Harbour Winn: After 9/11, you read [your poem] “The Names”before Congress. I guess that was one of those times when the conventional role of the Poet Laureate [is to write] for a particular moment or event. What was that like?
Billy Collins: The American Poet Laureate is not obliged to write the kind of occasional poetry that the British poet laureate is; that isn’t part of the job description. The circumstance of 9/11 was very special, as was the subsequent, unprecedented convening of both sessions of Congress away from Washington. They decided to hold the joint session of Congress in New York; so this was rather exciting and I was asked to write a poem for the occasion.
I said to them initially, “I’m not sure that I can. I don’t usually write under public pressure.” You can’t say no, though. You can’t say you’re too busy for Congress; so I said, “I will definitely be there and I will read something.” Then they put more pressure on me. They said, “It would be especially nice if you could write something just for the occasion.” One said,“It would be nice if you’d emphasize the heroic actions of the police and firemen, and could you mention something about the sorrow of the families and the hope of the future.”At that point, it seemed more impossible to do. I thought it was beyond me, so I looked around and found some Whitman to read.
But then, I woke up at five in the morning, before I usually get up. I don’t write political poetry in that literal sense, but it struck me I could write an elegy for the deceased; so I had a genre to work in. Then it occurred to me I could use the alphabet, go through a name at a time, and sprinkle these names throughout the poem and that would be the spine that would hold it together. Once that occurred to me, I got out of bed and wrote the poem in a couple of hours, nothing to it. I wanted there to be a mix of common names like Baker, but I also picked some one-of-a-kind names so that family would know that their deceased person was especially honored there. The only technical problem was that there was no one whose name began with an X; so I put in a parenthesis there and said let X stand, if it can, for those not found.
The actual reading of the poem before Congress was very intimidating and serious, because you’re standing in front of all these people whose faces you’ve seen on TV. It’s a little unreal. It was interesting to see the various degrees of attention that were being paid to the poem. Pat Moynihan was listening, just up on the edge of his chair, a wonderful memory of his intelligent, open face taking it in. Others were shuffling papers behind me. The other thing was, regardless of the merits of the poem, when I began to read, something in the house changed. People could tell this was not the noise and timbre and cadence of public language, this was a different kind of language. That got their attention. These men and women spend their lives producing political public language. It was like a different song was being played than the one they were used to hearing.
John McBryde: Well it had to be—a cliché—a once in a lifetime experience.
BC: Absolutely. I’ve never published “The Names” and I don’t have any plans to publish it. I was very sensitive about not using it as part of my repertoire and exploiting it in any way, leaving it as part of that day.
HW: With your wife being an architect, do you feel or discuss that you both are really doing the same thing?
BC: I hope I’m doing something close to architecture. You could distinguish in poetry the difference between the architects and interior designers. I think weaker kinds of poetry are really interior design, where you’re putting modifiers on things and making nature more beautiful than she is, embellishing, that kind of thing. Often those poems don’t have an architectural structure; it’s just doilies and decoration. I think the bones of a good poem have skeletal and architectural elements holding them together. My wife and I joke about this competition we have, because I’d like to write poems that are still being read after all of her buildings have collapsed, but I don’t know if either of us will be around for that.
JM: Earlier today you talked about television not being poetry because it’s both happy in form and happy in content, and I guess I’d take issue with that on some of the shows that really strike me as poetry. One is a show on HBO called “Deadwood.” Some of the dialogue is Shakespearean; it’s just awesome. I’ve seen films that move me in ways that poems do, so I want more comment from you on how far you think the genre of poetry goes.
