2005), and five shorter collections. She grew up in Harlan County, Ky., and has lived in Connecticut since 1965. She writes extensively about both places.

“What I think is happening in our society, distinctive locales are disappearing,” she said in a recent interview. “If you drive across the country on an interstate, you’ll find the distinction in landscape pretty much disappear into structures of housing, Burger Kings, Domino’s and Wal-Marts. I think we’re really being leveled, and I think it’s very important for poetry to try to preserve a uniqueness of place.”

Ms. Shipley, 65, spends her summers on Morgan Point, where she became fascinated by the cormorants diving for fish in Long Island Sound. “I had all this information about them, and I was really interested in the subject for several years, before I found anything to attach it to,” she said. They appeared in her poem about the mysterious crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996, as counterpoints to the divers in black wet suits searching for remains.

Ravi Shankar, 33, is the author of “Instrumentality” (Cherry Grove Collections, 2004) and is a founding editor of Drunken Boat, an online journal of the arts. He moved seven years ago from Brooklyn to Chester, a town of about 4,500, which he said was “probably the size of the apartment building I lived in.” He enjoys living close to the Connecticut River, he said, and his walks along it have inspired him to write.

“Things I’ve been reading, conversations I’ve been having, phrases I have collected in my notebooks, and I think certainly going out to take a walk, they all help that,” he said. “Wallace Stevens composed many of his poems while he walked down Asylum Avenue in Hartford. The pace of his steps make it into his poems oftentimes.”

Poems by Tina Kelley have been accepted for publication in a journal edited by Vivian Shipley.

Felicitous Spaces:
An interview with U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins
Billy Collins is a deeply humorous poet—a description that only begins to suggest the wide talent of his writing. His work is both penetrating and unflinching in its portrayals of an often less-than-holy world, as well as delightfully unpredictable. A voracious reader, Collins creates a poetic world filled with historical figures and vivid facts that bubble up from all parts of the globe. His work negotiates a smart, lucid path between an outright love for the world and a healthy suspiciousness of it. Packed with powerful, original images, his poems turn unexpected corners and surprise the reader with their lush language and generous imagination.

Collins is the author of six books of poetry, including Picnic, Lightning (University Pittsburgh Press, 1998), The Art of Drowning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995) and Questions about Angels, which was selected for the prestigious National Poetry Series. A book of selected poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room, will be published this autumn by Random House. His wry, intelligent poems can be found populating the pages of most major literary magazines in the United States, such as Poetry, American Poetry Review and Paris Review. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as many other awards, he teaches English at Lehman College, City University of New York. In June 2001, Collins was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

This interview was conducted via a series of e-mails in January 2001.

Alexandra van de Kamp: In previous interviews, you’ve commented on how you see your poems as modes of travel that take the reader to unexpected places. You also describe the writing process in your poems as a voyage or odyssey of sorts. Can you explain this further?

Billy Collins: When I say that poetry is the oldest form of travel writing, of course, I mean imaginative travel as well as geographical. Like Borges, who described himself as a “hedonist reader,” I admittedly read for pleasure, and one of the great pleasures that poetry offers is to be moved from one place in the mind to another, often from a place that exists in reality to one that exists in the imagination, especially if that second place never existed before the poem was written. All poems do not aim for this vehicular power, but I tend to judge them by that standard. Actually, I am not really judging when I read someone’s poem. I am just waiting to go somewhere. Anywhere. Some poems fly into completely new realms, others never leave the hangar. Travel also relieves the boredom of writing. When I am composing, I am looking for a side road or an escape hatch so that I can leave the first part of the poem behind, which is usually just bait, or scene-setting, and go somewhere new.

Alexandra van de Kamp: How has geographic travel played a role in your poetic life?

