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© 2013 Grace Cavalieri

Billy Collins

"The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress"

An interview with Billy Collins by Grace Cavalieri

This interview was conducted at the Library of Congress, December 2001. Grace Cavalieri produces and hosts "The Poet and the Poem;" The series is delivered to public radio via NPR satellite.

Billy Collins's most recent books of poetry include a volume of new and selected poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room (Random House, 2001) Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998); The Art of Drowning, (1995); and, Questions About Angels (1991.) A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal, Lines Lost Among Trees, and The Death of the Hat are from Picnic, Lightning, by Billy Collins, © 1998. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. "Forgetfulness" is from Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins, © 1991. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. .

Grace:
This is "The Poet and the Poem, from the Library of Congress." Iím Grace Cavalieri. Our guest today is Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States. I'd first like to ask about the poem prefacing your book, Picnic, Lightning

Billy:
This is a poem thatís based on a quotation by William Butler Yeats. Yeats said that a poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, and I have expressed my disagreement with him in this poem entitled A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal.

" A poetÖnever speaks directly,
as to someone at the breakfast table."

                        -Yeats

Every morning I sit across from you
at the same small table,
the sun all over the breakfast things-
a curve of a blue-and-white pitcher,
a dish of berries-
me in a sweatshirt or robe,
you invisible.

Most days, we are suspended
over a deep pool of silence.
I stare straight through you
or look out the window at the garden,
the powerful sky,
a cloud passing behind a tree.

There is no need to pass the toast,
the pot of jam,
or pour you a cup of tea,
and I can hide behind the paper,
rotate in its drum of calamitous news.

But some days I may notice
a little door swinging open
in the morning air,
and maybe the tea leaves
of some dream will be stuck
to the china slope of the hour-
then I will lean forward,
elbows on the table,
with something to tell you,
and you will look up, as always,
your spoon dripping milk, ready to listen.

Grace:
Billy Collins is just officially inaugurated to be our eleventh Poet Laureate of the United States. Iím not going to ask what a Poet Laureate does, because you are remarking how everyone wants to know this, even though my dentist did ask me yesterday. But, maybe it would be good to know that the Laureate is given a clean slate to do what he wants.

Billy:
Well, the American Poet Laureate is very different from the British. Laureate, first of all, has a very antique ring to it. I mean it sounds very British and it kind of goes with ascots, and wearing spats and carrying a walking stick or something like that. And people like John Dryden come to mind, or Tennyson who was Poet Laureate -- I think he holds the record of 42 years. Well in America we have a souped up version of the British Laureateship, in that the Poet Laureate here serves for only one year, and so we have a very quick turnover. I think the original British idea was that the Poet Laureate was attached to the Royal household and wrote poems on the birth of an heir, or a wedding, or something like that. In America, as you say, the Poet Laureate can more or less write his or her own ticket. And the nebulous part of the job is that you are asked to define the job as you go along.

Grace:
I think that we could comment on what it means for a country to even have a post for Poet Laureate. I think thatís the more important question.

Billy:
Well, we donít have a Prose Laureate; we donít have a Short Story Laureate, or a Film Director LaureateÖitís just poetry. It does say something about poetry, doesnít it? Iím not sure exactly what, but itís certainly a nod to the centrality, or the deep significance of what poetry is to perhaps any culture. I mean the fact that the Library of Congress since I think 1936 has had what they call a Consultant in Poetry, which then turned into the Laureate in I think 1986. But the fact that the Library would want to install a poet in an office, so that he or she could be consulted about any poetry matters that come up certainly gives a sense of the significance of poetry to a culture.

Grace:
Thatís Billy Collins, Iím Grace Cavalieri. When you were not a Poet Laureate, which were for more years than you are, you must have had an impression of it, looking from New York, Somers, New York. What did it look like they were doing here?

Billy:
Oh it looked very far away. I viewed the Laureateship, when I did, not with any kind of envy, or desire to move in that direction, but as if looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope, tiny figures in the distance, doing I donít know what. I mean hanging around Washington, and sitting on their laurels, maybe.