BC: In a traditional way, I don’t like the extension of poetry into other arts. To me, poetry is an arrangement of lines on a page. I write for the page. One question I get sometimes is,“Are rock lyrics poetry? Is Dylan poetry?” For me the page is the test. There probably are Bob Dylan songs you can read on the page and are verbally exciting, but there are few examples of that. The competition is, you get all these musicians off the stage, the three girls with short shimmering dresses, get them off too, and bring out your lyric and read it to the audience; I’ll read a Dylan Thomas poem or my [own] and we’ll see what’s going on here. Let’s make the playing field even. So much rock ’n’ roll doesn’t even have to make sense. One of my favorite songs is “Whiter Shade of Pale.” I’ve never figured it out; I don’t want to figure it out, I think it would be a waste of time.
When I say television, I don’t mean “Deadwood,” I mean television. Your exceptions prove the rule I think. I think television, the happy content idea, is basically saying, “Everything’s okay.” Modern fiction is saying, “Things are not okay.” And poetry is saying, “Things are great, but you’re gonna die.” In Bowling for Columbine, Marilyn Manson, for all his freakiness, said that television generates fear, with stories of murder and crime and people betraying each other; documentaries and newscasts about “pepper, the silent killer,” and “if you’re wearing the wrong shirt size you might get heart disease.” He made it a strange conspiracy, where the audience is being intimidated, made insecure and the commercials come along and invite you to this world of improved living, faster cars, better-looking stuff, and it’s all one big game.
Elaine Smokewood: You talked about the page being a test for poetry. I was thinking about your poetry and Whitman’s. For both of you, the page is such an intimate space, and both you and Whitman often have that intimate, seductive relationship with the reader. Whitman seems to want to transcend time and space and achieve a kind of immortality by being alive in the reader’s mind. What do you want?
BC: I think I learned that intimacy from Whitman. Every year in New York there’s this Brooklyn bridge walk, where hundreds of people walk across the Brooklyn bridge reciting poems about it—Hart Crane, and Stevens, and Marianne Moore—and when we get to the other side Galway Kinnell reads “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” standing there with the east river in back of him. He reads passages in which Whitman basically says, “I looked at this water and now you’re looking at it,” and it’s so moving. It’s very eerie, he’s actually talking to you, talking to posterity in this very intimate way,“You stood here, I stood here. What you felt, I feel.” I certainly can’t get that close, but I think of the reader as one individual to whom I’m whispering a quiet message, with the exception of some satiric poems I’ve written that maybe would be read in a group. I give a lot of public readings, but I would never give a thought to that when I’m composing; it’s always very private, and the ideal reader is pretty much in my situation. He or she is in a room somewhere with a page and, as they say,“we’re on the same page.”
HW: But you don’t always write about “he or she”; you include mice in your poetry, and canaries. What about all these furry little creatures?
BC: There’s an infestation of mice in my poems.
HW: Do you have that problem in your home?
BC: Yes! We live in a country house with two really lazy cats and one mouser, but there are more mice than she can keep track of. I didn’t set out with a mouse theme, but I think of them as very sympathetic, harmless creatures that are squeaking out this existence for themselves. I also don’t try to fake the fact of my circumstances. I live in the suburbs of New York and the fauna of suburban life are domestic cats, geese, deer, mice, sometimes a swan or badger. I’m basically writing about the creatures that are part of my everyday animal world.
ES: In your poem “Albany,” you have that wonderful line where you talk about your hound’s interest in the world. I think of you in your poems as in the world, sniffing it, licking it, and most of the time wagging your tail. Do you think that’s an apt metaphor for the poet’s proper relationship with the world?
BC: I think lyric poetry is about the “I” and not about the “he” or “she.” I have very few poems about other people. When I conduct workshops I try to get students to write about the “I,”because when you write about the “he”or “she,”you’re tempted to fall into the world of prose fiction where you want to use the powers of that world, including omniscience, and it has no place in poetry.You’re speaking from the authority of one individual, one ego, one set of perceptual eyes. Novelists can say, “‘I love you,’ said Cecilia, thinking the opposite.” That’s a kind of authority poets don’t have. I think authority is so important in poetry, because the poem is going to last 30 or 40 or 14 lines, so how do you develop trust quickly in a short form?
