An interview with Billy Collins, who will be giving two readings in St. Petersburg on March, 12.
On the page and up on the stage, Billy Collins is friendly, funny, and highly accessible. And I just found out – he’s the same way on the phone. When I called him for this interview, the same likeable Billy answered the phone. As relaxed as he made me, we could have been in a smoky pool hall, shooting billiards, ordered cheese-steaks on the way. You won’t need a graduate degree in Medieval Renaissance to enjoy his work, and I feel confident that hearing him read his poems in person will leave you with a renewed love for the art of poetry.
Sandbox: There’s a real increase in the interest of poetry these days. Poetry groups, people writing, reading, slams, it’s so popular. What do you think has helped bring this on?
Collins: I can’t quite figure it out. Of course, there are so many magazines now, and the advent of blogs and on-line journals has created this cyber open-mike. Poets get together with other poets to be around like-minded people. This cult-like behavior is unique to poetry. Look, you go to a Broadway play and there may be 3 playwrights in the audience. At any of the large music festivals, yes, some musicians will be there, but not a large percentage of the crowd. But at a poetry festival like say, the Dodge Foundation’s gatherings in New Jersey, there could be 15,000 people, and 80-90% of them are poets. They want to be around it, around the possibilities. Mind you, it’s not poetry workshops we’re talking about, but readings and book signings. And they come because this is their world.
Billy was born in New York City in 1941, and spent many years teaching English at Lehman College in the Bronx. Mr. Collins was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, was the New York State Poet from 2004-2006, and is the Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute, Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
Sandbox: Since you seem to be everywhere these days, I assume you’ve stopped teaching. What is it about teaching you miss the most?
Collins: I don’t miss anything about it. Don’t get me wrong. Readings like these are a form of teaching, and I’ve always enjoyed talking with young people about poetry. Recently in Dallas I met and spoke with a wonderful group of students, it was a marvelous time, but when it was over I could recharge and move on. I could say perhaps I hung on to teaching a bit too long. It’s like when I’m at a restaurant, served at my table or at the counter, I can always tell which servers have been doing their jobs far too long, the ones who no longer have their heart in it. But I love what I do now.
I first encountered a Billy Collins poem in 2001 while delivering my St. Petersburg mail route. The wind flipped open a copy of The Atlantic to the page with Billy’s poem “The Iron Bridge,” and his words massaged my heart. This poet spoke in a language I wanted to emulate. Billy laughed and asked if I still worked for the post office. I told him I’ve since retired, and we talked of Faulkner, Bukowski, and other writers with postal connections. I heard him murmur titles for a future poem about a mailman under a tree.
Sandbox: You made a great point in your introduction to The Best Spiritual Writing – 2011, ed. by Philip Zaleski, about poetry and mindfulness, and if I may paraphrase, you said that to look closely and unselfishly is a way to create a place in spirit that can be revisited.
Collins: Yes, the editor, Philip Zaleski, that’s an interesting story. He called me one day and said he saw the spiritual side to a poem of mine and wanted to publish it, and I thought ‘well, if someone thinks it’s a spiritual poem, then it’s a spiritual poem’, and then he wanted more, and eventually he asked me to write that introduction.
Sandbox: So would you agree the attention paid to meter and sound is nothing without the quality a poet can bring to her work with the spirit of quiet observation?
Collins: Well, it’s both. There needs to be the aspect of careful craft to please the reader’s eyes and ears, of course, but without the presence of those poetic sensibilities, readers will know they’re just being bullshitted.
I gave Billy my one-question warning, letting him know our time on the phone was drawing to a close.
Sandbox: The band Lynyrd Skynyrd always heard screams for “Freebird,” their guitar-heavy trademark song. Is there a poem of yours often asked for, your “Freebird” poem?
Collins: That’s a great question. Have you ever been to Nashville? No? You ought to go. There’s such a plethora of musicians there, bars don’t have to pay bands to play. So they play for tips. I was in a bar there and the band playing had a sign over them that read Freebird – $100.00 (We both laughed). I’d say the poem that could be my “Freebird” poem is “The Lanyard.” As a poet yourself, you know this about writing poetry – you start simple and move to the bigger themes. The child, in his innocence, thinks this gift for his mother is enough to make them even.
He went on to quote Robert Hayden’s famous poem “Those Winter Sundays,” of the child unaware of love’s austere and lonely offices. Billy then talked for a while about the universal experience of a child at a table making a lanyard, any gift, for her mother. His ability to render life spot-on is a thing of wonder, in the book and in person. I smiled as I thought of how fortunate we are to have him coming to SPC on March 12 to spend time with us. And it was then I realized just how fortunate we all are to have Billy Collins at his desk, working on his poems – his gifts to us all.