Grace:
Now you are one. Billy Collins. I'd like to hear about the poem you read last night, Snow Day, and then talk about your personal agenda.

Billy:
Snow Day is about that time when it snows so much that the day is declared by some ďofficialĒ to be a snow day for schools, and then our lives change in certain way.

Grace:
The audience last night laughed and cried out loud. The tears were coming out of my eyes last night because of the mournful humor of your voice as you made that litany of those nursery school names, some of them imagined, some real Ö

Billy:
All of them are from a phone book! And I started writing that on a snow day, and they were closing schools, and that started the poem going. I kept listening to the radio, but, they were saying like P.S. 47, and Allentown High School, so I went to the phone book and looked under daycare, and nursery schools, and I took all of them, even the Peas and Carrots Day School, I took them out of the phone book. You know they say that if look in the phone book under Beauty you will find many many listings, but if you look under Truth, you will find nothing... but if you look under daycare, youíll find all those schools.

Grace:
We're in for quite a year here at the Library of Congress. I have to speak about last night. How many thousands were there? More than one thousand. Here we have this one room on the sixth floor of the Library of Congress Madison building. It was quite filled before the busloads tooled up to the door, and more people came in, and they came in, and they came in, and they broke down walls, not the students, the Library took down the walls, opening the room; and it was the most wonderful audience. Were you surprised -- all though it was very responsive -- were you surprised at how the high schoolers were not quite sure they were allowed to laugh out loud? Did you get that feeling?

Billy:
Yeah ...

Grace:
They were a little restrained.

Billy:
I always get that feeling. Well they havenít been, usually as high schoolers, they havenít been to many poetry readings, and certainly poetry, the sound of it, I mean it makes you feel like, a little like youíre going to a chapel, or a serious, deadly serious cultural event, and youíre supposed to be on your best behavior. People assume thereís a kind of hushed etiquette about a poetry reading, which doesnít really need to be the case.

Grace:
It was a warm group though. Did you get anything back from them?

Billy:
Oh sure. I mean usually when I give a reading, because some of the poems provoke laughter for some reason or other, Iím usually trying to modulate, Iím trying to mix serious poems with lighter poems, and Iím trying to create a mix of the two faucets. I donít want it to be just amusing, and I donít want it to be too much gravity and I would say that really is a guiding principle for the way I compose poetry.

Grace:
I think so.

Billy:
I mean for me the perfect poem, and probably this is one of the things that makes me keep writing poems --is that maybe someday Iíll write this perfect poem. I know I wonít, but, the perfect poem for me would be a poem in which at any given point, the reader would have no idea whether the poem is serious or funny, and all of my poems are failures in the attempt to achieve that, because they either ere on the side of sentimentality and seriousness, or on the side of amusement and lightness.

Grace:
Thatís actually not true at all. You have a mournful humor. Your humor is very tragic to me. Itís a very lonely humor. In fact even a listing of those nursery schools in a snowy day makes you have the ache of the light in the kitchens. Iím very interested in how tragedy is like comedy.

Billy:
Well, I think it was an Irish writer, who said that tragedy is just insufficiently developed comedy; and it was Nabokov who said -- when he started teaching in America at Cornell-- he was being falsely self deprecatory -- 78but he said, ďI only know two things, I know that life is beautiful, and life is sad, and those are the two things I know.Ē And I would add that life is funny. I think poetry is basically expressing, if poetry would express those things simultaneously, I think thatís maybe an aim for me. To express the beauty, the sadness and the sheer ridiculousness of life at the same time.

Grace:
You do it many times, in many poems. Billy Collins, our Poet Laureate. He has several books, including Picnic Lightening, University of Pittsburgh Press; The Art of Drowning, which was a Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize finalist; Questions About Angels; Apple that Astonished Paris; Video Poems and Poker Face. I think the newest book is Sailing Alone Around the Room. Now Poker Face is little found. Is that still in print?