The way it used to be done was through rhyme and meter. Rhyme and meter to me was, besides giving musical pleasure, a trust system. When you begin a poem with, “[Quotes the first few lines of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” rhythmically while snapping],” right away you relax, because you know this beat is going to continue. It’s relaxing, like floating in salt water. What the poem is about you don’t know, but you at least trust the rhythm and sound of the poem to be sustained and supportive. Now, poetry realizes it can get along without end rhyme and metronomic meter,so we lose this whole trust system. It’s one of the reasons for the weakness of contemporary poetry. We have a kind of autobiographical poetry based on memory, poems that have personal, emotional centers to them. But why should I trust you? I don’t know you. Why should I trust this intimate revelation about how much you hate your father? Why should I care? So when I teach poetry workshops we talk a lot about form and trust.
ES: If you were asked about the difference between personal, intimate poetry such as your own and self-indulgent, confessional poetry, would that lack of trust be the difference?
BC: Yeah. I think this poetry I’m writing is intimate but not personal. I can say that because you won’t find out much about me.You’ll find out that I’m fond of mice and I live in a certain house and I like dogs, but you won’t get autobiographical information.You won’t get what you would from Sharon Olds or Elizabeth Bishop or Frank O’Hara. It’s personal in that I’m exposing the reader to the whims of my thinking and my imaginative curiosities, speculations.
HW: I don’t know that your poems were necessarily written for children, but fairy or folk tale elements are in them. I love the poem where you’ve got a wolf reading a book of fairy tales. Were those important to you growing up?
BC: A lot of my imagery comes from childhood or boyhood. I think picking something like the wolf is a broader pattern that we all know, something common. [My poem] “Questions About Angels,” starts out, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” I do that as a way of not appearing presumptuous, not presuming your interest in something personal about me, but assuming your knowledge about something we can all stand on. We’re on the same page in the beginning of the poem.
The hope is that the poem will go well beyond that starting point into more mysterious and less definable areas, a movement from something we all know to something that only I know for a moment, and that would be the destination, the conclusion at the end of that poem. At the end of “Questions About Angels,”I say the answer could be just one angel. That poem was written and created to discover the angel. I didn’t have her in mind when I started, but I found her through the writing of the poem. I think it’s an example of not knowing where you’re going. People say, “How do you know when a poem’s finished?” Well, when you find the angel,find what that poem was written to uncover. Everyone says,“Poems aren’t finished, they’re just abandoned,” but I don’t buy that. My poems are finished when they’re finished. Poets work hard on their endings.
JM: Do you ever find yourself chasing a poem down, just scared to death of where it’s going?
BC: No, the only fear would be that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. I don’t see it leading into—if this is the spirit of the question—dark psychic areas where angels fear to tread.
JM: There is a reason I’m asking, because it’s been my observation that the leading poets don’t exhibit fear; something sets you apart. You’re willing to go into places and lead us where we’re somewhat afraid to go. That’s maybe what makes some of this poetry meaningful to us and worth our interacting with it.
BC: The place I feel my poems going is some part of the imagination. Really, I don’t see these poems tunneling down into acts of personal excavation; not like psychoanalysis where you’re peeling yourself away and getting back to the time when your father criticized you. It seems like exploration to me because the imagination has so many dimensions, so many bits of slippage, and maneuvering, and metamorphosing that can take place.
ES: Since you’ve talked about poems taking us on a journey into the imagination, I’m thinking about Robert Frost’s “Directive.” I think that’s been such an influential poem for subsequent poets; you have a wonderful poem, Richard Wilbur does and Li-Young Lee. What is it about that poem that makes it so magical and powerful?
BC: I can’t think of a better example of a poet than Frost, who starts with something very ordinary and then six or ten lines later is dealing with very serious or ultimate questions. He’s got a very slippery gearbox; you don’t see gears being changed, but suddenly roads divide and he thinks he’ll go this way or that way. He ends up talking about the irreparable nature of decisions and fabricating the past. There’s no poet who so subtly expands an observation into a wider truth. In less capable hands, the truth would seem tacked on like a moral. Are you thinking about [my] poem called “Directions” also?
