Friday, June 20, 2014

Billy Collins, The Art of Poetry No. 83

The Paris Review interviewed Billy Collins for their Fall 2001 issue shortly after he had been awarded U.S. Poet Laurete. 

The big news, of course, is that Billy Collins has been appointed the new poet laureate by the Library of Congress, now the newest of a distinguished list that among others includes Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Pinsky, and most recently, Stanley Kunitz.

Collins’s credentials, despite starting a career as a poet at the late age of forty, are impressive indeed. His various wonderfully named collections of poetry includeVideo PoemsPokerfaceQuestions About AngelsThe Art of DrowningThe Apple That Astonished ParisTaking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes and Picnic, Lightning.Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems will be published this fall. His last three collections of poems have broken sales records for poetry. A well-known voice on National Public Radio, his public readings, perhaps better described as performances, are invariably put on before packed audiences.

His work is identified largely by its humor, which he speaks of as being “a door into the serious”—a comment echoed by John Updike’s sentiment: “Billy Collins writes lovely poems . . . limpid, gently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides.”

Collins lives in Somers, New York, a few miles from Katonah, which is about an hour’s ride on the commuter train from Grand Central Station. The Katonah station is unique in that it is set in the middle of town, so that one steps out of the train just a yard or so from the main street and the arts and crafts shops that line the far side. Collins’s home, a few miles away, is a renovated farmhouse that dates back to the 1860s. His wife, Diane, was away at work (she is an architect), but on hand was the family dog, Jeannine, a mixed breed collie named after a song popularized by Cannonball Adderly. Collins often breaks away from work to play Adderly-mode jazz on a piano in the living room.

Jeannine made it clear she wanted to be taken outside for exercise—which entailed running down a steep slope of lawn to retrieve a frazzled-looking frisbee, so indented with teeth marks as to resemble (as Collins put it) “the end of a worried writer’s pencil.” Jeannine finally seemed wearied enough to allow Collins to invite his guest back in the house for the interview.

In manner, Billy Collins is very much like what one would expect from reading his poems—quick to add a touch of humor to whatever he has to say, however serious the topic, but leaving no doubt that he is a very dedicated practitioner of his art. He teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York; one envies his students for their chance to study comparative literature from such a source. And yet there is nothing of the formal Ivory Tower mien about Collins: he is, for example, a passionate golfer, and what time he can take off from the lecture circuit (he is in considerable demand, giving over forty readings a year) and his teaching duties at Lehman, he spends touring the historic golf courses of the country with his golfing friend and literary agent, Chris Calhoun. Perhaps his informal side is best reflected by his given name: he was christened William after his father, thus Willy for a while, and then Billy, which he has kept as his nom de plume as much in reaction to the pretentiousness of those writers who use their initials, or one initial and a given name, as in W. James Collins, or whatever.

The interview took place in the small comfortable study of his home—shelves of books, a pair of paintings, one an abstract by Dan Christensen, the other a 1930s subway scene by George Tooker.

To read the full interview, click here. To listen to Billy Collins read two poems, via Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy, click here.

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