Billy Collins | Ballistics
October 6, 2009
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. Today is a great day on this show. My next guest is a wonderful poet, one of the best in history, in my opinion. His newest book is called Ballistics, it came out on Random House. Wonderful book, and features one of the best poems in my little collection that I keep at my home, which shows a picture of a bullet going through a book, which I love. Welcome to the show, Billy Collins.
Billy Collins: Thank you for having me on.
Dr. Kent: And tell me a little about this collection Ballistics.
Billy Collins: Well, it just came out last year, so it’s in terms of poetry production it’s still very new. You don’t have to get out an article every day like sports writers do. I don’t know, it’s as you said, it doesn’t really have, well it has the two usual themes. The themes of all my poetry are me and death. Those are basically the two threads that run through it. I don’t really have a vision of a book and then write thematic books, except for those two rather important themes. So I just write one poem at a time, basically, and when it comes time to, when I think I have enough poems that may constitute a book, I start putting them together in a pile and seeing what it looks like. And then there’s some organization work. But I sort of figure that because I’m writing each poem there’ll be some kind of thematic connection between it all.
Dr. Kent: Well I’d love to start out by, one of the things I’ve wanted to ask you is, you were the poet laureate under one of the least loved Presidents. What, do you have anything to do with the administration when you are poet laureate? What does that role entail? Was it surprising to you?
Billy Collins: Well I want to first of all take issue with the preposition “under.” A poet laureate does not serve under the White House. The poet laureate, in fact, has an office on top of the Library of Congress. So there’s no connection between the office of the poet laureate and the current, or any administration.
Dr. Kent: Thank goodness.
Billy Collins: Yeah, the poet laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, that’s James Billington, and you’re basically an employee of the Library of Congress, and that’s where your office is, and that’s where you work out of. It’s as separate as the Bureau of Engraving, probably, from the White House. And did it come as a surprise? Yes it did. It was a complete and total wrecking ball from outer space because it’s one of those things I never even actually dreamed of. I never even fantasized about it. It seemed completely kind of much too dignified for the likes of me. And when I finally got to my office in Washington, which is gorgeous, it has a balcony and a view of the Capitol, and it’s quite, very well appointed, hanging on the walls are photographs of previous poets laureate. And when I sat down at my desk they all seemed to be looking down and saying, “What are you doing here? There must be some mistake. Please get security.” So I felt pretty undeserving of the role. At least in the beginning. I kind of grew into it.
Dr. Kent: And it was a difficult time to come into that role, of course, in 2001, where the country wasn’t really keen on comedy or arts, like poetry. What did it feel like in that role in 2001?
Billy Collins: Well I felt like I didn’t want to be in that role. One of the things that happened, I was appointed in June or July of that year, and so 911 happened a few months later. And at that point, for quite a while I was, I thought I was going to be interviewed to death. Because everyone wanted, for some reason, wanted the poet laureate to not just comment, but sort of provide some kind of consolation, or point people toward some poems that would be appropriate to read at this time, due to the fact that no other art form, I don’t think, was looked to for that kind of remedying, or that kind of solace. You know, ballet starts got called up and said what should we do about 911, or movie directors even. So it was interesting that poetry is something that people do indeed turn to in times of crisis, like that’s why they read them at wedding receptions.
Dr. Kent: Right, exactly. (laughter)
Billy Collins: Or funerals, I meant to say.
Dr. Kent: And funerals, yeah. The two most horrible times in a person’s life, right?
Billy Collins: Well, it’s an instability. No one’s ready to get married, and no one’s ready to die, usually. In periods of great dis-equilibrium, poetry particularly with its steady cadence and its use of rhyme has a way of stabilizing things. And because it can be recited over and over again it has a way of ritualizing and calming things down, I think, even regardless of its content.
Dr. Kent: And of all of the poet laureates staring down at you, I mean, the list is incredible, from William Stafford to Stanley Kunitz. What did you, did you go back and page through some of their poetry from their years in the service of the country?
Billy Collins: Well I’d already read their works, I didn’t really consciously go back and see what they produced as laureates. In fact, I had the feeling that if they, if the laureateship affected their production or output as it affected mine, there’d actually be very little to read because one is so distracted by publications and interviews and doing things for the media that one hardly has time to write. In fact I began to suspect that it was some kind of government plot that the government really would single out a poet who seemed to be doing very well and living a happy and productive artistic life, and then make that person poet laureate and thereby bring an end to their writing. So I thought it was probably a way of, it’s a very subtle form of censorship.
Dr. Kent: That’s really funny. And that kind of brings up another thing that comes to my mind, you know, people talk about you as one of the successful poets, which is sort of a contradiction in terms for most poets. What’s it like to be, I guess, leading a world of underappreciated artists?