Billy:
No, thankfully that has gone out of print years ago.

Grace:
1977.

Billy:
Yeah, that really, those are probably very rare. I have one copy myself, and if anybody out there does have a copy, if you send it to me, Iíll pay you for it, and then Iíll burn it.

Grace:
Is that right? Thatís how you feel?

Billy:
Well, no, I mean, I consider those poems I would say kind of late juvenilia. Theyíre poems I wouldnít read today, and poems I think I developed from.

Grace:
Wallace Stevens first little book is worth a fortune.

Billy:
Well thanks for the comparison.

Grace:
I think people should go to Poker Face and take it to Sothebyís, cut you right out.

Grace:
You have received may honors, including fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the NEA; the Guggenheim; the Oscar Blumenthal Prize; The Bess Hulkan Prize; the Frederick Bach Prize, and the Levinson Prize Awarded by Poetry Magazine. Howard Nenerov used to say, ďBring them on!Ē He was very immodest about winning them. Billy Collins is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College, City University of New York, where heís taught for the past thirty years. Are you going to keep teaching this year?

Billy:
Yes, Iím still teaching. Still lifting the chalk.

Grace:
Working this around it?

Billy:
Yeah, I can seem, so far I can do both at once.

Grace:
Youíve arranged your schedule? Do people have to vie to get into your course?

Billy:
Well not really, I teach in the City University, and many of the students there donít know who I am but I kind of like it like that. I can find some anonymity there and just concentrate on the teaching.

Grace:
And how many in the English Department.

Billy:
Faculty members, itís quite large. Iíd say maybe sixty or so.

Grace:
Thatís pretty impressive. And you teach creative writing?

Billy:
Well, now I do. I taught composition for thirty years because in the city universities...

Grace:
You have to.

Billy:
We teach an immigrant population, for many of whom English is an acquired language, and Iím not a bilingual expert, but Iíve been teaching English as a second language just by the nature of the student body that fills the classrooms. I teach creative writing workshops sometimes, but I also teach regular literature courses.

Grace:
How many courses do you teach? Two?

Billy:
Well, usually three, now Iím teaching two.

Grace:
Threeís a lot.

Billy:
Well, not to a coal miner it isnít.

Grace:
I know that William Matthews just taught one. You have to put your foot down!

Billy:
Weíre going to have to do something about this.

Grace:
Right, now that youíre Poet Laureate.

Billy:
Well, maybe the President of my college is listening.

Grace:
I think he must be thrilled.

Billy:
Or we can send him a tape.

Grace:
I know heís thrilled that you are the Laureate.

Grace:
Billy Collins he is, and Iím Grace Cavalieri. Weíre at the Library of Congress. Weíre happy to be here. The program is called "The Poet and the Poem, from the Library of Congress." Tell us about the poem you wrote because you forgot your pencil.

Billy:
Well this is a poem about something that writers are cautioned never to do, which is to go out of the house, to leave home without your little notebook and a pen, just in case you are visited by the muse, and this is a case where I was caught without the implements, and itís called Lines Lost Among Trees.

These are not the lines that came to me
while walking in the woods
with no pen
and nothing to write on anyway.

They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic

I devised to hold them in place-
all gone and forgotten
before I had returned to the clearing of lawn
in back of our quiet house

with its jars jammed with pens,
its notebooks and reams of blank paper,
its desk and soft lamp,
its table and the light from its windows.

So this is my elegy for them,
those six or eight exhalations,
the braided rope of syntax,
the jazz of the timing,

and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door.

This is my envoy to nothing
where I say Go, little poem-
not out into the world of strangers' eyes,
but off to some airy limbo,

home to lost epics,
unremembered names,
and fugitive dreams
such as the one I had last night,

which, like a fantstic city in pencil,
erased itself
in the bright morning air
just as I was waking up.

Grace:
Oh, that fantastic city. Phillip Levine has a wonderful poem, also about forgetting his lines. Do you know that one? And itís so poignant, because those are the best lines you ever wrote. Are you sure?

