In the musty, overheated Academy of American Poetry, Billy Collins is the wiseguy in the back row, throwing spitballs and cracking up his friends. His poetry, both thoughtful and hilarious, takes the starch out of writing workshops, pompous scribes, poetry readings, professional sons of the Ould Sod, and the ceaseless comparing of thee to a summer’s day — all the trappings of mainstream verse that are so ripe for ridicule.
Yet Mr. Collins is about as mainstream as one can get. His collections are best-sellers (at least in the world of poetry), he appears on National Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion,” and he served as U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003. His readings are usually mobbed.
Mr. Collins is, in short, a member of that peculiar species: the popular poet. As such, he is the target of grim colleagues who call him a lightweight.
“I’m the bicyclist they all hate,” Mr. Collins said recently, “the guy with the yellow jacket.” His poems utilize the old bait-and-switch, enticing with humor, then leading to insight. He skillfully fuses image with language, as in “Paris,” when he writes of standing on a bridge “to watch the broad river undulating like a long-playing record under the needle of my eye.”
In a telephone interview from his Somers, N.Y., home, Mr. Collins spoke about the challenge of being named poet laureate immediately before Sept.11 and about how lingerie can save a poetry reading gone bad.
Q: What was your toughest audience?
A: On the anniversary of 9/11, I was asked to write a poem for the occasion. I did, and I read it before a joint session of Congress. I’ll say there were various levels of attention. You get the complete range. There were a couple of senators who were in a state of poetic rapture, or else they were asleep. They had their eyes closed.
Q: When you’re bombing at a poetry reading, which of your poems is a can’t-miss secret weapon?
A: “Victoria’s Secret,” which is just about women’s underwear. In college audiences everyone wakes up when they hear mention of lingerie.
Q: Writing and reciting: Do they require similar skills?
A: They are very opposed activities. The composition of poetry is extremely private, almost solipsistic, whereas the public readings are based on stimulation and you are either happily or unhappily dragged out of your den into the public life.
Q: Do you like doing the readings?
A: It’s an unnatural act, getting up in front of a crowd of people. It’s what a lot of nightmares are made of, whether your pants have fallen down or not. It’s like that Jerry Lee Lewis song, “I’m really nervous but it sure is fun.” I get nervous before a reading, but it’s a fun kind of nervous.
Q: Your message seems to be, “Life is short, stop and smell the roses.”View Entire Story
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