Friday, March 22, 2013

Insights from a Billy Collins Interview to Celebrate his Birthday

Today is the birthday of Billy Collins, one of the most popular poets in America, who often reads to standing-room only crowds.  I've witnessed poets who seethe and go into melt-down mode over his popularity.  Why?

I understand that his kind of poetry isn't for everyone.  But why rage over the fact that a significant chunk of the population likes it?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me also confess that I, too, like his work.  I don't find his poetry simplistic, although I don't have to struggle to understand what he means.  I don't have to do extensive research or rely on footnotes, like I do with say, T. S. Eliot.  That's fine with me.  I don't agree with Toni Morrison, who once told an interviewer that she thought that reading literature should be hard work that we shouldn't shirk from.

Go back and read the poems of Billy Collins--see if you aren't surprised over the connections that he makes.  I usually read a Billy Collins poem and come away seeing the world in a different way.  That's the best quality in a poem for me.  That's why I like him.

And my dad likes him, and it's fun to have a poet in common.

I saw Billy Collins give an interview at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in January.  He was warm and witty.  I took page after page of notes.  In honor of his birthday, let me record some of them here.

He says he writes with a pencil or a pen:  "I get to see the mess I make--I see all the decisions."

"A poet needs an attitude of never quite gotten used to being alive."  Why?  So that we'll have gratitude and we'll have the gift of seeing the world in new ways.

The interviewer quotes Stephen Dunn:  "You always know where you are in a Billy Collins poem, but you never know where you'll end up."

Collins says that as poets, we should welcome distractions as a side road, an escape hatch that takes us from Point A to Point B.  He hopes point B is a place that readers have never been before, a poem that starts in Kansas and ends in Oz.  He's seen too many poems begin in Oz without taking us there.

He talked about putting book length collections together.  He says he never has an over-arching theme, beyond his own brain's explorations.  He encourages us not to worry too much about organization.  He says we should put all our aces up front, in the first pages of the book, because editors are looking for reasons to stop reading, and you want your strongest stuff in the beginning.  And save a few for the end.  He reminds us that no readers will ever read your collection of poems from beginning to end.

For inspiration (if he hasn't written in awhile), he says he goes to an art museum or he looks through one volume of an encyclopedia.

Let me take a side trip here to wonder if anyone still has volumes of encyclopedias.  I remember when I got my first set of encyclopedias on a CD, the wonder of all that knowledge in one light-weight place.  I do remember that joy of opening up an encyclopedia volume and discovering what was there.  I did the same thing with dictionaries.  It's no wonder that I majored in English and stayed in school through a Ph.D. program.

My friend has gotten rid of his encyclopedias, but he can't bring himself to get rid of the yearbooks that he collected year after year.  He goes into rapturous wonder over the amount of information included about a single year.  He can't imagine another delivery system that would bring him the same kind of joy.

Back to Billy Collins:

He made up a word while he was talking:  incredimentia.  It's the inability to realize how freaking old you've gotten.  He said he's promoting the idea that one's 70's are the last decade of middle age.

The best comment he's ever gotten:  when he was Poet Laureate, after a reading, a young boy came up and asked, "How many people would have to die before you became President?"

A poet as president--that will be a fun contemplation today!

1 comment:

Hannah Stephenson said...

I also get frustrated when people find anything about Billy Collins you said, who cares if he isn't your favorite poet? People LOVE him. He does great things for poetry. No shame in accessibility!

We (poets) can't have it both ways...we can't complain that no one reads poetry, and then one a poet becomes massively popular, claim that they aren't worthy enough of the attention. Down with poetry snobbery! :)

Happy birthday, Billy!