Billy:
Oh those are the unwritten, unremembered, lost ...

Grace:
They were the most marvelousÖ

Billy:
Yeah. The good ones.

Grace:
Billy Collins. We talked about the high schoolers that were here last night, and you have your own wish to make poetry of significance in high schools. So tell everyone about that.

Billy:
Well, what Iíve started to do as Poet Laureate is a program Iíve called Poetry 180, and 180 stands for the roughly 180 days of the school year, and it also signifies a kind of turning around, to poetry, you might say. The idea is to have a poem read every day in American high schools as part of the public announcements, so that at the end of the public announcements, that would be the best place I think, there would be a poem. And Iím choosing 180 poems, hand picking them. Poems that I think high schoolers will be able to get right away, and thatíll have some immediate resonance for them. The aim here is to make poetry for high school students a feature of daily life, and not just something to be studied, and thatís why I want to encourage teachers to get with the program. And they can do that just by going to the Library of Congress web site and theyíll find the poems there early next year; thatís 2002. But Iíd like to discourage teachers from bringing the poems into the classroom and teaching them as they would the other poems in the curriculum. I really just want students to hear these poems, and not have to study them, or write about them, or think about them in a public way. I just want them to simply take a poem in every day. And Iím hoping; my sense is, if a student hears a poem every day, thereís probably one poem out there, at least one, for every student. All it takes is one poem to get you hooked.

Grace:
It follows, somewhat, in the national consciousness, where Pinsky put a poem on the News Hour, and, you know, if you ask the regular Joe on the street, if he watches it, oh yeah, he remembers that, but he may not recall the poem. The fact that it was there, that a poem was on the News Hour, and is forever an indentation in our minds. Youíre following the idea that a poem can be read in a school over the PA system is not at all outrageous.

Billy:
Right. Well itíd be part of the public announcements, so youíd here that the volleyball team has a practice at 4:30 or whatever, then youíd hear the poem. Itís putting the poem in a kind of unexpected place. Itís a little like poetry in motion which puts poems on busses and subways, and as you said, a poem popping up on television. We expect to find poems in classrooms and anthologies, but I think when a poem ambushes us, and pops out from an unexpected place or time, it has more of an immediate effect on us.

Grace:
It will get some of the dust off of it too, in our minds. This is Billy Collins, and he is here to read you a poem. And I really hope you get to write one this year.

Billy:
Iíd be happy with one, probably

Grace:
How many are you able to write a year?

Billy:
Well, fewer now that Iím so busy doing this Poet Laureate work.

Grace:
But even before what was your ... Howard Nemerov said six a year was about right,

Billy:
Six a year?

Grace:
... And he did it all in a week.

Billy:
He did it in one week and got it all over with ...

Grace:
He had this energy that would just culminate, and heíd sit at the dining room table with the cats,

Billy:
Thatís amazing. Well itís kind of analogous to that ...what they say, that most married couples talk, on the average, 15 minutes a week, and some of them just get it over with on Monday morning.

Billy:
Squeeze it all in. No, Iím more prolific than that. I donít write ... I write ... my writing is kind of spread out sporadically throughout the year. But I would think, Iíve never really kept tabsÖ calculated the number, but I would say, you know, a couple of month, maybe, or three or four a month.

Grace:
That would be a lot.

Billy:
Yeah.

Grace:
All that you like? You wind up liking all of them?

Billy:
Well, if I donít like them I just pitch them, so I do like all the ones that I finish.

Grace:
Thatís a nice thing to say. What is the latest poem you've finished?

Billy:
It's called The Death of the Hat. It starts out kind of looking nostalgically back at that period of time in the past century, in the twentieth century, when men all wore hats, in cities at least.

Once every man wore a hat.

In the ashen newsreels,
the avenues of cities
are broad rivers flowing with hats.

The ballparks swelled
with thousands of strawhats,
brims and bands,
rows of men smoking
and cheering in shirtsleeves.

