- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2008


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.”

A: That’s the oldest message poetry has delivered since Roman times. That’s the big lesson of poetry: mortality. The message of TV is that everything’s going to be OK. The lesson of modern fiction is that things are not going to be OK, and the lesson of poetry is that life is beautiful but you’re going to die.

Q: What does the U.S. poet laureate do?

A: You assume one of your duties is to encourage people to read more poetry, but I’m convinced that 83 percent of contemporary poetry isn’t really worth reading.

In addition to being dragged into the public eye and interviewed about poetry and like matters, I also found myself interviewed about the place of poetry in society, and the place of poetry in terrifying times. I did point out that in bad times people turn to poetry, they don’t turn to ballet or watercolors, they don’t say, ‘Our country is in crisis, let’s go to a movie.’

Q: How did becoming poet laureate affect your writing?

A: It just about put an end to it. I was interviewed to death, left and right, and asked to perform a lot of public functions, to move rather fully over to the left side of the brain, where poems don’t come from.

Q: The “Billy Collins” character you’ve created inside your poems, what is he like?

A: He’s unemployed, obviously; he must have some kind of trust fund, obviously. He has downshifted tremendously, he is moving 14 mph, while everyone is moving at 65. He has a slow take on things. One of his characteristics is his ability to modulate time and let it wash over him, not to spend it. I wish I were him. I made him up out of other literary characters. He is wonderfully irresponsible.

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