A Conversation with Billy Collins

by Anthony Borruso

Billy Collins was the poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, during which time he created the Poetry 180 program to bring contemporary poetry into high school classrooms. He has written fifteen collections of poetry, his most recent being The Rain in Portugal. Collins came to Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series in the spring of 2018. He chatted with Booth about his poetic predecessors, the power of music and metaphor, and why he thinks our political leaders should spend time gardening.  

Anthony Borruso: During your reading here, you said that as a young man you were under the impression that a poet has to be a miserable and tortured soul. When did you realize that poetry could be funny?
 
Billy Collins: It wasn’t something I realized by myself. Like most information that a poet gets about poetry, I got it from other poets. There were a number of poets I was reading at the time: Philip Larkin, James Wright, James Dickey. And then there was a group of Southern California poets like Ron Koertge.
 
AB: Wright and Dickey are pretty serious.
 
BC: Oh, yeah, more serious than not. But there are flashes of humor. Dickey has a poem called “Falling,” which is based on the true story of a stewardess being sucked out of an airplane and dying, of course. He imagines her being conscious as she plummets to the ground—her skirt is described as being like a bat wing. He calls her “the greatest thing to ever hit Nebraska.”
 
But then we also have the New York School: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara. I was reading them a lot in my thirties, and they are all issuing unmistakable permission slips to use humor. Each poet has his own balance of seriousness and levity. Koertge is pretty far out on the levity end of the scale, and Dickey is on the serious end. But they’re all closer to humor than poets had been before.
 
AB: I’ve seen you lumped in with the New York School poets. Is that a style you identify with?
 
BC: Well, to some degree. But I don’t think anyone wants to be in a school. It’s not like they all get together and formulate a group.
 
AB: I guess that could feel reductive.
 
BC: Yes, you don’t want to be put in a category. David Lehman wrote a book called The Last Avant-Garde about the New York poets. He disclaims the school in the beginning, but then he goes on to show a commonality—irony, essentially—that constitutes the general tone of the New York School. With a poet like Ashbery, there is a sense that you are always on the edge of laughter. Nothing is plain and serious unless it arises by mistake, or unexpectedly.
 
AB: When you’re reading your work, you have an impeccable sense of timing. You seem to know just how long to linger on a funny line or a poignant image. Is this an innate talent or something you’ve consciously worked on?
 
BC: I think it’s god-given [laughs].
 
AB: You’re the Michael Jordan of poem reading?
 
BC: You have to put “laughing” in parentheses; otherwise readers will think I’m crazy. The rhythm that you hear when I’m reading is the rhythm that I have invested in the poem, or placed in the poem as I was writing it. You write with the ear to create sound. Writing with the foot—tapping it, so to speak—is another way of saying that I am always trying to get the cadence right. And it’s not just because I might have to read the poem in public. The pauses are there in the poem, like a musical score, telling you when to rest. So it doesn’t take any work.
 
When I’m leading a workshop, I deal with the formal parts of a poem much more than the content. I’ll point out a line or two that seem a bit flat-footed and say, “If you move the adverb a little closer to the verb, it would have this tripping cadence, and then you could end with an iamb.” Some students see that and say, “Wow, that sounds much better,” while others don’t. It’s like telling jokes. It requires timing. People who are bad at telling jokes usually don’t have a great sense of rhythm. And it’s important to remember that we are practicing an art that began in music. We don’t want to completely lose touch with those musical origins.
 
AB: That’s true. And music is what makes it memorable, right?
 
BC: Sure, and the origins of poetry were probably just having a way to memorize stuff.
 
AB: Do you think this is why so many musicians show up in your poems?
 
BC: That’s a good question. I think there is some overlap there. I listen to a lot of music.
 
AB: When you write about music, sometimes instruments are transformed into animals: a piano becomes a “curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile,” and a saxophone hangs from a musician’s neck like “a golden fish.” These instruments take on a life of their own, becoming autonomous from the person playing them. Does this connect to the experience of writing poetry?
 