Billy Collins: As far as actual travel, it has little direct influence on my writing. I just mean that when I get back from a trip to Italy, for example, I have no desire to sit down and start writing about Italy. Something I saw might enter a poem unexpectedly at a later date, so the influence is oblique. I remember being in Spain when I was a young man—on the Costa del Sol—and every day seeing a donkey chained to a post in the middle of a field, braying in the heat. Maybe twenty years later he turned up in a poem which was neither about Spain nor donkeys. A lot of the travel I do now is for the sake of poetry, giving readings, conducting workshops and whatnot. These trips are not conducive to writing. All I want to do is watch television at its very lowest level. I try to find the absolute worst program and watch it until I fall asleep. I am with Emily Dickinson who wrote several poems about the lack of a need to travel to write, and of course, she exemplified the notion in extremis. I write best at home—often about home. The title of my new and selected poems, after all, is Sailing Alone Around the Room.

Alexandra van de Kamp: This sense of home, of relishing the everyday places we occupy, seems to play a key role in the landscape of your poems. Can you comment on how “retreat” or “place” has figured in your work?

Billy Collins: Like the three secrets to a successful business, the poem for me needs location, location, location. This goes back to the idea of the poem as a means of travel. If the poem is to transport the reader to some Elsewhere, it must start in a Somewhere, and for me that is Here, where I am writing, usually at home. Poems that begin with a sense of place have somewhere else to go. By the way, I don’t mean “sense of place” in the regional sense that Southern writers keep applauding. The place can just as easily be the place of composition—this desk, this road I am walking. These poems are kind of occasional poems in that they begin by establishing a setting, an occasion for the act of composing. This begins, I think, with the Romantics, the poet usually located in an agreeable landscape setting. But Coleridge can be indoors as in “Frost at Midnight” or in his garden as in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” which opens “Well, they are gone and here must I remain.” The “here” in that line is fresh in poetry at the time. Coleridge is a poet of the domicile. Someone once called me an “indoor nature poet,” which is a charge I would have to cop to.

I think the sense of the place of writing is related to the connection between retreat and creativity. The writing workshop suggests that writing can be socialized, but I would throw in with Gaston Bachelard’s idea of “felicitous space,” private nooks where children hide and where their imaginations are formed. Poets and other creative types have simply managed to emerge from those hiding places with their imaginations intact, trailing clouds of imaginative glory—if that doesn’t sound too lofty.

Alexandra van de Kamp: You mention Coleridge. In other interviews, you’ve talked about how reading Keats played a pivotal role in the maturation of your poetic style and how the Beats were an important influence earlier in your career. Could you talk a little bit about these influences and who you are reading now?

Billy Collins: Influence is always a looming question for me. Danilo Kis said that when we ask a writer about his influences, we are treating him like an infant in a basket abandoned on the front steps of a convent. We want to know who his parents are. I think if any writer was aware of all of his influences, he would be like the centipede who fell over when he started thinking about how his hundred legs were able to move at the same time. The knowledge would be paralyzing. Also, talk of influences tends to be unreliable, because we tend to invent our influences, just as we invent our parents at some point in our lives. Our entire past.

But there are moments. I was a most impressionable teenager back in the days of Beatnik glory, so I responded fully to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind”—still a good title—Gregory Corso and others. I was in Paris for a summer in the early sixties and hung self-consciously around the corners of the scene on the Boul Mich, as they called it. I sat at the same table with Corso and others, and I even hung around with an American girl named Ann Campbell, whom Realities magazine had called “The Queen of the Beatniks.” (Let’s see...what did that make me??) But mostly I was a Catholic high school boy in the suburbs who fantasized about stealing a car and driving non-stop to Denver. I probably would have done it, but I didn’t have access to those special driving pills Neal Cassady had. Plus, there was always a test to study for, or band practice.

A more helpful influence came in the form of a little Penguin paperback—which I still have—called The New Poetry. It was edited by A. Alvarez and was my first exposure to poets like Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson and others. I carried this book with me everywhere I went in high school. I loved the clarity and the irony and the mostly simple language. Lines like:

The wind blew all my wedding-day,
And my wedding night was the night of the high wind

I didn’t know if Larkin was kidding or not, and that’s just the way I wanted to keep it. I would say something like that is the ideal tone for me in my poems, a tone that would be perfectly balanced between feeling and irony. Very difficult to do. Because it’s so easy to fall into one extreme or the other and write a poem that is sappy or too cute or hard-boiled. In that same little book was Lowell’s naked poetry, and Thom Gunn, who wrote poems about bikers and Elvis Presley. I was listening to Elvis around the clock, but I never knew you could write poems about him. I was the prisoner of an older decorum, and these poets showed me the way out.