Hats were the law.
They went without saying.
You noticed a man without a hat in a crowd.

You bought them from Adams or Dobbs
who branded your initials in gold
on the inside band.

Trolleys crisscrossed the city.
Steamships sailed in and out of the harbor.
Men with hats gathered on the docks.

There was a person to block your hat
and a hatcheck girl to mind it
while you had a drink
or ate a steak with peas and a baked potato.
In your office stood a hat rack.

The day the war was declared
everyone in the street was wearing a hat
and they were wearing hats
when a ship loaded with men sank in the icy sea.

My father wore one to work every day
and returned home
carrying the evening paper,
the winter chill radiating from his overcoat.

But today we go bareheaded
into the winter streets,
stand hatless on frozen platforms.

Today the mailboxes on the roadside
and the spruce trees behind the house
wear cold white hats of snow.

Mice scurry from the stone walls at night
in their thin fur hats
to eat the birdseed that has spilled.

And now my father, after a life of work,
wears a hat of earth,
and on top of that,

A lighter one of cloud and sky-a hat of wind.

Grace:
Those mice of yours are in so many poems.

Billy:
Mice are uncontrollable.

Grace:
But yet yours are not, thatís the interesting thing. Mice are usually in poems because one canít imagine what they'll do. But yours carry matches, they wear little hats Ö theyíre so intelligent.

Billy:
Itís actually a little circus. Instead of a flea circus, itís mouse circus that Iím running here. My poems are infested with mice, and I donít really know Ö there could be some childhood trauma attached to this, but I donít know why. I could put out a book of poems just called The Mouse Poems, I think.

Grace:
It is an extension of your consciousness. It is the twinkle in your eye comes out in the mouse. Which would lead us to my question about the poem you have with a mouse carrying a match.

Billy:
Ö that little mouse Ö that dangerous little mouse.

Grace:
What is the poem's title?

Billy:
Itís based on a bit of country advice, which is not to leave matches lying around. Well, the poem kind of explains that, and I learned this lesson from a friend of mine, who does live in the country, in Vermont. The poem is called The Country.

Grace:
Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States is also a visiting professor at Sarah Lawrence.

Billy:
Well, I do some of this kind of ďhired gunĒ work. I taught at Columbia for a semester last year, and in the fall I usually teach a course at Sarah Lawrence in the graduate writing program. So I do a little bit of that kind of ďStranger Rides into TownĒ Ö

Grace:
Moonlighting.

Billy:
Yeah.

Grace:
Yes. And you live in Somers, New York, which is near the city.

Billy:
Itís in northern Westchester. Itís about forty miles north of New York City.

Grace:
And when were you a Literary Lion?

Billy:
That was in the nineteen ninety's.

Grace:
Early on.

Billy:
Well, itís basically is an event to raise funds for the Library, the New York Public Library.

Grace:
Itís very nice, though, to be named a Lion, I think. When you think of those big stone ones outside of the Library.

Billy:
They have names, I forget what their names are. Itís like Patience and Prudence, or something. But yes I think Ö well, once youíre a Lion, youíre always a Lion.

Grace:
Rita Dove said that that was one of the things she really was the proudest of. It meant a lot to her.

Billy:
Well, itís a very gala occasion. Itís all black tie, and you have an escort who watches you all night and just in case youíre left alone for a moment, and not in conversation, this escort comes right over and makes small talk with you. When a real person comes and talks to you, the escort kind of goes back to leaning against the wall. And they put a medal Ö the put a kind of a gold medal with a red ribbon around your neck so you look like an ambassador or something. Itís quite a grand event.

Grace:
Youíre saying that with the same mix of respect, and humor Ö and irony. Respect and irony go together I think. This is going to embarrass you, but thatís my job. You are the most popular poet in America. Now, you have no way of knowing that, because there is just no data that we can assemble. But everyone says that you are the most popular poet in America. I donít know how that feels when youíre alone in your bed, but it must mean something to you.