Billy Collins: Well, I guess when I think about it, it makes me uncomfortable. I just try not to think about it very much. I don’t know, I mean, I think something did happen to my writing. I did, there’s no denying that I’ve acquired a kind of unusually broad readership, and I’m always grateful for that. How it happened, I’m not really sure. I think the poems are okay, but you have to have something else beside that, and I think National Public Radio was an enormous boost for me because if your poem is on National Public Radio, you’re reading to an audience of two to four million people, which is a lot of church basement readings thrown together.
Dr. Kent: Absolutely. Well, you’re also a big favorite of Garrison Keillor’s, and what, last year or the year before, I think it was the year before, we saw you at Town Hall reading some poetry.
Billy Collins: Well he’s been very good to me and very good for poetry itself, I think. His taste does not always overlap mine, but no one’s does. But the Writer’s Almanac presents a poem a day, and he has had poets on his Program Companion, and he’s an anthologizer of two volumes of poetry at least, collections, and he’s just put out a book of his own sonnets. So he is a self-described English major for life, and he’s been, of all those kind of wasteful hours that you can hear on the radio, just people playing records and talking right wing politics, Garrison Keillor uses radio at its highest level. You know, lives, entertainment, and particularly with his interesting poetry. I think he does a great service for the art.
Dr. Kent: Well I’d love to have you read a poem, if you’re willing. Do you have any form the newest collection Ballistics that you might want to read to us?
Billy Collins: Sure, I’d be happy to. Let me read a poem called Adage, which is a poem that plays around with sayings and axioms and that kind of thing, proverbs.
When it’s late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter
of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself into the fire of someone else, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
It’s more like trading the two birds who might be hiding in that bush for the one you are not holding in your hand.
A wise man once said that love was like forcing a horse to drink but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.
Let us be clear about something. Love is not as simple as getting up on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.
No, it’s more like the way the pen feels after it has defeated the sword. It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped stitches.
You look at me through the halo of the last candle and tell me that love is an ill wind that has no turning, a road that blows no good,
but I am here to remind you, as our shadows tremble on the walls, that love is the early bird who is better late than never.
Dr. Kent: A beautiful poem from Ballistics, which came out on Random House. Of course, we’re talking to Billy Collins. What a great poem. Your poetry has such a, I don’t want to say it’s developed a new school in poets, but it kind of is a real inspiration for young poets because you use an element of comedy that is in my opinion really masterful. How do you blend, maybe you don’t do it consciously, but how does comedy find a place into your poetry?
Billy Collins: Well, if you go back to the perspective of 911, you would think when people were saying we live in these very uncertain times that it really would require humor, you know as a way of again, kind of stabilizing things, or relieving anxiety. I think of humor as a sort of device in poetry, as a way of engaging a reader and weaving a reader into something. Also I think if you provoke a laugh or a humorous reaction, you become somewhat more reliable than another speaker in a poem. At least you can be, at least you and the readers share that common ground for a line or two. And I think of humor sort of as a portal into the serious. It’s a way to access more serious business. I certainly don’t think of humor as being kind of the be all and end all of a poem. I think it’s, I like poems that start funny and then become serious, or they start serious and they crack themselves up at the end. I like something that turns either away or towards humor, so the poem is always looking for a new bearing.
Dr. Kent: When do you feel like you started to really develop your own voice as a poet? Has there been a point where all of a sudden you started to feel comfortable in your own skin with your poetry on the published page or in readings or just in general?
Billy Collins: It’s said that everyone is born with about 300 bad poems in them. And I think I had maybe 5 or 600 bad poems that I had to write, you know, and certainly in high school and graduate college, and graduate school and beyond, until I kind of got them out of my system. I think I wasn’t really in, it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I got a sense that I was writing in a voice that I could call my own. And I think the way I got there was a matter of choosing a different set of influences and then combining them in, I don’t think my voice is original, I think maybe if there’s anything original, it’s in the way that I’ve combined influences. You know, like taking humor from someone and taking darkness from another person, learning how to do the dash from Emily Dickinson, learning intimacy from Walt Whitman. I mean, you take so many little pieces from different poets and then if you can find a way to kind of put them into a new configuration, that’s about the most originality you can expect to achieve.
Dr. Kent: Well and there’s, some of the work that I love the best I don’t know how much you were involved in it, the animated poems that are online are just spectacular. To see, to listen to the word, to see visuals, what’s it been like to sort of be brought into, I guess Web 2.0 world?
