What's Billy Collins reading?

Published Nov. 27, 2013


Billy Collins

Today marks the birthday of Katherine Collins, the mother of two-time U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, and he credits her for giving him his initial love of poetry. "She'd always have a few lines of poetry ready, and she'd stitch it into her talk so even when I was a toddler, I could hear that other language in the house,'' said Collins, in a phone interview from his home in Winter Park. He divides his time between New York and Central Florida, where he is currently a distinguished fellow for the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. Collins, 72, will hold a poetry reading and book signing for his newest release, Aimless Love, on Wednesday in the Jaeb Theater at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. (For information, see Book Talk, Page 6L.)

What's on your nightstand?

Now All Roads Lead to France: A Life of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis. He was a poet and a friend of Robert Frost. He was writing in the early part of the 20th century, and Frost considered him his best friend. I'm just a third of the way through. I've also got a book that hasn't been released yet (Life Is a Wheel), written by my friend Bruce Weber, an obituary writer at the New York Times. He rode his bike from Portland (Ore.) to New York City, and this chronicles his adventure, but it is also autobiographical. I've also got a couple Reaktion books. They're little books and each one is about an animal, a swan, a horse, a parrot, a tiger, a cockroach. I have a collection of 15 or 17 of these. They put you in touch with information you wouldn't get on your own. It goes into the history, art, nature and the ecological place of the animal. Right now I'm reading about the snail.

How many pages is this book on the snail?

One hundred sixty pages. And it's great. I learned snails don't have ears. They live in silence. They go slowly. Slowly, slowly in silence.

And the last one, when I was in Seattle, I ran into an astronaut, Chris Hadfield, who was the commander in chief of the International Space Station. I have his book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth.

I notice your list includes a book on a poet, but no books of poetry.

I find a lot of poetry very disappointing, but I do have poets that I go back to. One book of poetry that I'd like to mention is The Exchange by Sophie Cabot Black. Her poems are difficult without being too difficult. They make you do some work, and of course the work of poetry is not work if it is good. It's pleasure. You do have to pay attention, and if you do, you get rewarded. There's a lot of different poetry out there that doesn't reward attention because it is impenetrable.

There were many poems in Aimless Love that stood out, including To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl. Did you write this about a particular girl?

Yes, there is a young lady that I'm particularly close to, my fiance's daughter, and, by the way, she does not like the poem. The poem is not about just one 17-year-old. It's about all teenagers, and it's equally about a parent who has grown so frustrated with the (teen) that he is to the point of unfairly comparing the girl's lack of accomplishments to literary heroes like Joan of Arc and Judy Garland. I think the poem is not about making fun of the inactivity of the child but actually the impatience of the parent.

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Another poem I loved was Catholicism, which concerns a possum. How did you come up with that image of a possum as a priest?

When I saw the possum ... it was walking down a brick path, and I was behind a window. They always look strange. They look like specters. I'm easily frightened, and I've also come to realize that old Catholic guilt or remorse is easily stimulated.

Once you catch a side glimpse of the possum and see the demeanor, then it's go-time for the poem. You've got this lovely thing to work out — to what extent is the possum a priest and how can you follow that? In the poem, I follow it to my excommunication. It's kind of accelerating a little fantasy into the wildest kind of hyperbole but doing it gradually, step by step, so the reader can follow along.

You've said your ability to create poetry in part comes from your mother, but where did you receive the foundation for your wit?

My father. He was a man of one-liners and had a great gift of wit, sarcasm and irony, and that's how he looked at the world. He lived until he was 94. It's interesting, when he became demented, his wit became this surreal freedom. He'd say all sorts of brilliant things, but still often linked with sarcasm.

It seems to me these days poetry is getting more public display, and I think you might have something to do with that.

Thank you, I like to help it along. When Grand Central Station had its 100th anniversary, I wrote a tiny poem and they put it on 2,700 subway cars and on the backs of the Metro (ticket) cards, and I'm proud of that. And to your point, I encourage everyone to include poetry in their lives, read poetry at different times. For example, start a business meeting with a poem.

If you weren't a poet, what would you be?

Something between an international jai alai player or, if I led a quieter life, an owner of a frame shop in a little town in Vermont. I'd frame pictures for my customers. My shop would be closed on Wednesdays.

Piper Castillo, Times staff writer