ES: Yes, were you thinking of Frost’s poems when you did that?
BC: No, to tell you the truth. My only conscious Frost poem is “Splitting Wood.” We have some wood in the back of the house and I tend to do that a lot. I wanted to write a poem about splitting wood, the physical pleasure of it. I thought to myself, Frost has done that, it’s so associated with Frost. It just irked me and I still wanted to write a poem about it; so I began the poem with the word “frost.” The first line of the poem is, “Frost covered this decades ago, and frost will cover it again tonight, the leafy disarray of these woods.”That was my way of nodding to him by using his name in the first line and saying, “Hey I’m trespassing, but I’m admitting it.”
HW: Can you talk about the architecture of putting together a new book, say Nine Horses or Sailing Around the Room? Do you see the poems as interconnected? How do you divide them into sections or order them within those sections?
BC: I thought I was the only one that does this, but I hear there are other people too. If I was ready to have a book [published], I would put all the poems on the floor, face up of course, in any order. I would walk around in my stocking feet for a while and try to find two poems that wanted to be together. It’s a little mystical if you will or supra-logical, because I’m not looking for poems about mice or death or the death of mice; I’m looking for two poems I’m not sure about but they seem to want to be next to each other. So, I’ll put those two together and look for other poems to fall into groups. I’ll think, You might want to be over with . . . no you’d be much happier with these guys.
Putting this Poetry 180 book together was interesting, because it starts with birth and ends with death. The first poem is a Sharon Olds poem about the first hour she was alive, before she was delivered to her mother. It ends with Lawrence Raab’s poem about what song he wants played at his funeral. In the middle there are poems about poetry and adolescence. There is a real architectural arc to the whole thing.
JM: I had a mental image of a domino game. Those start simple and there are any number of ways they can go, but there is an order. The Poetry 180 books . . . what was your process in picking the poems for them?
BC: I knew there were a number of poems about childhood, a poem about a sonogram, a poem about birth, and then to the grave, and see what happens in between. Going to Poets House [a literary center and poetry archive] in New York and grabbing things off the shelf got me looking at authors and anthologies. Of the 180 poems in the new book, I counted 38 that I’d never heard of. I like that because it demonstrated that I wasn’t going on name, Iwas going on poem. Plus, it’s nice to have a younger, lesserknown poet in a collection like that. The exposure is very good for poets.
ES: How do you hope your poems are taught in classrooms? How do you hope the likes of us are teaching you?
BC: I think the only way I would imagine them being taught would be to follow a method I use in teaching other people’s poetry, and that is to look at the poem as a set of verbal maneuvers: it starts with A and ends with Z. The question is how one gets from A to Z, and where are the points of development. When the poet says, “But,” this is a major turn or shift. How does what follows differ from what’s before? If you point out maneuvers, it gets them more interested than, “What does the poem mean?” or the awful question,“What’s the poet trying to say?” which implies that the poet has failed, “But here at Ritalin High School in literature 1-A we will explain what the poet was trying to say. Dylan Thomas tried, but we will make all this clear.”
HW: I really like your article about the pleasures of poetry, hearing you talk about the ones that haunt you, the ones that become companions to your heart.
BC: Anyone who reads a lot of poetry has a whole vocabulary of poems. There are poems that one can recite. There are poems that you can’t recite, but you know them in your heart; you could botch a recitation of them, but the effect they had on you is an internalizing, indwelling, rotating effect. One of the pleasures of teaching literature is that you keep returning to this file cabinet or rolodex of poems. There are a lot of companion poems that do what that implies, they provide some kind of company. Also, they provide a way of reading other poems. It’s very important that you read poems through the lenses of old poems you’ve read before. All the poetry you know is this rather complex lens through which you are reading and judging new poetry. That’s what high school students don’t have yet. They can’t see that as an added pleasure, when your little library of poems grows to such an extent.
