On Wednesday night Carolyn and I (and a few friends) had the pleasure of hearing American poet Billy Collins speak at Boston’s Symphony Hall. For me, he was the best speaker I’ve “met” at the Speakers Series, now well into its third season. Here’s a Q&A to corral his conversation about writing and poetry.
Who is Billy Collins?
He was a two-time Poet Laureate of the United States and is currently a Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. For people who love poetry, he’s regularly mentioned as one of their favorites. For many in the audience, I suspect it was their first exposure to his particular combination of wit and candor. I think of him as the people’s poet because to me he is so accessible. More on that in a bit.
What was he like?
Funny from the outset. Self-deprecating and charming. Clever, so clever. A masterful entertainer with an impeccable sense of timing.
What did he talk about?
He began by describing how he came to love poetry, and that the first poetic voice in his life was his mother’s. As a young schoolgirl growing up in Ontario, she had memorized hundreds of poems and she liberally sprinkled wisps of them into her everyday speech. This rhythm and lilt captured his attention, and he went on to write and study poetry in high school and college. Collins found his way to social realism in poetry, that is, writing about everyday objects and images, always with a touch of humor and irony. For me, that’s his unique voice.
In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents lie buried
side by side under a smooth slab of granite.
Then, all day long, I think of him rising up
To give me that look
Of knowing disapproval
While my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.
– Billy Collins, from Nine Horses
What did he say about writing?
According to Collins, all writers are readers trying to make sense of what they’ve read, so they are by default imitating those who came before them. Though we may hate to admit it, our jealousy about great writing even propels us to write and to model ourselves after those we admire. Finally, he observed that we learn as we write – the process of writing is a process of growing as a person. In fact, not knowing exactly where we’re going when we start is essential to good writing.
What did he say about writing poetry?
Collins’ stance is that readers of poetry expect some kind of form. It may not have a rhyme scheme that’s blatant, but it needs to rhyme or have rhythm in some other way. He brought down the house with this example, The Lanyard, about “the archaic truth that you can never repay your mother”.
Why is he so accessible?
Billy Collins doesn’t write to moan about his life or existential problems. He writes for the reader. Last night, he approached us (“poetry heathens, the unconverted”, as he teasingly called the audience) as people who could be met half way, through his poetry. He writes for the page, not the stage, and his poems feel like him – an observant, wry friend sitting across the breakfast table from you, seducing you to see what he sees.
Billy Collins’ favorite poem: This Lime-tree Bower My Prison, by Samuel Coleridge
What he considers his signature poem: Forgetfulness