Poetic persona still guides Billy Collins
"He resembles me in many ways, but at the same time, he's not as troubled as I might be," the 77-year-old poet told The Eagle on Wednesday morning during a telephone interview. "He's concerned with things that are kind of outside of himself."
Collins was referring to his poetic persona, the voice in his works. While numerous contemporary poets have distinct personae, the former U.S. poet laureate's intellectual accessibility and observations about everyday life have resonated with perhaps more readers than any other bard in the past 30 years.
"I have a poem speculating about how many angels are actually on the head of a pin ['Questions About Angels'], another one about how the three blind mice became blind ['I Chop Some Parley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of 'Three Blind Mice''']. ... They're more speculative poems. My persona — he has a heart, but he leads with his head, put it that way," Collins said.
The poet's persona doesn't just manifest itself in ink and pixels. When Collins gives readings, as he will do on Wednesday night at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vt., he lets his persona guide the poems he chooses to read aloud.
"I'm not showing my dark side to the audience. I don't want them to think I'm just burdening them with my misery. My persona is much less miserable than, I think, a lot of contemporary personae," he said.
Collins doesn't turn everything over to his persona. For instance, he ties the persona's different meditations together.
"When I give a reading, I don't just stand there like a human page and say the poems. I try to warm up the audience a little bit. I try to talk about the poem as I introduce them, usually, and then I try to say something about the poems that demystifies them somewhat. I don't want to take all of the mystery out of a poem, but I also don't want the audience to think the poems fell out of a cloud into my lap, and I just wrote them down. So, I often talk about how the poems started, what got the poem rolling ... I'm sort of a chatty disc jockey," Collins said.
To begin a reading, Collins likes to pick one of his poems that directly addresses the relationship between a poem and its reader, such as "Dear Reader." To close, the poet often opts for "Aristotle," a work that is "longer and more serious than some of the other poems." In between, Collins selects from a list of about 100 works, gauging the audience's preferences along the way.
"I've got a pretty good ear for that," he said.
Still, the authority Collins lends his persona exemplifies the sense of casual control underlying his work. Take, for example, a recent writing slump. He doesn't write every day to begin with, but as of Wednesday, he had gone a few weeks without composing.
"Some people call this 'writer's block' that I'm in, but I think that's a terrible name. That's like saying 'Macbeth' instead of 'The Scottish Play.' If I'm not writing for awhile, I think of it more as ... coasting," he said.
Collins is the rare poet who can afford to coast. In 1999, he received a six-figure advance for three books from Random House. The contract garnered attention not only because it sparked a feud between the publishing behemoth and the University of Pittsburgh Press, which refused to surrender rights to prior poems that Collins wanted to reprint in "Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems," but also because it awarded a significant sum to a poet.
The publishing world battle helped Collins gain attention in popular culture, but the poet had established himself by then in the literary community. It had been a long journey. Born and raised in New York City, Collins wrote his first poem when he was 10 years old, according to a piece he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in October 2017.
"I was in the back seat of my parents' car as my father drove up New York's FDR Drive. I saw a large sailboat on the East River and asked my mother for a pen. I wanted to write down how I felt. I don't remember exactly what I wrote, but it probably was about the incongruity of a bright white boat sailing around in the gray city," he recalled.
Collins graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1963 and subsequently received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside.
"If you stay in graduate school long enough, they give you a Ph.D. and tell you you can't go to school anymore, much to my disappointment. I would have just stayed in graduate school forever," Collins told The Washington Post's Lillian Cunningham in 2014.
A natural next step was teaching. He worked at various institutions in and around New York City for decades. Meanwhile, he was creating his own volumes. In 1990, Edward Hirsch selected Collins' collection, "Questions About Angels," for the 1990 National Poetry Series. The annual literary awards program sponsors five books of poetry per year. It provided Collins with much-needed recognition for his observational, eminently readable style.
