Title: Billy Collins: Mischievous Laureate Author(s): Billy Collins and Laura Secor Publication Details: Mother Jones

27.2 (March-April 2002): p84-85. Source: Poetry Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 68. Detroit: Gale, 2006. From Literature Resource Center. Document Type: Critical essay Bookmark: Bookmark this Document Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning [(interview date March-April 2002) In the following interview, Collins explains how the reception of his poetry by readers differs from that by critics.] Billy Collins writes poems that make people laugh and that have reached hundreds of thousands of readers. It's a feat that should disqualify him from membership in poetry's inner circles, where high seriousness and insularity often go hand in hand. What to do with someone who uses titles like "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles"? Someone who writes poem after poem confessing to a life spent sipping tea, observing his dog, and writing poems about writing poems? Why, make him poet laureate, of course, as the Library of Congress did last fall. But when the 60-year-old Collins assumed the post, he found himself the subject of both adulation and controversy. Lambasted by critics for his seemingly mundane subject matter, Collins has also been called America's first truly popular poet since Robert Frost. And that was before September 11. Americans have since rediscovered an appetite for poetry and Collins' new collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room, has practically sailed off bookstore shelves. Irreverent and playful--"I used to sit in the café of existentialism ... / contemplating the suicide a tiny Frenchman / might commit by leaping from the rim of my brandy glass"--Collins wants to change the way Americans first encounter poetry. His high-school program, Poetry 180, will have students nationwide reading a poem of Collins' choosing each day of the school year--on the condition that the students not have to analyze them. The first is Collins' own "Introduction to Poetry," in which a professor laments that all his students seem to want to do is torture a confession out of a poem, to beat it "with a hose / to find out what it really means." Mother Jones spoke with Collins from his home outside of New York City. [Mother Jones]: What is the job of the poet laureate?

[Billy Collins]: Well, there is always a temptation just to go to Washington and sit in this office and blow smoke rings for a year while I look out at the Capitol. But because of the excessive activism of my predecessors, it seems that an obligation falls my way to get out and light poetry bonfires and to spread the word of poetry. And so I'm doing that through this program for poetry in the high schools. I've described it as a kind of poetry jukebox that we're building from scratch. Eventually there will be 180 tunes on the jukebox. The poems have to be short, clear, and clean. I don't want to give a reactionary administrator an excuse to kill the program because he sees the word breast in a poem. But there are lots of good poems out there without breasts in them, or other body parts, or things like that going on. Your poet laureateship comes at an extraordinary time. You're telling me. How has that affected what you do? My poetry was never written for a nation in crisis, obviously, if you've read any. But my poems and lots of people's poems are unintentional responses to terrorism, in that they honor life. Poems are a preservative for experience, and there would be no reason to preserve experience if one did not feel that there's something special and even sacred about it. So in that sense I would say that any good poem is a sort of anti-death poem, an anti-terrorism poem. Terrorism goes beyond articulation, and it is committed out of a sense of the absolute. Poetry is very much a statement against absolutism. Poetry is a home for ambiguity. It is one of the few places where ambiguity is honored. After September 11, were there poets you turned to? It would be poets like Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Pablo Neruda, William Butler Yeats. The interesting thing about them is that none of them were American. One thing these poets have in common is that they have lived through times when there has been rubble in the streets and soldiers tramping through one's garden. That hasn't happened in America. Do you think September 11 will change the shape of American poetry? That's one of those big, lofty, visionary questions. And to all those questions I give a resounding "I don't have a clue." [Laughs.] But in a way, I hope not. I don't think poets should feel an obligation to respond to the event in a literal way. Have you seen any good poems that do literally address what happened? No. I've seen a lot of bad ones. Poetry doesn't do very well when it tries to express collective feeling. It does much better at expressing individual feeling. That's why most of those poems fail. Richard Hugo's great counsel to poets was, Never write a poem about something that wants

to have a poem written about it. When subject matter is crying out to you, that's usually exactly what to avoid. You're an advocate for the return of humor to poetry. I laughed aloud reading your poem about shoveling snow with Buddha. He's shoveling away within "the generous pocket of his silence." But eventually Buddha speaks, and there's this moment of anticipation where you break the stanza--but what he says is, "After this, can we go inside and play cards?" Well, Buddha wouldn't say anything lofty! That's a poem that has humor in it, but I think it may be a representative poem because it's not entirely funny. The perfect poem for me to write would be a poem in which the reader couldn't tell at any point whether the poem was serious or humorous. I guess that's just called irony. What I'm doing by aiming at that balancing act is avoiding two character flaws: One is sentimentality, and the other is sarcasm. Poetry for me is a kind of therapeutic attempt to find a balancing point between those two weaknesses. Is Robert Frost a major influence? I think Frost would probably roll over in his grave if he knew I was poet laureate, because I'm not a rhymer, and I've been playing pingpong without a net for most of my writing life--not even tennis! But Frost offers many, many values worth imitating. One of them is clarity, and another is a very intense ambiguity. He begins very clearly and he ends very often in mystery. He starts with something simple, like, Here are two roads--which one should I go down? A dozen lines later, we're talking about fate, the impossibility of decisiveness, the future, how do we know the past, do we invent the past? Like my dog just now, running into a swamp after a squirrel, we step off a ledge into these very large questions. Has anything about the reception of your new book surprised you? Two things. First is the mind-blowing number of books sold. It's been three months and 65,000 copies in print. And that's totally off the charts for poetry. The second thing would be the hostility of the critical reception. So it seems you can't have it both ways. Why do you think that is? Well, I would like to say it's just the green element, you know--there's some envy involved. Once you become popular as a poet, or as anything, you're a sitting duck. But you know, there's a great deal of fretting about how poetry is neglected. And most of the people who do that kind of fretting are really fretting about the fact that their own poetry is neglected. And there's usually a very good reason for that, and it's almost entirely their fault. [Laughs.] The solitude of writing poetry is such a part of the process, and yet, now, when you give a reading, sometimes you're standing in front of 500 people.

I write the poems, you're quite right, in solitude. Melville called it the mood for composition--a slow, grass-growing state of mind when you're alone and you have time to think about things like, What would it be like to shovel snow with Buddha? [Laughs.] I'm always thinking that a poem will be taken in by someone sitting in a room alone. And I am speaking to them quietly. To find that the one person that you've been whispering these poems to has somehow multiplied into 700 people is kind of shocking. And then you have to scramble a little bit more for the solitude. Take now, for example. Right now I could be writing a lovely poem. [Laughs.] Source Citation Collins, Billy, and Laura Secor. "Billy Collins: Mischievous Laureate." Mother Jones 27.2 (Mar.-Apr. 2002): 84-85. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 68. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Apr. 2010. Document URL http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CH1420068162&v=2.1&u=phoe84216&it=r&p= LitRC&sw=w

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