Billy Collins: Well, I was completely complicitent in all that. That was really started at the request of the Sundance Channel, the television channel, and they wanted to, someone came up with the idea of animating some poems. And then they hired Jay Walter Thompson, the ad agency to approach me, and then they brought me into the studio and I recorded the poems, and then I was able to kind of approve of the animations. And I think all but one were completely acceptable, and they got a very hip group of animators. You know, this was not Hanna Barbera stuff, (inaudible) and it’s Eastern European influenced animators. So I’m very happy with them. I’m a great believer in poetry in surprising places. When I was poet laureate I established a poetry channel on Delta Airlines, which lasted for a year or so. So in flying around you could put on your headset and listen to the poems. But I’m all for poems on billboards or subways, poems that hop up on the radio, and poems that you see on You Tube. I think it’s, poetry needs to jump out of the book. I mean, I still write for the page, but I think it’s good that poetry is kind of getting out of the leather bound book in the study and getting into more of the mainstream of contemporary life. And you know, poetry on ipods is something that is kind of growing, a growing business.
Dr. Kent: And there was, in the poem you read there’s a line that I connected to. And the fun thing about poetry is everyone hears it or reads it in a different way. And you talked about the pen that feels, how the pen feels after it defeated the sword. There’s just a little bit of politics in that. How do you sneak in sort of your feelings about current political happenings and things like that into your poetry?
Billy Collins: Well I try not to, really. I don’t want to write poems that try to keep up with the headlines, you know, as (inaudible) called poetry, the “news that saved new.” And you can talk about yesterday, but who wants to read yesterday’s newspaper, but most of the poems I’m reading were written yesterday or 500 years ago, and the good ones still hold up. It’s a delicate balance I guess, I suppose some images that would suggest a look toward the political world find their way into the poems, but basically politics is about history, or politics is part of history. And poetry is not really about history. Poetry is about time and mortality and someone, I forget whom, defined history as “the violent misuse of time.” And I think that’s where I sort of have my sense of it, is that poetry subject is time and the passing of time, and finally human mortality.
Dr. Kent: And again, back to what you said, all of your poetry is about yourself and about death.
Billy Collins: Well, isn’t that true. It’s a little unavoidable. Well that’s a great subject that lyric poetry is mortality. You know, that’s the shadow of mortality, it falls across most pages, and the oldest theme in poetry is probably carpe diem, and that just means that you have to carpe your diems because you don’t have an infinite number of them. And that urgency that you find in lyric poetry comes out of the sense of not using your time particularly wisely, but being aware of, even if you’re squandering it, knowing that you’re doing it.
Dr. Kent: Well, I would love to hear another poem from you. Do you have another one laying around that you could read for us?
Billy Collins: Well, that’s pretty much what they do, here’s a poem, well this is a sonnet, and it’s kind of a reaction against something, which is the development of, condo developments, some gated communities, and it’s about the way they’re named. It’s a poem that’s called Golden Years.
All I do these drawn-out days is sit in my kitchen at Ridge where there are no pheasants to be seen and last time I looked, no ridge.
I could drive over to Falls and spend the day there playing bridge, but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge.
I know a widow at Fox Run and other with a Condo at Smokey Ledge. One of them smokes, and neither can run, so I’ll stick to the pledge I made to Midge.
Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge? I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.
Dr. Kent: (laughter) That so beautifully expresses the world we live in. How do you write? What’s your process? Do you wake up early in the morning, are you an owl? Do you write here and there on napkins?
Billy Collins: I don’t have any real what you would call work habits. I just write when it comes to me. There’s a lot of waiting around and there’s a certain amount of impatience that comes into play at some point. But yeah, I can write while driving, I can get up in the middle of the night and write. The best time is usually in the morning before I’ve heard a lot of language, before I’ve gotten into a conversation or been influenced by the language of journalism or the language of television or radio. You know, in the morning you’re closer to the dream state, not that I would bore anyone with my literal dreams, but you’re a little more open minded. You haven’t gone and set yourself up against the day in some way. So that’s usually the best time for me, but usually I’m ready to drop anything at any time if something comes along.
Dr. Kent: And you have a very active reading life. You do a lot of public readings. What’s the difference for you between the poetry creating and the poetry reading?