BC: It is animating them in a way, but it might have more to do with the metaphor and creating something fresh. When you read the poets of the past, you sometimes find a place for yourself in that work, even if it requires an ironic take. We take the topics of the older poets—love and death—just as seriously. But we cannot use the same language, like a Shakespearean sonnet. One reason to read is to find out what metaphors have been used up and what dots have already been connected. And there are bad metaphors: Some dots were not meant to be connected. If you say you’re alone in the woods like Robert Frost and the snow is falling “like confetti,” you’ve yanked us out of the poem totally—now we’re at a parade or wedding. It might seem clever to the poet, but we’re not in the woods anymore. The theme is ruined.
 
AB: That reminds me of a quote by Reverdy: “The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality . . .” So the metaphor must be surprising, but also still true or appropriate.
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BC: Yes, that’s true. And that might be what’s happening with the saxophone and the golden fish.
 
AB: Those are very strange and effective ones. What I was trying to say with my initial question is that the metaphor seems to take control of the writer at a certain point—like the poem is telling you, “I want to be about this!”
 
BC: You can employ a single metaphor, and if you get interested in it, it takes over. Then the rest of the poem, or a good part of the poem, engages this metaphor and works out different parts of it. You have what the critics will call an extended metaphor, and you’ll find this in Milton and Pope and Wordsworth, just working out a metaphor over many lines. But what you said is very important in poetry—you’ll find that a poem can take an interest in itself, or some aspect of itself, and that aspect will take over the poem. It grows out of proportion and escapes the original intention, so that the poem really becomes about the discovery and expansion of one metaphor. 
 
AB: You’ve written a lot of ars poetica—poems that take on the idea of poetry as a central subject. Do you think that idea of finding and expanding the correct metaphor is why you write so many of them, so that you can enact that discovery on the page?
 
BC: I suppose so, and I think it’s also just my personal self-consciousness about being a poet and never wanting to swan into an auditorium with my cape. I’m always a little self-conscious about the serious-sounding high diction that people normally associate with poetry. I’m always trying to undercut that a little bit. 
 
AB: That reminds me of your collection Picnic, Lightning, which opens with an epigraph by Yeats: “A poet . . . never speaks directly, / as to someone at the breakfast table.”
 
BC: Yes, I’m undercutting Yeats’ seriousness there. I was working on a poem yesterday that had an epigraph from the poet Christopher Morley: “No man is lonely while eating spaghetti.” Sometimes you discover a sentence like that and say, “I’m gonna put that on the top of a poem and see what happens.” Sometimes the epigraph is not just some cute afterthought but the reason why the poem started.
 
AB: There is a lot of absence in your poems. I’m thinking of your imaginary sister in “Only Child” and the dead dog persona in “The Revenant.” Why write about what’s not there rather than what is?
 
BC: I think it’s one thing to see what’s there. I try to encourage students to write about what’s in front of them. But, at the same time, if that’s the only place we’re able to go, we might as well just take a photograph. The imagination is supposed to, at some point, go to work on what’s right there and move to a place where I have an imaginary reaction. I can say, I never wished for a sibling until my parents were ancient, and then I wanted a sister called Mary.
 
AB: Many of your poems take place in the domestic sphere. Why do you think they are such homebodies?
 
BC: We’re all experts on the familiar, domestic objects that we live with nearly every day. We know the paintings on the wall or whatever kind of decorative evidence of ourselves we put there. For me it’s just a good place to start. The conversation poems by Coleridge were very influential for me because they all start at home: he’s in his study with the fire going at night, or he’s in his backyard under a lime tree, or he’s looking at windows that have frosted over, and the poems always move into wide realms of intellectual, even religious speculation. I took those as a model for a lot of my poems. Now it’s become kind of reflexive starting a poem. As an only child, I always played games on the floor of my bedroom, which was a very familiar place for me—this place of play. Adorno, or one of those thinkers, talks about defamiliarization, that you should defamiliarize the reader. I usually move the reader from someplace familiar to someplace unfamiliar.
 
AB: Yes, and I guess that’s why it makes sense that you usually leave “the trigger” in your poems— that is, whatever object or experience seems to have inspired them.
 
BC: That’s a great way to get the reader on board, so the reader doesn’t think the first line just occurred to you while you were standing on a rooftop yelling at the neighbors. Starting with the composition situation seems to me a good place to start. The thing is, you have to go somewhere; you can’t just stay there describing your cabinet or the flowers on your desk.
 