The question of influence leads into everything eventually. I could go on. But when I am asked if there is a Biggest Influence, I have gotten into the habit of just saying “Coleridge.” Why not? Most of us first encounter Coleridge through the “mystery poems,” those dream-like poems where we are taken on a journey (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) or we get a tour of a dream-like landscape (as in “Kubla Khan”). One reason why Coleridge was fond of the dream state was that it allowed him to focus entirely on one thing at a time. He said that in dreams he never felt as though he were thinking of one thing while looking at something else as he almost always did while conscious.

But the poems I mean are the so-called “conversation poems” of Coleridge, like “Frost at Midnight,” “The Aeolian Harp,” and—my favorite—“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” These poems contain some amazing moves as his meditation shifts from the outside landscape (or room-scape) into the self, then back through memory, then off into some zones of wild speculation. The extended lyric was a perfect form to accommodate such musings. I learned from them how to write longer, more capacious poems and how to trust the movings of my own mind. Richard Hugo talks about this—about trusting your next thought simply because it is your next thought and nobody else’s. Trust the sequence. Here comes a thought. Write it down. These Coleridge poems have a very casual feel in the beginning, but they rise smoothly into the lofty. They seem to exemplify a piece of advice from Stephen Dobyns: that is, if you get the reader to accept something simple in the beginning of the poem, he will be more inclined to accept something difficult later on. I find I have little tolerance for poems that begin with some extremely complicated chord. Better to begin like “Hot Cross Buns” and end like Debussy.

Of course, at some point, you start consciously picking your influences. You read knowing that you want to be influenced. Right now, I am reading Max Jacob. He was Picasso’s roommate for a while—imagine saying, “I’d like you to meet my roommate, Pablo”—and was killed by the Nazis, or they let him die of pneumonia at a way-station. I read him with the intention of getting under his influence. Or of just stealing his moves. Translating his language into my language.

Alexandra van de Kamp: Your work also seems to have been influenced by jazz—you’ve written some of the best contemporary poetry on it. Can you talk a little about your relationship to the music?

Billy Collins: A long time ago, when I was in my early teens, my parents used to send me to Canada for part of the summer to stay with my uncle John, to work on his farm bringing in hay and such, and to mow the lawn and the like at this hotel he owned on Lake Simcoe in Ontario. One day when I was mowing the lawn, a motorboat pulled up to the dock with two couples in it. They tied up, set up a record player, poured some drinks and laid around the deck, sunbathing and listening to what turned out to be the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. That was the first time I heard jazz. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but this was 1954 and they were hipsters. One of the girls was beautiful, and I fell in love with her (without ever speaking) and with jazz. I decided to devote my life to becoming someone like her boyfriend. I have been listening ever since. Recently, I have been taking piano lessons, and now I can play some standards and some blues. But I cannot seem to play if anyone else is in the room.

As for the references to jazz in my work—jazz is just something that is part of the atmosphere I live in, the part I can control. I write about jazz the way I write about the weather. It is part of the background that I sometimes move to the foreground. People like to make comparisons between jazz improvisation and the improvisational quality of some contemporary poetry. That’s worth talking about—I try to write poems in one sitting to get into the mood of spontaneity—but let’s be real. The poet can go back and erase, the trumpet player on the stand in a club cannot.

Alexandra van de Kamp: How would you describe the contemporary American poetry scene to a foreigner who may not know very much about it? In your opinion, what are its limitations, its depths?

