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New York City

Poet Laureate Billy Collins: Lehman College
By Ari McKenna

Billy Collins was recently elected the Library of Congress’s eleventh Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. “Billy Collins’ poetry is widely accessible. He writes in an original way about all manners of ordinary things and situations with both humor and a surprising contemplative twist,” says James Billington, the Librarian of Congress.

Collins accessibility has made him a popular and successful poet, rarely described in his profession as “making money on the job”. Collins has published six books of poetry in a relatively short career and has also put out a number of compact discs.

He has received The National Endowment from the Arts and the Guggenheim Fellowships, and in 1992 was named the New York Public Library “Literary Lion.” He presently teaches at Lehman College.

We recently caught up with the busy Professor Collins for an email interview.


How do you feel about your recent appointment as the Poet Laureate of the United States?

“Be careful what you wish for” is an adage so familiar, there is no need to finish it, but the laureateship is something I never even fantasized about, and I have a rich fantasy life. So it came as a complete surprise. I am still not used to it, but I am excited about the opportunities it offers.”


What are some of your priorities as Laureate?

“Every Laureate seems to reinvent the job. Right now, I have one initiative, which I am putting all my efforts into. The project is called POETRY 180, a poem a day for American high schools. The 180 stands for the roughly 180 days of the school year and, of course, it implies a turning around. I am in the process of selecting 180 poems that should appear on the Library of Congress web site <www.loc.gov> by January 1. I am encouraging high schools to have one poem read each day to the whole school as part of the daily public announcements. I am also discouraging teachers from discussing or analyzing the poems in class. I just want students across the country to hear a poem every day so that they will think of poetry as a feature of daily life in addition to being a subject matter to be studied.”


Who are your favorite poets from the past as well as among your contemporaries?

“There is no such thing as a completely original poem because every poem is a version of a number of past poems. I have probably been influenced by everything I have read, for better or worse. Not to mention everything I have seen. I would consider Warner Brothers cartoons a serious influence on my imagination. Not to mention Mother Goose and Jack Kerouac. Probably my most direct literary influence is Coleridge; at least I have tried to model some of my longer meditative poems on his so-called conversation poems. The one poem I would take with me into isolation would be his “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” a beautifully improvised meditation on friendship and nature.”

What classes have you most enjoyed teaching at Lehman College?

“I teach literature classes and creative writing classes. And I have taught basic composition for 30 years largely because almost every English teacher in the City University teaches it. I think it’s possible to teach someone to read poetry better, but much less possible to teach them to write better poetry. A number of vital abilities are completely impossible to teach: namely, rhythm and metaphor.”

What is your favorite part of writing poetry?

“The most exciting part of writing a poem is discovering its destination, actually arriving at it. I am like most poets who are ignorant of the poem’s ending. The poem, from the poet’s point of view, might be seen as simply a means of getting to its end. In that sense, the poem is a vehicle which runs along the tracks of the language that the poet lays down, line by line. That is probably the reason why the poem, once finished, holds absolutely no interest for me. When you arrive at your destination, you lose interest in the bus that brought you there.”


What was your gauge on your poetry before being appointed Laureate? How has it changed?

“The only way the laureateship has affected my poetry is that it leaves me much less time to write it. It also fills with activities those spaces of free time which are conducive to thinking poetry thoughts, those slow, grass-growing times. Instead, I have to spend a lot of my time, not doing poetry, but doing poetry-related things. Like answering interview questions!”

Ari McKenna is an editorial intern from the New School.


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