Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Billy Collins, Distraction Tactics, and Your Must-Read of Today

One of my favorite comment buddies recently asked, in response to my last post and the lack of new writings since then, if I've given up posting for Lent.

Ha-ha...well-played. And No. (Or at least no, not intentionally.)

I've truthfully been bogged down with some new literary undertakings.

So I'm going to do what all writers desperate for deadline extensions do in their low moments: distract you.

Specifically, I'm going to distract you with this excellent, awesome and easily digestible interview THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ran this morning with the excellent, awesome and easily digestible former poet laureate Billy Collins.

Read on, especially for this quote: "I found that 83% of American poetry isn't worth reading. That's my figure. The other 17% is hard to live without."


Billy Collins enjoys something rare for a poet: name recognition. As his publisher gleefully notes, Mr. Collins's nine books together have sold more than 500,000 copies, and he served as the United States Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003.

In his latest collection, "Horoscopes for the Dead" (Random House), Mr. Collins continues his penchant for writing witty, companionable verse that's often rooted in everyday matters (shopping for mattresses inspires one new poem, "Hell"). "I want my poems to be accessible in that you can enter them in the beginning," said Mr. Collins, a native New Yorker who now lives in Westchester County. "But as the poem goes along, its desire is to move the reader into less clear areas."

With April marking National Poetry Month, the Journal recently spoke with the 70-year-old about his own work and why a chasm persists between poetry and mass culture.

When do you decide you have enough poems for a collection?
That's in the very back of my mind. One swings like Tarzan—from book to book, instead of from vine to vine. But as I'm writing an individual poem, a book is the last thing on my mind. I'm just trying to write a good poem. I send my poems to a friend, a younger poet named George Green, who grades them: A, B, C, D. After a couple of years, if I have 60 or so poems—if I have a lot of As and Bs—then it starts looking like a book.

What's the inspiration for the title poem of your new book?
My poems tend not to be terribly personal in the autobiographical sense. I assume strangers are about as interested in my personal life as I am in theirs—which is to say not very much. But a longtime friend of mine, Michael Shannon [the co-founder, with Mr. Collins, of the Mid-Atlantic Review], passed away a few years ago. Our birthdays were around the same time of the year. I sometimes read horoscopes. So after he died, I'd read my Aries and shift over to his Pisces. I like the title in that it conveys a hopeless optimism.

For someone who grew up in Queens, your poems don't feature much urban imagery.
It's not there at all. My persona is semi-rustic or suburban. I spend a lot of time in New York City, but there's too much going on and I want to create a vacuum where very little is going on and then a poem arises out of something very small happening.

Do you think your popularity is due to the accessibility of your work?
It's embarrassing to account for one's own popularity. "Miss Kentucky, why do you think you're so beautiful? Well, my nose for one thing is cute." I've been very fortunate in being connected to a wider audience through NPR. It's been extremely critical to what's happened to me.

Do you accept that poetry isn't part of mass culture, or do you fight that perception?
There's this chasm for a reason, and part of the blame lays on the poets who are creating poetry that is a) willfully obscure and calls on the reader to do a fruitless amount of work, and b) assumes an interest on the reader's part in the poet's personal suffering. I read poetry because I want to be linguistically pleasured. As Poet Laureate, I was asked to go out and beat the drum for poetry. I found that 83% of American poetry isn't worth reading. That's my figure. The other 17% is hard to live without.

This month's issue of Oprah magazine has poets modeling fashion. Have you ever done anything silly to promote your poetry?
I wrote a poem for the 40th anniversary of Golf magazine, for which I was paid a certain amount of money, negotiated by my agent, and given two Scotty Cameron putters—one for me and one for my agent. I'm not sure if you know anything about golf, but Scotty Cameron makes very good putters. There, you got that out of me.


  1. successfully distracted. good luck with the new undertakings!

  2. "I spend a lot of time in New York City, but there's too much going on and I want to create a vacuum where very little is going on and then a poem arises out of something very small happening."

    The same thing happens with art - for me. Too much going on within the urban landscape to provide much of an inspiration for me. I have to notice the little things...

  3. @Ian. You're welcome, dear. Hey, look, sparkly keys!

    @MrCachet Agreed on some levels...Walden's the best cliched example, as is any of the work coming out of cajun country or sleepy beach towns or mountains shacks. But I do find the chaos of a busy urban landscape has the ability to spotlight little things with more significance. If I'm noticing the tense way a silent couple's holding hands or one pang of some foreign emotion during my day or a napkin under a chair leg while binge-drinking Irish cider amid all the potential distractions, it's doubly satisfying and, ideally, for a reason.

  4. sparkly keys, even shimmering sparkly keys, don't sound as interesting as the list of little things...although, i am a fan of riding bikes.

  5. While pondering how the lives of poets affect or do not affect their poetry, it's also good to sometimes step back and study mundane things. Here's a vid on tips on what you can do for the nearing World Water Day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGxDAHkt4ok

  6. @Ian -- please submit list of most randomly interesting little things from your day. They'll be MY sparkly keys for the weekend.

  7. @Jane: Sadly, I cannot step back and study the mundane things in this video because I'm too busy being TERRIBLY DISTRACTED by the EXTREME tan-ness of its star. Did you know that melanoma starts as a little thing? (See what I did there? Full circle! YES!)

  8. I'd love to know who you cannot live without in your poetry collection.