Billy Collins: Well, as I said, I write for the page. I write in a room in silence with a pencil, and in thinking about a reader, not anyone in particular, clearly, but going back over the lines as I write them and asking myself how would an average reader take that in. How would a person who doesn’t really, isn’t privy to my inner thoughts, what would they think about that? So I’m writing to that one person. But reading in front of a group of people is strange at first because it’s very different from the experience of composition. I mean here’s 50, or if you’re lucky hundreds of people listening to you, and that audience of one has strangely multiplied into an auditorium full of people. And I don’t know, there are a couple of, it’s enjoyable to read. You can sense the reaction. I mean, when you’re sitting at your desk, you don’t hear anyone applauding you, you don’t hear laughing. So it’s interesting to take the silent piece of paper, say it in front of a microphone, and then experience all of these noises of people laughing or sighing or clapping or leaving, or whatever they’re up to. But it’s a very different experience, I should say.
Dr. Kent: And in that experience you’ve spoken many places, one of which is Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I know that when my parents have any sort of guests of significance they parade them by the Praying Hands. So you read in very interesting locations, whether there or in the middle of New York City. What’s the difference for you? Do you think, who’s my audience? Who are these people staring up at me?
Billy Collins: I do remember the Praying Hands, I was taken there and took a photograph. I hate to say this, it sounds like such a cliché, but I think audiences are pretty much the same. You know, it’s like people say, people are the same wherever you go. I get the same basic reaction. Maybe it’s because people who would actually come to a poetry reading have a shared predisposition with other poetry loving people, whether it’s in Tulsa or the lower east side of New York. So I don’t find, I find if I go to England or Ireland, it’s very different, because I start realizing that my poetry is very American, there are a lot of references. Like this one poem where I mention a state flower. You know, every flower has a state, and when I read that poem in England I realized that they thought I was saying an estate flower, because they don’t have state flowers. So I didn’t realize how American my poetry was until I read it in England. I think going across the country I find that audiences are, just the fact that they would come out to hear someone read poetry makes them rather unusual people.
Dr. Kent: And what do you think about the way that a publisher or an editor or you yourself have to combine poems into a book. It’s sort of like an album or something, you have to find some sort of common thread between your poetry. How is that process?
Billy Collins: Well I just, to me, as I said, the themes are me and death, so they don’t have to worry about anything other than that. But I basically take all the poems and, if I have 60 or 70 poems that are potentially going to be squeezed into a book, I put them all out on the floor. I lay them all out on the floor in any order, just lay them down there. And then I walk around in my stocking feet and try to look down and try to figure out which ones want to be with the other ones. And that way I start forming little groups, and I don’t do it, the group is not based on a common subject, like every poem of a bird goes here. It’s much more mysterious than that. I’m not sure if I could explain why I think these poems should be with each other. But I do, in some way, and I keep shuffling them around until I get easily four different piles, and they become the sections of the book.
Dr. Kent: Well I would love to –
Billy Collins: The thing is no one, sorry –
Dr. Kent: Go ahead.
Billy Collins: I was going to say that nobody, hardly anybody reads a book of poems from front to back. You know, except maybe a reviewer or an editor. Most people pick up a book of poems and just kind of cruise around in it or, you know, treat it like a slip book almost. So all the effort an author expends in organizing his or her poems into this thematic book is entirely wasted on readers. And it’s a fact of vanity.
Dr. Kent: So I would love to hear one more poem, if you have another one handy. And the book of course is called Ballistics, and it’s available everywhere. It’s a wonderful book by Billy Collins.
Billy Collins: Well let me read a book that is certainly not political, and maybe really is potential nonsense, but I’ll read it for you anyway. It’s called Hippos on Holiday.
Hippos on Holiday
is really not the title of a movie
but if it was I would be sure to see it.
I love their short legs and their big heads,
the whole hippo look.
Hundreds of them would frolic
in the mud of a wide, slow-moving river,
and I would eat my popcorn
in the dark of a neighborhood theater.
When they opened their enormous mouths
lined with big stubby teeth
I would drink my enormous Coke.
I would be both in my seat
and in the water playing with the hippos,
which is the way it is
with a truly great movie.
Only a mean-spirited reviewer
would ask on holiday from what?
Dr. Kent: I love how you turn the tables and always keep us guessing as readers of your poetry. And it’s been such an honor chatting with you. And the book is again called Ballistics by Billy Collins.
Billy Collins: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I’m very happy to have been on your program, and talk to your listeners.
Dr. Kent: And there’s a whole bunch of great stuff that listeners can also find online, including those animated poems. Google that, or go to his Wikipedia page and there’s a whole bunch of audio readings and poems and all sorts of great things. And then support Billy Collins and his publisher by going you and getting a copy of Ballistics. Well thank you so much for being on the show, this has been a real honor, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
Billy Collins: Me too. Thank you very much. Take care.
Dr. Kent: All right, my next guest on the show is a musician. His name is Johnny Helm, and we’re going to listen to a couple songs from him and then talk to him about his latest album. Here’s a song called Shed from Johnny Helm.