By Andrea Cleghorn
Quick: Name a contemporary American poet who is critically acclaimed, commercially successful, always thought-provoking and frequently funny.
If you said Billy Collins you would have lots of company. If the name is new to you, you get a chance to get to hear him read his work Thursday night when he is in Bedford.
Collins has taught poetry, read his work and lectured literally all over the world. He’s a former American Poet Laureate, author of a dozen poetry collections, winner of prize after prize, a TED talker who has shared stages with Paul Simon, Sir Paul McCartney and a long list of others. The mind boggles.
At the same time, reading or hearing his poems is as easy and satisfying as sitting down with an engaging storyteller friend, a smart one but one who does not leave you reaching for your smart phone to figure out oblique references.
“I do not believe you should need a mediator for poetry,” he once said.
Collins’s formal education was a bachelor’s degree from The College of the Holy Cross and master’s and Ph.D. in English Literature from University of California Riverside. He was born in Manhattan to an American mother and a father who came from a large Irish family. He said that being an only child was “excellent preparation for a poet because I spent so much time alone.”
One of his most well-loved poems is The Lanyard, a classic about a child’s gift to his mother for her years of unstinting love and care.
Catching up with him this past weekend, Collins took a few minutes to chat about his craft while packing up to fly to John Cabot University in Rome for a workshop. Upon his return, he will head for Logan Airport, land, and be transported to Exit 31B off I-95 to Bedford.
Q: To start at the beginning, how do you begin?
A: I start with a little piece of something, a title, a line, I don’t know exactly where I am going. I think of it as making something.
First I have to get the reader to look at something that is undeniably true. If I say “there’s a palm tree,” it’s hard for the reader to question it, it’s just a fact. Later in the poem I can make greater demands.
I sense after the first couple of sentences the momentum and need to keep it moving.
And of course the reader has to be surprised by things along the way. Whenever I read “The Revenant,” and get to the line [where the most faithful of family friends] says, “I never liked you,” everyone laughs, because it is comes as a surprise.
After time, I get to the point in writing where I know it’s got to end soon. I need to figure out where — and how – the best way to stop.
Q: What about the structure? Your poems sound so easy, so flowing, so conversational.
A: I sound casual, but I am always concerned with form. When you lose the meter and the structure you lose trust between the reader and the poet. There is no reason for the reader to trust you. Readers like order.
Emerson said you must express yourself symmetrically. As the poem develops I am packing it into stanzas, into line length. I write in sentences.
For example, you can always trust Robert Frost because you know the meter will always be the same.
A sonnet tells the reader there is going to be 14 lines and a rhyme scheme. In free verse the reader has no idea.
Q: You said you sometimes lose interest in reading through certain poetry, why is that?
A: I have to be hooked in. For example, in the poem “Questions about Angels,” just by reading the title the reader can play with that, he or she already knows what the poem is about and is immediately thinking up of his own questions without realizing it.
Q: And what is the place you come from, you as the writer?
A: I developed a persona for myself when I was in my mid-30s, created…
Q: (interrupting): … by market research?
A: No, I was going to say like Frankenstein; no there wasn’t an algorithm in there anywhere! No, this a fellow who doesn’t have a job, doesn’t have a family, walks around the house looking out the window. Prior to that, I struggled with the writing, trying to imitate other poets but not very successfully. I am also the drone, not the hard-working kind, but the kind that floats around high in the sky, disconnected from the past.
Q: Are your poems fueled by your family?
A: Not generally. I’m not an autobiographical poet. I don’t write about my own family, it’s too claustrophobic. When you think of your family, don’t you think about them all in one room? It is hard to get out of that one room.
I tell my students they might want to expressive themselves, but that is of little interest to the reader. Strong emotion can be dead weight. I am not actually self-expressive, because that is not of interest to anyone but me.
Q: And do you picture a reader? Who do you write to?
A: Someone who loves poetry, who has training in sentence structure that I try to appeal to. I think of writing poetry as making something, something that will please the reader, opening up a field of discovery.
Q: When you come to Bedford Oct. 19 what can your audience expect?
A: I am sort of a chatty disc jockey who talks a bit. I start by reading new poems and go backwards. I don’t like to read one after the other, I talk in between, and may talk about how the poems came into being. At the end there is time to answer questions.
Your purchase of Billy Collins’s newest poetry collection, Rain in Portugal, now available in paperback, will secure your place at his talk on Thursday, October 19, at 7:30 p.m. at First Parish on Bedford Common. The link for sales/tickets is https://fpbedford.eventbrite.com or call the First Parish office, 781-75-7994 for more information.