Curing poetry phobia; Collins to speak at UVM Oct. 2
By STEVEN M. PAPPAS
Staff Writer | September 16,2013
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is shown at a reading.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins will speak about his work Oct. 2 in a Vermont Humanities Council event at Burlington’s Ira Allen Chapel. “An Evening with Billy Collins” starts at 7 p.m.
The talk and reading marks Collins’ appearance on behalf of Vermont Reads, the council’s statewide one-book community reading program. Collins is editor of “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry,” a poem-a-day anthology and the council’s 2013 Vermont Reads selection.
Vermont Reads is a statewide, one-book community reading program that began in 2003. Each year, scores of Vermont towns — and thousands of people — take part. Nearly 80 communities are taking part this year, said the council’s executive director Peter Gilbert.
“This is an honor for us,” Gilbert said. “What he has done in his career is change a mindset.”
Collins is the author of several collections and recently took over “Writer’s Almanac” for Garrison Keillor on National Public Radio. He followed up “Poetry 180” with “More Poetry 180.”
Gilbert and others say Collins has become one of “America’s great ambassadors of poetry.”
Recently, I caught up with Collins to discuss his upcoming visit and to have him share his insights into the poetry world. What follows is our edited interview:
Steven Pappas: What are your thoughts on the Vermont Humanities Council choosing your book for Vermont Reads 2013, and the fact it is being so well received?
Billy Collins: I think it is quite heartening and amazing. I know in cities across America, and in states — as is the case with Vermont — there have been communal read programs. The choosing of these books, the deliberations for these books can be quite long and contentious. Usually, the book is a book of fiction, in most cases. I think that’s true of book clubs also. But I am hearing these days that poetry has crept into the circles of discussions. I find it quite progressive of Vermont to put away what I think is the “poetry phobia” that many people have and embrace this anthology as something the entire state could pick up on. I take it optimistically that it’s an indication that poetry is moving — slowly but surely — from the margins of culture, closer to the center, closer to a wider circle of acceptability. I think it’s great. I was stunned, really. I couldn’t quite believe that decision had been made. And I am proud. What better state to decide poetry’s importance than Vermont?
SP: How did Poetry 180 come about?
BC: I started Poetry 180 when I was poet laureate as an online phenomenon. It was this website attached to the Library of Congress website. I thought if I put up poems and I suggested that they be read every day in high schools, I have made my contribution to American culture and I could get on with my life. I didn’t foresee two things: First, that Random House would want to create two anthologies beyond that website; and, second, that teachers by the hundreds over a period of years would tell me that they are not only enjoying the Poetry 180 program, but that it works in the classroom. Students who sat there with no interest in poetry brightened up or laughed or responded emotionally to one of the poems. It broke the poetry ice, the “frozen sea within,” as Kafka calls it. That has been very gratifying because I know poetry is a hard sell to adolescents. The anthologies have allowed a lot of teachers to make headway with their students; that’s clearly the most gratifying and unexpected part of the program for me.
SP: By choosing the poems in these anthologies, and your success, you should get credit for bringing poetry back to the masses.
BC: I’d accept that. I have said that whatever high-sounding motives and ambitions you can ascribe to the Poetry 180 program, basically, these are poems that I like. It really came down to finding poems I really enjoyed. I suppose there’s something in the voice of my poems that I find kinship in the poems I selected. The basic criteria is: I put poems in these books that made me feel I was being spoken to by the poet. For every poem that made the anthologies, there were 30 or 40 that did not. I did not feel I was being talked to; I didn’t find a human voice that connected to me as a listener. Whenever I am writing, I am always conscious of talking in some way, talking to another human.
SP: What do you see as the big next step in poetry?
BC: If, in the classroom, you can hook the students by giving them interesting contemporary poems, the next step is to lead them, gently, into the past to show them that these poems would not have existed if it had not been for the poems of 50 years ago, and beyond. In that way, poetry can be taught chronologically backwards. If it’s done well, and the interest is maintained, before you know it, they are reading Shakespeare’s sonnets.
SP: How has the digital age helped poetry?
BC: There is more of it out there, more of it being self-published. But there is a downside. Digital configuration of poetry is difficult because unless the screen is big enough and the typeface is the right size, the shape of the poem can be completely distorted. If prose is like water, in that it will take the shape of any vessel you pour it into, poetry is more like sculpture — it has a body and an outline, a shape and a form that the poet gives it as it is being written. To poets, that’s extremely important, and it is part of the craft of the poem. I really don’t know what there is to do about that. We actually put a warning at the start of my ebooks, telling readers that the look of the poem could be distorted.
SP: Do you think there is a demographic that responds more to poetry more than others?