"Do they fly through God's body and come out singing? / Do they swing like children from the hinges / of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards? / Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?" Collins writes in one stanza of the title poem.
The New York Times' Dwight Garner gave the work a mixed review.
"This poem, 'Questions About Angels,' is, like much of Collins's work, not just deft and cheerful but possessing of a slyly complicated intellectual tone. Just as often, however, his poems abandon complications of any sort and settle for merely being amiable," Garner wrote in a 2001 piece.
Garner's criticism wasn't unique; some in the literary establishment have bemoaned Collins' comfort with straightforward verses over the years.
But the lack of pretension in Collins' words didn't prevent him from being named U.S. poet laureate in 2001. He held the position for two terms during the run-up to the Iraq War.
"The country was at a real low point. I mean, not as low as we are now, but we thought it was a record low in terms of just anxiety, global anxiety," Collins recalled.
The poet veers from the political in his work.
"I see my poems as rather intimate exchanges or intimate addresses to individual readers," he said.
Yet, he believes that producing a poem can function as a form of protest.
"If I write a poem paying attention to birdsong, or if I write a poem about walking the dog around a lake and noticing her and noticing the lake, I think those are anti-war poems in a subtle sense. In other words, my persona is an example of someone who has the luxury of being at peace. And I think if more world leaders spent time listening to birdsong or walking around a lake and contemplating things, they wouldn't be so anxious or eager to provoke global hostilities," Collins said. "So, these poems are in a way to be thought of as therapy for world leaders who are a little too jumpy these days. Poetry asks you to slow down, and it seems that the world leaders today are frantic."
In conversation, Collins is the antithesis of frantic. Calling from his Winter Park, Fla., abode (he also owns a home in Westchester County, N.Y.), the poet spoke slowly, his ruminations on various matters unfurling like his poems: gradual and precise, pausing in the right places. (He doesn't abuse enjambment.)
He has more time these days than he once did. He retired from teaching a couple of years ago.
"I don't miss the students themselves, but I miss something of the routine and having an outside office to go to," Collins said.
He didn't enjoy office hours and the repeated meetings required to teach a course. He enjoys the one-off lectures he now gives at schools on occasion.
"I can sort of squeeze everything I know about poetry into a half-hour or an hour or two hours. I just don't see the need to see these students a second time," Collins said.
The author of 12 collections, including 2016's "The Rain in Portugal," isn't afraid to acknowledge his shortcomings.
"I'm not always attentive as I should be, but I've learned the habits of being on the lookout ... for something that might provoke a poem. Usually, it's something very everyday. My persona, he looks a little longer at things than you should to be sane," Collins said.
These mental visitations inspire Collins to write. The poet doesn't schedule times to compose.
"I'm much more of a sprint guy. I kind of wait for some little thing to trickle into my head, and then I sit down and start to write. I hate sitting down with nothing there. You can avoid facing, staring at the blank page. Just don't stare at it, don't look at a page, until you have something to write," he said.
He avoids technological subject matter despite its ubiquity.
"If you put Twitter or Facebook or iPhone, any of that stuff in your poem, you give the poem a shelf life because technology's moving so fast," he said.
Collins wants his poems to always feel present.
"I would like a person many years from now to be able to enter a lot of these poems without footnotes," he said.
The poet aims to have a manuscript for a new collection prepared by the end of this year. Without a deadline, he's not in a rush. He doesn't mean to sound so casual about his process, he asserts at one point.
"There are certainly anxieties about writing," Collins said.
In other words, he's not as carefree as his poetic persona.
"Life would be a little easier if I were my persona," he said, "but I think to be constantly him might get a little crazy."
IF YOU GO...
What: Poetry reading with Billy Collins
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 11
Where: Burr and Burton Academy, 57 Seminary Ave., Manchester, VT
Tickets: Not required (free and open to the public)
Information: First-come-first-served seating; 802-262-2626; vermonthumanities.org
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.