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Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, is one of the headliners at the inaugural Missouri Literary Festival, October 2-4 at Hammons Field and the Creamery Arts Center. KSMU's Randy Stewart talked with Collins by phone a few weeks ago.
Billy Collins' mother memorized hundreds of poems as a child in Canada, and Billy as a child got to hear a lot of poetry around the house. "She was born in 1901--poor dear, had to live through most of the (20th) century! But she went to school in those days when memorization was a respectable approach to literature. Those days are, unfortunately, gone." She didn't exactly do dramatic recitations at home, but she "would come out with lines of poetry here and there," and for young Billy "it certainly made poetry seem like something that was part of everyday life and not a kind of specialized art." Not only that, Collins' father frequently brought home copies of Poetry Magazine for Billy. "Someone in his office (an insurance company on Wall Street) who had a philanthropic streak must've written a check to the Poetry Foundation," which meant that a copy of Poetry magazine arrived at the office regularly... not that anyone there would look at it! But Collins' father knew his high school-age son was interested in poetry and would bring the journal home to him. "And for the first time I heard voices of contemporary poets who were speaking in a way that sounded like actual talk--elevated talk--but they weren't the dead, white-bearded guys with three names from the 19th century that I was reading in the school room!"
Yes, just like many of us who have been led to feel that poetry is somehow "exotic" or difficult to "relate to," Billy Collins, once he reached high school and college, encountered "lots of forces of mystification." But he adds ruefully, "and I was probably one of them! I went to grad school and got a Ph.D. in English and began teaching. And, you know, English teachers tend to mystify things because they want to keep their jobs!"
When asked how we should go about trying to de-mystify poetry for students and the general public alike, Collins responds, "Well, I tend to write for the (printed) page--basically, I'm not writing for the podium. At the same time I think it's very important to say poetry out loud... the sound, the 'mouthability' of it, and the rhythm of it that you get when you (speak poetry aloud), all of those ingredients are really the critical things that distinguish poetry from prose." He continues, "I think poetry can be brought to people better through media like the radio, like billboards, like poetry on buses and trains." Or airliners--when Collins was U.S. Poet Laureate in the early 2000s, he got a "poetry channel" on Delta Airlines' audio service for a year or two. "So instead of listening to music (during your flight) you could listen to poetry." Collins is "all for poetry in unexpected places--not just contained in leather-bound books in your 'special' library, where you have to put on a smoking jacket to go in the place!"
As Poet Laureate of the United States there is a "very short checklist of obligations... but you do have a great number of oppportunities to create a national program of some kind... I wanted to bring contemporary poetry into high schools." Teachers, says Collins, have a hard time bringing a lot of contemporary poetry into their classrooms due to time constraints, testing constraints, and the fact that most textbook poetry anthologies "are kind of lagging behind." He cites William Carlos Williams' little poem about the red wheelbarrow, often presented as very "modern"--"but that poem's about 90 years old!" So Collins created a program called "Poetry 180." "I wanted to do two things: I wanted to expose students to a poem a day, to be read over the PA system or read in an assembly; and I wanted them not to have to respond to it. I just wanted them to hear it, and go their way" with no obligation to analyze, explicate or comment on the daily poem. "One reason people get nervous about poetry is that, when you hear a poem in school, you're going to have to analyze it, de-construct it or explicate it." Collins wanted kids to be able to hear a poem, and feel no obligation toward it--either enjoy it, or let it go over their heads or not appreciate it. "But every once in a while, I think if you heard 100 poems in a school year, a few of them would probably get you."
Billy Collins gets a huge kick out of writing poetry--a major endorphine rush. He attributes it to "the unknown. Like most poets I don't know where I'm going exactly (when starting to write a poem)--I don't have an ending in mind as I would have to if I were a mystery writer... it's kind of trusting the language and trusting your imagination, and kind of probing your way through this and discovering an unexpected, and really non-existent, place for the poem to end... one of the 'endorphine' pleasures is pushing into that unknown area and wondering what's around the corner."
Okay, so how DOES a boy grow up to be Poet Laureate of the United States? Collins chuckles at the thought: "Well, it's not something you decide in the 4th grade! You know, I've talked to a number of kids in high school, and often when someone appears who's a Poet Laureate or a Nobel Prize winner, the students--and this is the way I used to think when I was a kid--think you were just sort of BORN that way! You just kinda flew down, and there you were, the Poet Laureate. I try to tell them nobody sets out to achieve something like that. You just find something that you're interested in doing, and you just keep doing it. And if you do it well enough, or your curiosity is sustained, an honor might fall upon your head. But that's really not the point--the point is doing the work you love to do."
Considering that the Missouri Literary Festival is taking place in Springfield's minor-league baseball stadium Hammons Field, Billy Collins wondered if they'd have him running the bases when he gets here in October! Actually, he says he'll do "whatever people want me to do. Usually I'll give a reading with commentary, a reading from a number of books of mine, and try in between the poems to elucidate slightly how the poem got started, or how I tripped onto an ending, and just to provide a kind of x-ray of some of these poems."