BC: I think there are two demographics. I think there are a lot of people who are returning to poetry after a long absence. They had any interest in poetry beaten out of them in school by maybe a combination of poor teaching and a poor choice of poems. Many people seem to be coming back, feeling a sense of some sort of deprivation. Poetry 180 was started for high-schoolers, but it really has become a tool for people who might want to find their way back to poetry, and also to bring them up to speed. The other demographic is young people interested in performance poetry or poetry slams or recitation. Adding that competitive aspect to it seems to have really interested many students.
SP: Do you write using more voice or do you write to move the reader to a poem’s message?
BC: Both. It has to do with the sensibility of the poem, the tone. I’ve sinned in both directions but I try not to write poems that are funny to the point of being silly or poems that are serious to the point of being maudlin or self-pitying. I have tried to write a line between those two — the line of irony. An irony is not a lack of feeling, but a mixture of feelings.
SP: When you see a moment, do you feel a poem in it?
BC: Yeah, I feel it. It’s a matter of experience, of being able to recognize the potential in a moment. Now that moment could be a phrase or something I observe. People are good at telling poets what to write about; they are full of suggestions. They don’t understand. It comes down to experience and experiences.
SP: Are there topics you just won’t touch, where you won’t let yourself go to?
BC: The “too personal,” not because it’s too embarrassing; I just don’t see why anyone would be interested. Unless the poem gets to the level of metaphor, it’s too restricted to the claustrophobia of autobiography. But if the poem lifts up to the metaphoric level, everyone is in. Everyone can hop onto the metaphor. Otherwise, I think we are limited to confessional poetry in the worst sense of the words: confessions of people whose confessions just aren’t very interesting. Either they have not sinned enough or their psyches are not twisted enough to interest anybody else.
SP: Do you remember the moment when you wrote something that stood out?
BC: I think it was a poem called “Questions About Angels.” I’d written a lot of poems before that but I hadn’t written anything that was as long as that. I found more room for a broader kind of speculation, a poem I got a second, third and even fourth wind. It made several turns on itself. That was something I had never been able to do before. The poems I wrote before that were shut down very quickly. They were a little too jokey or witty, and they kind of dove into some punch line and disappeared. I think I achieved, after reading some Coleridge, a lengthier poem for a more expansive meditation. And then I thought, “well, I can do that again.” And did.
SP: What’s your process?
BC: I would say the usual poem goes through four or five drafts. I write it out in a notebook, and then I write it out again. I just keep writing the whole thing out. Every time, I am moving things around or making little improvements, figuring it out. Most poems are done in a day, or one sitting. That’s because I want the writing of the poem to be an experience for me, a whole experience. I don’t want to write a stanza on Wednesday and another stanza on Friday. My hope is, and I think it pays off, that if it’s an experience for me, it will be an experience for the reader. The reader will be able to tell in a way that this was written in a single period of concentration. It could take me five minutes, or it could take me four hours; it depends on the poem.
SP: You write a fair number of poems about the process of writing poetry. Does that help you?
BC: I’m very self-conscious about writing poetry. I don’t think it is a natural act. I think those poems that are self-consciously about workshops or the writing process are just expressions of my awareness of what I am doing. I don’t take it for granted.
SP: Has fame and notoriety cut into your time to write, to be able to express yourself?
BC: It only did when I was poet laureate. I didn’t write much for those two years because while I am enjoying talking to you this morning, when I was poet laureate I was constantly giving interviews. I was appointed right before 9/11, and there was an extra pressure on me to be counseling the nation on what it should be reading. Being poet laureate is kind of a contradiction of terms. Being a poet is very private, a very solo experience, but being poet laureate, you are dragged into the public eye with microphones and cameras always around. It felt much better to get back to the side of the brain that created the poems in the first place. I felt it would be rude to accept a public office and then act reclusively. It was a great honor and great confirmation. Until I got the call from the Librarian of Congress, actually, I really had had a hard time calling myself a poet. Calling yourself a poet is like conferring some special status on yourself. My only regret is that my parents were not alive when that happened. They would have been very pleased to go to the White House (laughing).
SP: How does it feel to be the rock star of the poetry world?
BC: I don’t wake up feeling like that, nor do I go to bed feeling like that. If one is able to achieve a certain amount of notoriety or celebrity, it has to do with how you are perceived and not the way you perceive yourself. I think if that becomes part of your self-image, you’re in trouble. It feels fine whenever I think about it but I don’t really think about it very often.
SP: You have ties to Vermont?
BC: I have been going up to Vermont since college. I have friends who live in Burlington and North Bennington and Ludlow and Middlebury. I’ve been going up since the 1960s. I know Vermont pretty well as a flatlander. Yeah, there’s some self-deprecation there. I know what I have to say to be accepted.
Seating for “An Evening with Billy Collins” is first-come, first-served. Parking is available after 6 p.m. in any UVM lot that is not zoned residential (please avoid these lots or you may be towed). Closest parking to the Ira Allen Chapel is immediately behind the chapel in the Votey Lot, the entrance to which is off Colchester Avenue, directly across the street from Chiropractic Work LLC.