AB: What do you think about poetry’s place in considering important historical moments—those that are surprising, or tragic, or extraordinary. Florida poet Peter Meinke has said, “Everyone recognizes that at crucial times prose just doesn’t cut it. When we fall in love, when we get married, or have a baby, when somebody dies, prose doesn’t do it. We need poetry at these times.” Do you agree?
 
BC: I agree that poetry picks up where prose leaves off. Apart from highly experimental novels, fiction has certain restrictions that the poet breaks free of, and that’s where it seems to take over. Probably we turn to poems in times of crisis, anxiety, and uncertainty because they convey a comforting sense of stability. The poems people traditionally turned to were formal poems stabilized by rhyme and meter. Those two levels of stability made poetry something you could lean on—it was dependable, it was repeatable—whereas prose just goes on and on and on. You have to read maybe forty pages of Emerson before you find a quote that would be helpful at this wedding or this funeral. But the poem is right there, naked on the page, waiting for you.  
 
AB: Do you think this current political time is one where poetry seems more important?
 
BC: Politically speaking, I think some people in the arts community are starting to feel the effects of these budget cuts, and it might get a lot worse. The NEA and smaller communities that depend on grants might be in trouble. Trump has so much on his plate, I don’t even know if he’s capable of keeping all those balls in the air at once—certainly not in the situation he’s now in, where he wants to break one nuclear deal and make another one. I hope he’s so preoccupied with those things he doesn’t put the arts in his sights.
 
AB: At your reading you suggested that Trump take up gardening. I was wondering how you thought that would help him.
 
BC: Well, it’s just funny thinking about him gardening at Mar-a-Lago or the White House. Also, gardening informs you on those most basic things—life and death, the seasons—and it rewards you with blossoms and vegetables. Just getting your hands in the soil is nice. It’s one of the things most rich people don’t do, like raking leaves or splitting wood. There are so many good physical activities that wealthy people don’t do because they have other people do it for them. Shouldn’t we see that as a form of impoverishment?
 
AB: That makes me think of the physical and sensual pleasures of cooking that we see in “Osso Bucco” and “Clam Ode.” Are you big into cooking?
 
BC: I don’t do most of the cooking at home, but I do like to cook sometimes. I think that’s the same pleasure—another thing rich people don’t tend to do. William Matthews said, “Happiness begins with an onion.” So much of cooking, and particularly Italian cooking, begins with some olive oil in a pan, then you chop up onions and throw them in, and then the whole house smells good . . . like, “Hey, what’s for dinner?” That pleasant smell fills you with anticipation. Things like cooking and gardening are good to learn, to some extent.
 
AB: Yeah, it seems to me a gardener would be less likely to hit the nuclear button.
 
BC: There should be a rule: Before you hit the button, you have to garden for three hours and think about it. Or shoot baskets or something.
 
AB: That’s a good idea! To finish up, I was wondering, since you’ve written so many collections, how do your concerns change from one to the next . . . that is, if they change at all?
 
BC: I’m not the best person to ask because I see more similarities than differences. Like most poets, I’m stuck with the same two or three messages, like carpe diem or being a spokesman for being grateful or kind. At the same time, I think of each poem as a new beginning. You know, I write about actual subjects. Once my poems have subjects they’re not just watercolors trying to create some movie. My problem, having written like a dozen collections, is running out of topics, running out of subject matter. Once you write a poem about looking at a match, you have to cross that out like you would cross out a clue in a crossword puzzle. There are very similar veins running through my poems, and the tone of the poems seems to be consistently playful and ironic, shifting into the serious at some points. You have to just be careful not to imitate yourself. You learn a lot about poetry by imitating other poets, but you try not to get to the point where there’s no one else to imitate but yourself.
 
AB: Yes, and even in your newest book, The Rain in Portugal, I still get the sense that you’re surprising yourself. For example, in your poem “Greece” there is a moment when the speaker writes, “Is not poetry a megaphone / held up to the whispering lips of death?” It feels like a moment of true discovery.
 
BC: Well, it was such a discovery that I then just threw myself in the ocean with a shout.
 
AB: And that’s that carpe diem theme again, but it feels fresh in that moment.
 
BC: Thank you. After I wrote that megaphone line, I didn’t want to end on this big pronouncement, so I said, “Well, I’d better just go for a swim!”

Anthony Borruso has an MFA in creative writing from Butler University and has been a reader for Booth. Currently, he teaches composition at Butler University and Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.