Billy Collins: The American poetry scene is very lively and has been over the last 20 years or so. Pick up any recent volume of The Best American Poetry and read the introductions and you will get a sense of how poetry activities have escalated in number. Poetry readings, once the province of a literary elite, are now ubiquitous. They occur as often as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings. The venue is the local library, not the church basement. Our instinct is to applaud this kind of increase in a cultural activity. Fine--but what is not mentioned enough is that in the case of poetry, the growing audience for it is composed almost entirely of poets. Their motives, you see, are not entirely pure. They attend a reading sometimes not so much to hear a poet as to introduce themselves to the poet and maybe slip him an envelope of poems with a letter that begins, "I know how busy you must be..." Many people in the audience of poetry readings are there so they can get up and read their own poems at the "Open Mike". They are too busy making last minute improvements to their poems to pay attention to the featured reader. In other words, the good news is that the audience for poetry has grown exponentially and poetry has become a more noticed and respected activity in American life. The bad news is that it is a closed circuit. The audience for poetry is other poets. It would be like going to hear a symphony orchestra and noticing that everyone in the audience was holding a violin case on their lap. That is why I am most pleased when I hear that someone who doesnt generally read poetry (and definitely doesnt write it) enjoys reading my poems. As Joyce Carol Oates put it: the number of people who read poetry is about the same as the number who write it. I would change that to "is slightly less than" because some people who write poetry have no interest in reading it. Strange but true.

Alexandra van de Kamp: Much of the sense of irony and surprise in your poems can stem from a reverence for mundane, near-at-hand things often after the poem has invoked more dramatic, exotic locations and figures. In “The Death of Allegory” you juxtapose “those tall abstractions” of the past against, “The black binoculars and a money clip, / exactly the thing we now prefer, / objects that sit quietly on a line in lowercase, / themselves and nothing more.” This placing of the past against the often humbler artifacts of the present occurs frequently in your work. Can you comment on this?

Billy Collins: It took a long time for poetry to be able to include the everyday, and now it devotes a lot of energy to celebrating it. In mentioning the simple array of things around us, I am trying to evoke a kind of haiku-like presentation of the world in an unadorned condition, without the enhancing lift of metaphor. I think one of the devices that seems to reoccur in my poems is ironic deflation. I use the pedestrian detail--the dog asleep on the floor, the bird out the window--to reverberate against the loftiness of literary tradition. I mean Milton is dead, but the dog is breathing there by my chair. Haiku is saying that the present moment is everything. Nothing exists outside it except two abysses on either side. If one particular moment happens to be filled by a cherry tree in blossom and a sliver of a moon, then to merely mention those things (in a 17 syllable enclosure) is to celebrate the fact that you exist, that you are the only creature in the universe who occupies these exact time/space coordinates.

We live in lower-case times, which is to say allegory is dead. You can no longer open a poem with the figure of Charity, not to mention Chastity, the deadest of the virtues. Underlying this procedure in poetry is the assumption that the things around us--the tree, but also the broom and the ice cube--might hold clues to the world beyond--might provide access to spiritual or at least abstract dimensions. Emerson called it the "speaking language of things," the capacity of the material world to lead us beyond. William Carlos Williams cleared the literary table so that it could be occupied by a simple object. And Charles Simic presents the objects of the world (broom, store window) in a way that all the historic and archetypal significance of the object is gathered into the moment. When I conduct poetry workshops, I ask the poets to take off all the modifiers and see what they have left. Often, what is left is more. The adjective can be a parasite that feeds off the noun and eventually kills it. There's nothing like a good noun standing there on its own. Cup. Hat. Bone. Each one tells its own long story. "Chair" is an epic.

Also, starting small is a way of establishing authority in a poem. If I tell you that I am listening to the rain against my bedroom window tonight, you will accept this without question. Why not? But if I begin a poem by saying that...what?...misery is a snake that curls itself around the neck of the cosmos, you might question who it is that you are listening to, and why. It's no secret. All singers know this: come in soft, go out strong.

Alexandra van de Kamp: Your work in general expresses a very keen awareness of the reader. The Art of Drowning opens with the poem “Dear Reader,” and ends with “Some Final Words,” and your latest book, Picnic, Lightning, begins with “A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal.” There is a wonderful sense of the old epic poems here, with their prologues summoning up the help of the muses. It also reminds me of the narrators in Elizabethan plays who would open and close the performance with an address to the audience. Do you see your books as modern day sequences invoking the reader/muse in the opening pages and closing in the same way? Or does some other concept guide your arranging of poems?

