A Conversation with Billy Collins
By Robert Potts
You were a student of Robert Peters at the University of California, Riverside. How would you characterize his influence on a young Billy Collins? Was he a mentor?
He was a critical influence on me, a turning point in my study of poetry, because for the first time, I was taught poetry as poetry from a poet’s point of view. We would spend thirty minutes on fifteen lines of Tennyson. At first, I considered this a waste of time; I wanted hard information about “Tennyson and Victorianism,” “Tennyson and Darwin,” etc. so I could pass my qualifying examinations, damn it. But once I slowed down to his pace, I realized this was poetry from the inside, poetry as line, syllable, and ultimately, pleasure.
I’m reminded of Pound and Eliot, their pas de deux. How important is it for an emerging poet to enlist a mentor?
In regards to mentoring, i.e. having an influence on “aspiring” (a ridiculous word here) poets, all I can do is echo Auden, who said that the real teachers of poetry are not conducting workshops; they are waiting all night in the dark on the shelves of the library to be opened and read and imitated. No one learns to write poetry from talking about it around a seminar table, especially when the discussion centers around the mediocre poetry of the 19-year-old participants. One learns to write by writing, and then only if the writing is inflamed by jealousy caused by reading poets better than one will ever be.
Auden’s philosophy is not a strong argument for the perpetuation of creative writing programs, but it does have merit. What’s your take on the belief that writing cannot be taught?
Who said, ‘All writing is revenge”? If you believe that (and I do), then writing cannot be taught. If you think that writing is simply the deployment of a set of skills (and I do not), then I suppose instruction may be given to that end. But there are things a writing teacher can do besides “teach” writing. One is set a good example. That may mean showing up on time for class or never coming to class. It depends on what kind of example a writing student would benefit by, which brings us back to the blunt fact that what is good for one student may be disastrous for another. All kinds of advice may hit or miss, including the recommendation that the student stop writing permanently. Another is matching up student writers with the right books. This student may need to read Lowell now. Or it may be too late. Or too early. Since one learns to write poetry by reading poetry (not attending seminars), the most helpful role a teacher can play is literary matchmaker.
Stephen Dunn once said, “He doesn’t hide things from us,” a reference to how your poetry is generally considered more penetrable, more accessible than that of your peers. What do you see as the role of poetry in the advancement of literacy?
I appreciate Dunn’s comment. I think he too believes that it’s too easy to play games with a reader and have him down in the bushes looking for a painted egg. For all the claims of edginess one hears coming from the school of the opaque, the more apparent risk is run in being plain. Clarity makes the poet a sitting duck-but that’s not a bad role for a poet. Yet in the end, every poem is a mix of the clear and the mysterious. It’s just a matter of knowing when to be which-knowing what cards to turn over and what cards to leave facedown. Whether a poem (if it really is a poem) is written in opaque or transparent language, it will have a secret.
You ask about “the role of poetry in the advancement of literacy.” I would say it is similar to the role of space travel in the advancement of bicycle pedaling.
It’s easy to visualize where you are going with this analogy, but perhaps you would elaborate on poetry’s impact on an anamorphic world. Consider how the majority of Americans utilize their leisure time: social networking, googling, texting, online shopping, watching television, etc. Why are more people turning to poetry? Does it simplify the world, make it easier for them to understand?
Poetry is part of a larger “slow zone” where the pace of information becomes more leisurely and where words actually count. To enter it, as you do a museum or with a poem in front of you, is to feel more in control. The swirl of information is calmed. And you are provided with a kind of siding where you can pull off and remove yourself from the six-lane rush of daily life. Of course, there is a range of motives for reading it. One can read poems to feel more spiritually open or more emotionally empathetic. One can also read to see if there are any wise guys out there who have figured out how to write better than you can.
The motives for writing poetry vary too, of course. For many, poetry is just a more cultured version of Facebook, a place to tell people what you did today, how you made a sandwich and walked the dog, only in a poem you would have to see a bird or something on your walk to make it worth recording insofar as personal poetry holds us to a slightly higher standard than Facebook, which wants to reduce all experience to the same level of trivia. Another difference is that on Facebook you actually have a set of “friends” who are reading about the itch you have on your elbow; whereas with poetry, often nobody is listening, not now, not ever.
Your first book is out of print and hard to find. I wasn’t able to acquire a copy, but an Amazon reviewer had this to say about Pokerface: “Vivid, precise, and I want a word that means fantastically well-targeted use of words.” Obviously, your ability to dovetail language was there from the beginning; was that true of your humor as well or did it evolve over time?
My first book, Pokerface was a little special edition chapbook put together by a lovely couple with a hand-letterpress. I remember showing up at their house in Los Angeles and watching with amazement as he was running this huge Victorian-looking printing press, while his wife sat on the floor hand-stitching copies of my book together. They produced only a couple of hundred copies, which are very hard to find these days. And that is fortunate for me since I consider the poems late juvenilia. Most of them are very short and a little too clever for their own good. I had not yet learned to produce a more extended meditation and to bring more empathy into the poems. I learned both from Coleridge’s so-called “conversation poems.” The humor was always there, but it lacked spirit. Too wiseguy. I think what really happened psychologically is that I started off writing in the voice of my father (wise-cracking) and only later did I find a way to admit my mother (generous, empathetic). And I didn’t even need long sessions on the couch to figure that out.