HW: People sometimes describe you as something like a stand-up comedian. How did you develop that repartee style? Johnny Carson and David Frost were good with audiences, but they didn’t write like Robert Frost.
BC: Well I’ve taught for a long time and gotten very comfortable around audiences. To control a classroom, you need to be very alert and quick and to isolate certain students. You knowyou can be sarcastic to this one,while to be sarcastic to another might be injurious. To read the audience that way comes from having taught since the earth was cooling. As for the poems,when I write them I’m never laughing.Sometimes at the end I laugh because the poem seems so ridiculous, the place I’ve gotten to. I’m not reading them for anyone to laugh out loud. When I read a new poem to an audience, it’s surprising when they laugh and where they laugh. It does tell me something about the poem often I didn’t know.
HW: This morning you said fiction writers tell their story by looking into people’s windows and poets tell theirs by looking out. It sounds like you’re more like a fiction writer, because you’re looking through other people’s windows to know who you can be sarcastic with. You’re not just sitting there looking out.
BC: Again, I think that comes with being a teacher for so many years, having a sense of the audience. When I give readings I have maybe four poems I begin with, and I have three poems I can end with that just seem to work as bookends. The rest of it, I have poems to choose from. I’m judging the mood of the audience and I’m choosing the next poem. I’m trying to mix the mood of a reading so that it’s not too funny, not too serious, or that it’s disorientingly both.I go back and forth between those two poles so that no one is too comfortable thinking they’re here to laugh or to get serious.I’d like to think we’re here to do both.
HW: What have we not asked that you’d like us to ask?
BC: I like being asked about individual poems,because that’s where my attention is. Interview questions force one to see the whole process in ways you wouldn’t have thought of if not asked. There’s such a difference between artistic performance and composition and talking about it.
It’s [not easy] for me to talk about the future of American poetry. It’s easier to talk about a poem, because I can return to that state of mind I was in that led to the composition of it. I feel like I have more authority then than when talking about performance poetry.I often think the big questions seem irrelevant to the practice. An analogy would be if you saw some guy trout fishing, standing in a stream with waders on, and someone with a notebook waded out and asked him what he thought about the over-killing of Japanese tuna. He’s saying,“I’m just trying to catch a trout here.”The questions are often so expansive as to force the writer to leave his or her true area of authority which is the writing itself.
ES: My current favorite poem of yours is “While Eating a Pear.” You require the reader to imagine a time without language and a sort of un-mediated relationship with the world. Is that what poets really want to do?
BC: Well, that’s another form of travel. It’s chronological, but imaginative. This comes up in a number of my poems where I do pre-history; for example, a poem called “Weather.” Before human beings there was weather. It was rainy, sunny, there were clouds, but none of it was witnessed. It went on and on for hundreds of thousands of years, unreported, unobserved weather. It’s quite thrilling for me to imagine something like that.
HW: Your poem on the writing process, “Writing in the Afterlife,” I like to use it in a composition class. Even the students that might not ever frequent the English department door like that poem. They laugh in a way that they’re laughing at themselves and me.
BC: Yeah, that poem is a student’s nightmare: in the afterlife, we’ll still have to do these exercises, describe, use detail, use adjectives, express feelings. I like the line where he says that the next assignment would be to jot down your thoughts and feelings about being dead. “Not really an assignment, but think of it more as an exercise.” A lot of it is just “what if?” What if writing continued after death?
Someone said that the fact that you can imagine the weather the day after you die indicates that you have an imagination; other creatures don’t. You can imagine you die in Oklahoma City and it’s a little drizzly that morning. It’s the Wednesday after your Tuesday heart attack; you can actually conjure that up.
JM: We just know it will be windy.
BC: The winds come sweeping down the plains . . .
Edited by Harbour Winn and Carla Walker, Transcribed by Mark Pickens | Originally Published in Humanities Interview, Fall 2005