Billy Collins:

You make it so intelligently premeditated, I have no choice but to admit the truth of all you say. I am extremely reader-conscious, perhaps because I am tired of reading poems that seem to ignore the reader. I feel that I am talking to a reader/listener as I write, so that a good deal of my effort is just to make the poem clear. To get things in the right sequence so that the poem is easy to follow. Not just easy, but easy to follow because the poem is going somewhere, and I want the reader along to share whatever surprises the journey may hold. I try to begin the poem on a common ground, which is a way of assembling a little group around the campfire of the poem. Scoutmaster Collins will then tell some scary stories.

In terms of a whole book being reader-friendly, I have opened my last few collections with a kind of prefatory poem whose purpose it is to welcome the reader, to let the reader know I am aware of his/her presence and that this book is aimed at them. Of course, no one reads a book of poems from front to back except editors and book reviewers, but if you read one of my books that way, you would find yourself guided over a certain terrain. I wouldn't want to--would not be able to--explain this progress conceptually, but the book and the sections have a dramatic organization. What I do when I have enough poems for a book is to lay them all out on the floor and to start figuring out which poems want to be with which others. I try to stay out of it and let the poems decide. I think the first and the last poem in a book (and the first and last poem in each section) should show a kind of awareness that they are occupying these positions. But most readers, including me, skip through a book of poems like a flip-book, looking for something to grab their eye--a short poem, a sexy title, whatever. Auden realized the vanity of an author sweating over the arrangement of his/her work when he put the poems in his Collected Poems in alphabetical order, thus eliminating the need for an index. And that is another welcoming aspect of a book of poems: you can jump in anywhere. You can't do that with a novel unless you are merely taking a stylistic soil sample.

I like your idea of the Elizabethan play. Yes, I would like to come on stage before the first act to welcome the reader. I want to get the reader on board at the beginning of every poem. So why not make sure he or she is on board at the beginning of every book of poems by throwing down a welcome mat, an address to the reader before the book (or the play) proper begins? And like anything, it's good to end with a flourish.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Garden Poems


Oh, spring came to my garden
And caught it unaware
Wearing just a few old leaves
And a dejected air.

But when spring left my garden,
Its work so deftly done,
Many, many Daffodils
Were dancing in the sun.

- Velma D. Bates

At Dawn

I slipped into the garden
Almost before 'twas light,
As the lazy sun arose
I glimpsed a charming sight...
Red Poppy flung her cap aside,
Shook out her silken skirt;
The way she danced with a young breeze
Told me she was a flirt!

- Mary C. Shaw

Wild Orchid

"The flower that walks", the Indian; said,
And walking spreads its crown-like roots
Through forest glades and upland dales.
Moccasin flower or Lady's Slipper,
It matters not the name
Or if it be fair white or rose or tiny yellow kind
Tis ever rare and wondrous there
This woodland beauty Bequeathed us from another age.
A Heritage to guard with care
And cherish for posterity
That other eyes in future years
Mav see this Orchid walk the trails
As did our native Indian braves
And shy eyed maidens of the tribe.

- Helen M. Fleet


I've had the garden tidied up,
As she would have me do.
This little pal who couldn't stay
To see the season through.
The flowers were her dearest friends,
The garden was her own,
I've watched her work, but never knew
The things that she had grown.
Her, catalogues keep coming, and
Her garden magazine;
I run across the queerest names,
And study what they mean,
I read them all, from end to end,
And when the spring is here,
I'll have a garden just like hers,
As though my wife were near.

- Albert H. Pedrick

Day's End

The twilight comes to cool the. air,
The shadows lengthen on the sod,
Soft breezes blow the garden through,
The leaves and blossoms sway and nod.

On garden path, in sheltering hedge,
In treetops dark and cloudless sky,
The evening birds awake to life,
To stir; to sing and upward fly.

And flowers, warm with summer heat,
Expand to greet the softened light
And shed, to show their gratitude,
A fragrance in the summer night.

