Billy Collins: The People’s Poet
Billy Collins is one of the best-selling poets alive. Perhaps because his works effortlessly magnify the small details that make life worth living.
Billy Collins is a widely read poet, admired for his accessible and witty writing about everyday life. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006.
Born in 1941 in New York City, he earned a BA from the College of the Holy Cross, and a PhD in Romantic poetry from the University of California, Riverside. Collins began publishing his poems in the 1970s in Rolling Stone and for small presses. His fourth collection, Questions about Angels (1991), propelled him into the literary spotlight when it was selected for the 1990 National Poetry Series. By 2000 he was attracting mainstream attention unusual for a modern poet: his six-figure advance for switching publishers was front page news, and his 2001 anthology Sailing Alone Around the Room generated fervent media attention and brisk sales. In 2002, his poem commemorating the September 11 attacks was read in front of a joint session of Congress.
From 1971 to 2016, Collins was a professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York.
(Excerpt from Dear Reader):
You could be the man I held the door for
this morning, at the bank or post office,
or the one who wrapped my speckled fish.
You could be someone I passed on the street,
or the face behind the wheel of an oncoming car.
The sunlight flashes off your windshield
and when I look up into the small, posted mirror,
I watch you diminish, my echo, my twin-
and vanish around a curve in this whip
of a road we cannot help traveling together.
Billy Collins is America’s most popular, most widely-read poet, but each time he sits down to write, he’s not thinking of a big audience. He’s imagining a single friendly reader, also sitting comfortably in happy anticipation.
Billy Collins: I feel like each person is getting ready to be something, and I feel that I’m ready to be delighted. I’m not delighted all the time. That would be insane. But I’m ready to be delighted.
And there’s been much delight in his 78 years. Collins is a former U.S. Poet Laureate whose books sell in quantities that most other living poets would die for. Happily retired from teaching, he now lives in Florida with his long-time companion and fellow poet, Suzannah Gilman, whom he recently married. He still writes, but it’s clear that Billy Collins the person is not the same as Billy Collins, the poet.
Collins: Persona is like a filtered-down version of myself, and a lot of it is, a lot of it has to be kind of rinsed out before you get this kind of pure form of the persona who is, ah, really like Emerson says, a kind of transparent eyeball. He’s just an observing person, almost always in the present.
AJC: Okay, but then conversely…
AJC: I really think that writing is an act of love for strangers. You’re—you are giving of yourself to somebody you’ve never met.
Collins: Well, that’s very nice of you to say that. I think it’s more like, I, I think the poem is more like bait to get strangers to love you. It’s an act of seduction. And, reader manipulation.
AJC: You cynical, cynical man.
Collins: I know. Can we have both?
AJC: If you’ll take it, I’ll give you both.
Like the man himself, Collins’s work is candid and open, but at four years old, he was, he says, the world’s youngest phony. He would memorize books, hoping to trick his parents and their friends into thinking that he could already read. Only long after he actually learned to read did he realize what he’d lost.
(Excerpt from First Reader):
I could see them standing politely on the wide pages that I was still learning to turn. Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair, playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos of the backyard. Unaware they are the first characters, the boy and girl who begin fiction. Beyond the simple illustration of their neighborhood, other protagonists were waiting in a huddle.
Frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip, Nick Adams carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen. But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister, even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate, and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.
It was always Saturday, and he and she were always pointing at something and shouting ‘Look!’ Pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father as he pushed a hand-mower over the lawn. Waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway. Pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other. They wanted us to look, but we had looked already, seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman. We had seen the dog walked, watered and fed the animal, and now it was time to discover the infinite clicking permutations of the alphabet’s small and capital letters, alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks. We were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.
Collins was not just an early reader, but also an early writer. He penned his first poem at ten, peering out his parents’ car window at a sailboat on New York’s East River. In the front seat of the car that day were two people who would shape him in very different ways.
Collins: If you take the, the twin fonts of my parents and how they’re tributaries that lead to me, it’s part of my development as a poet, really feeds into that, because when I first was writing poetry, at least, I was writing, it was kind of quick, jokey, cynical. It’s, uh, wise guy kind of cynicism where the poem just kind of falls on itself and it, it has, it has a show-off-y click to it. That’s my father, ’cause he was full of one-liners and jokes and, quite cynical, and I think as I developed as a poet, I let my mother in, who was full of heart and, ah, joyous for life and much more capacious in her talking to me. I think, in a way, I’m kind of a combination of my parents.
Billy Collins remembers his mother as beautiful, resilient, and in her twenties, adventuresome. Born in rural Ontario, she disregarded her father’s wishes that she marry the local haberdasher. Instead, she headed for Toronto, earning a nursing degree, then began a nomadic existence, moving from hospital to hospital, city to city, throughout the United States. She ended up in New York, where she met Collins’s father, a stylish practical joker who came from a poor family in Massachusetts and had worked his way up the ranks of an insurance company. They were loving parents who both lived into their nineties, and in one poem, their only child brings them back to life.
Collins: So, this is, uh, this actually happened. At least the first part. No Time.
(Excerpt from No Time):
In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents lie buried
side by side under a smooth slab of granite.
Then, all day long I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval,
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.
Collins: And that is the two of them in a nutshell. He would be disapproving, and she would say, “It’s okay.”
AJC: Let it go. Let it go.
Collins: Let it go.
AJC: Live a little.
Collins: Leave the boy alone.
Resurrecting those who have passed is not typical for Collins. He prefers to focus on the here and now. Unlike his Catholic parents, he isn’t waiting for death to experience heaven.
Collins: I don’t believe in an afterlife.
Collins: I mean, when I use mortality, I mean mortality. I mean, that’s the end. I think if I can, you know, if I can imagine the Creator. I mean, we, this, again, this is all presumptuous guesswork, shooting in the dark, the Creator is saying, “Wait a minute. “I gave you all this, look around. “Look at the world you have, you want more? “You want to be immortal now? “No, I’m immortal. “You get this! “Dig it!”