It’s hard to resist Billy Collins—the laugh-loving former U.S. poet laureate (2001-2003) who’s penned or edited 15 books of poetry and been called the “most popular poet in America” by The New York Times. No surprise: His poems are as funny and poignant as they are accessible—even to a three-year-old, whose recitation of “Litany” was a YouTube sensation.
I was able to snag a few minutes of the poet’s time while he was in town last night to do a reading for Seattle Arts and Lectures.
What, in your opinion, is a poem?
I only know one airtight definition, and it’s Henry Taylor’s. He said: “A poem is an arrangement of lines whose length is determined by some principle other than the width of the page.” … Every time you stop the line before you get to the end of the page, you’re turning a reader’s attention back into the poem…. Poets are line-making creatures. Kenneth Burke says: “Poetry is the dancing of an attitude.” All of these definitions are engaging, but basically you’re making lines.
What is your writing process like?
I don’t have any work habits exactly. I don’t have a time to write; I write very much on the run, and kind of spasmodically whenever it happens. But when it does happen I do write almost all the poems in one sitting, whether that’s 10 minutes or all day. I need to know where this thing is going as soon as the poem starts. The only reason I continue to write the poem is because it exhibits a desire to go somewhere—it seems to have momentum. I’m not going to get up until I get there. I’m not going to go out and get a pizza or something. It’s game on. I’m in it.
What would you do if you weren’t a poet?
Maybe open a frame shop in town. It could be closed on Wednesdays and open at 10 or 10:30. I always thought opening a frame shop would be interesting…or just something to do that wouldn’t be obsessive. I always wanted to work on the tarmac of an airport, too. I’d want to be outside in Hawaii where the weather was pretty nice, or maybe San Diego. Whether it would be baggage or directing, all that busyness and airplanes, I guess that’s kind of a 9-year-old’s career choice. But whenever I land and I’m looking out the window at those guys I think, That’s kind of a fun thing to do. Maybe I’m romanticizing that. It seems like with all their technology those people would have been replaced, but they’re still there.
Have you noticed a decline in appreciation for poetry?
I think quite the contrary. I think poetry’s expanding, becoming a little more central to culture. I think people are gradually, through the efforts of certain poets who are writing beautiful and engaging poetry, getting over their poetry phobia. I’m not optimistic about anything, but my philosophy in life, if I have one, is summed up by this Turkish proverb: “When the axe goes into the forest, all the trees think, At least the handle is one of us.” It’s sort of a hopeless optimism. But poetry’s fine. Poetry will outlive television.