Now all is peace. From meadows near
A cooling mist blows o'er the wall
And strangely lonesome in the night
There comes the thrush's silvery call.

- Edwin W. Proctor

Winged Jewel
(The Huming, Bird)

Feathered fire of emerald .
Aflashing through the air,
Its throat a glowing jewel,
A ruby solitaire.

Intrepid wings are whirring
In airy, fairy flight,
Careening through the sunshine,
A scintillating sprite.
Then pendant o'er flower
It dips its dainty hill
And gathers honeyed nectar
From flowery cup and frill.
Now darting, swiftly turning,
It seeks the trumpet vine,
A little tropic jewel
Aflame with nectared wine.

- Cora L. Cone

Canterbury Bells

Long years ago devoted folk
Sought Canterbury's well-known shrine,
That in this church they might invoke
Saint Thomas for a heavenly sign.
And as they trod each rang a bell
For symbol of their pilgrim aim,
While all along the way the spell
Of nodding blossoms caused acclaim.
Today these flowers still are true
To the old title which they bear.
Swinging their bells, pink, white or blue,
With unheard pealings through the air.

- Edith M. Larrabee

The White Trillium

Trillium graceful, Trillium white,
Star of the woodland, Lady of light
Lo, how she prou!ily
Stands in the glade,
Tri-sceptred sovereign,
Queen of the shade.
Stately she rises,
Slender-stemmed, tall,
Gracious response to Spring's early call,
Lifting three leaf-arms
High from the sod,
Gazing with pure face lip at her god.

- Milena Matcska

Winter Embroidery

The snow upon the hillsides
Makes them like great flour sacks
On which the birds and animals
Have cross-stitched with their tracks.

- Thelma Ireland

Angels in My Garden
Among my gift begonias
Is one called "
So true to form I fancy
I hear the seraphs sing.
For surely higher beings
Inspired the, friendly hearts
Of my new next-door neighbors
To give me these "new starts".

O Angels, hover always
About this garden spot!
Help- me to share life's blossoms
With those who have them not!
And from your shining wing-tips
Shake fragrance for the hearts
Of beauty-hungry thousands
Today, who need new starts!
- Irene Stanley

Friday, September 9, 2011

Introducing Cowboy Poets - Les Buffham & Earl Wayne (Duke) Davis

Ropin' and Rhymin' : Literature: Good cowboy poetry is like a good chew of tobacco--you can sink your teeth into it. Two Southland poets capture the bittersweet essence of a dying trade.

by Johnathan Gaw
Times Staff Writer
September 15, 1993

In his cramped and cluttered Castaic trailer, Les Buffham employs an old Hills Brothers can to make a mild "buckaroo brew"--coffee, that is--and takes sugar in it, something he concedes is for sheepherders, not real cowboys.

But his coffee pretty much describes the 50-year-old trucker: sweet and mild.

On the other side of the Santa Clarita Valley, the spurs worn by Earl Wayne (Duke) Davis ring out as he gives a tour of his Canyon Country townhome with its cow skull and paintings of American Indian life.

With saliva gathering in his mouth from the clump of tobacco chew in his cheek, Davis spits into a yellow plastic container as he pets his dog, Blue, and talks about a favorite pastime, one that he and Buffham share.

They write poetry. Cowboy poetry, of course.

The two are the best-known practitioners of the prose in Los Angeles County, and Buffham, some say, is among the best in the nation. The city of Santa Clarita recently announced plans to host a three-day festival in March dedicated to the poetry and music of the vaqueros , as a way to explore the area's Western roots. Buffham and Davis intend to be there.

"I never thought of myself as being a cowboy; I was just a kid who grew up on a ranch," said Buffham, a native of Craig, Colo., whose family still runs cattle there. "Now, being a cowboy is sort of a prestigious thing."

Prestigious, maybe, but certainly nothing from which one could make a good living. Buffham worked the ranches in Colorado until he needed money, at which point he took up trucking. For a while last year, he lived in Santa Clarita proper, but he couldn't take the noise.

"It was pure hell," Buffham said, "what with the dogs yappin' and the cars going by--I couldn't do anything."

Now, he drives a truck for local oil companies digging in the area's hills and canyons.

Is a cowboy no longer a cowboy
When he's forced to buck hay or drive truck?
Or when he's laid up wrapped in plaster
From a run of real bad luck?
Is it when he's had to sell his old home place
Cause his joints are stiff and snow rests on his head.
Well I'm thinkin' he's no longer a cowboy
Only when he's dead.

Buffham hopes someday to travel around the country and interview the remaining cowpunchers to immortalize their stories.

"The old cowboy way of life is passing," he noted. "There ain't many people left doing it, and the ones who are doing it ain't doing it the way they used to."

Buffham himself has done some cowboying in his time, as evidenced by his misshapen nose, the legacy of a horse ride gone awry.

"I was just trying her out for a friend of mine and I got a little too cocky," he said, swaying in a metal rocking chair. "She threw me and I landed on my face, cricked my head and broke my nose."

Davis, too, has won his stripes as a cowboy.

The 45-year-old native of Schertz, Texas, spends two-thirds of his year with his country-Western music band Duke Davis and Buckshot, and the rest working ranches around Santa Ynez, doing roundups and brandings during the calving season.

"Poetry is just something that goes hand in hand with the cowboy world," said Davis, petting his prized horse Choppo, named for a song about the ideal steed.

He has written of growing up dreaming of riding "every snuffy old pony" and his poetry sticks close to well-worn features of life on the trail. Titles of his pieces include "Time to Ride," "It's Good to Be Alive," "My Team Ropin' Pardner" and "The Last Coyote."

Buffham, in contrast, muses as well about the melancholy that comes as the cowboy's domain is overrun by modernization. And, since the best of cowboy poetry is based on true-life experiences, not all carries storybook themes--or endings.

In one of Buffham's poems, "Lonnie's Blue Heeler," the cowboy of the title accidentally shoots his dog while aiming a warning shot between the dog and a heifer:

Lonnie turned around with a plumb-dumbfounded look
Jake, he's just looking down, kicking at the sand.
Lonnie's standing there with his mouth dropped open,
That smoking rifle in his hand.
Jake cleared his throat and said:
"I guess I'd oughtta told you since I dropped it on the sight?
That old gun has been a shootin' just a little to the right."

Such verse is a major part of Western folklore, said David Stanley, an English professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

"Cowboy poetry, instead of emphasizing individual forms of expression and feeling, expresses the norms of a group, and yet at the same time expresses the artistic talent of the individual," Stanley said. "This is partly because cowboy life is out of necessity, and also out of preference, a very group-focused occupation."

Most cowboy poetry, Stanley said, is very traditional in form, even old-fashioned, tending to rhyme and have a regular rhythm, most written in ballad form. But that is changing, just as cowboy life is changing, Stanley said.

"We are seeing more and more free verse and other modern forms in cowboy poetry, and we're also seeing a lot of attention to contemporary issues, such as the plight of Vietnam vets," he said.

The first published cowboy poetry, Stanley said, dates to the 1890s, but the craft probably goes back several more decades, with much of the early poetry borrowing heavily from sailor poetry.

"Cowboy poetry is not now, and has never been, a simple form that praises good horses and laments fallen comrades," said Stanley, who is editing a book of essays on cowboy prose. "There has always been much more variety, and the play of language within the poetry is incredibly complex and very often tremendously witty."

Among today's cowboy lyricists, said Rudy Gonzales, publisher of American Cowboy Poet magazine, Buffham is one of the best.

"He's won the respect and admiration of cowboy poets wherever he has gone," said Gonzales, who started the 20,000 circulation magazine in 1988. "Cowboy poetry, when it is done properly, portrays the cowboy heart and experience, and Les Buffham does it right."

But in a poem called "The Hat," about his start as a cowboy, Buffham wonders why anyone pursues the hard toil of the ranch.

There were lots of long hard winters
Sorting cows and pitching hay.
Wondering why I picked this life
Crossed my mind most every day.
There were salt to pack and springs to clean
Setting posts and stretching wire,
And it seemed it took a cord of wood
For fifteen minutes of fire.