Billy:
It's hard to calculate. The poems I write are basically for one person. I donít know who the person is, but I have an idea of speaking or whispering these poems to one listener, and I hope Iím aiming for a very intimate connection. When this one reader somehow multiplies into thousands of book buyers, thereís a little bit of a gulf there, because Iím always speaking to the one, and then when they multiply, itís a bit surprising to me. So, I donít know why or how this has come about, Ö Iíll be like Howard Nemerov, bring them on! Iím enjoying the ride!

Grace:
Itís lots of fun I see you have a handwritten poem on the table.

Billy:
Well, this is a little poem based on something you hear on the radio every now and then, and the title is Surprise.

Grace:
Itís scribbled. Itís a premier; I know it, because itís not even printed yet.

Billy:
No, I havenít typed it up yet, itís a pretty new poem.

Grace:
When you speak with amusement, is there always a fear that people will smile at the next poem, and maybe reduce all of your poems to one idea. Thatís always the danger. I havenít seen it happen yet. I think maybe you can rise above that. Weíll see.

Billy:
Itís the big risk, actually, because humor has Ö I mean things are changing these days, but humor has had a really, very bad reputation in poetry ever since the romantic poets, ever since the early 19th century, when humor was affectively driven out of poetry by the English romantic poets I would say, and itís only now that I think that humor is finding a way back into poetry from a ghetto where it was consigned, and that ghetto is called light verse. Öbut is a danger that if your work provokes humor that thereís nothing to it.

Grace:
Lacks respectability.

Billy:
Indeed. I mean, weíve gotten used to connecting poetry not only with difficulty, but also with seriousness.

Grace:
But believing that something can be seen your way, with such conviction, can make you be the Poet Laureate of the United States, because Stafford has a poem about 'what a muse is'Öďthe muse came to me and said, look at things your own way.Ē And this has served you very well, and it may even change our attitude about the wisdom of humor, which had a time honored tradition. You are an expert in the Romantics. In fact, youíve got your ďfudĒ, right? Your Ph.D. in romantic poetry?

Billy:
I do, yes. I didnít start out being a poet. I was an academic, I got a Ph.D. in English literature and wrote a dissertation on Wordsworth and Coleridge and began teaching in Universities, and the poetry came quite late. I mean I really didnít get my first real book published until I was well into my forties.

Grace:
Sometime, I can see the light of the romantics in your lines.

Billy:
Well, the great romantic lyric, particularly those poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge that are poems of meditation were very influential. Theyíre poems that begin with the speaker situated somewhere. Thereís always a sense of location, and itís usually, of course, in a landscape. My poems tend to be located in places too.

Grace:
In a hammock.

Billy:
Yeah, it could be in a hammock, in the kitchen, or walking the dog around the lake, or something, but my feeling is that poetry is a kind of form of travel literature, and that I think we should end up at a different place at the end of the poem than the place we started. And if the poem is to transport us to another place, I feel it must start in some place. So I try to begin by orienting the reader, and you might say, toward the end of the poem, I wouldnít mind it really if the reader experienced a certain pleasurable level of disorientation.

Grace:
That is characteristic of the romantics.

Billy:
I think so. Those poems start with a set of simple observations; the poet kind of swiveling around and recording what he is taking in. And then there is a relaxation into a chain of memories and associations, and the poem begins to lift out of its original environment into areas of the imagination, and areas of psychology.

Grace:
I have to get this in. You are such a trickster. Do you know that Iíve taught the paradelle without knowing you were kidding? And got some fabulous poems. Describe a paradelle, please. I'll tell the audience: Billy Collins did a parody on a villanelle, but in his book, he did not reveal it was a parody, he just wrote a paradelle, I think, "for Susan, and, I was teaching a workshop in Italy, and so I Ö I think thatís a good thing we could do tomorrow, Everyone will write a paradelle like Billy Collins. I get home, and the Paris Review reveals that Iíve been duped. It's a joke. So tell everyone what a paradelle is, and you will be surprised to learn it works as a serious form.

Billy:
Well, I just made this up. I wanted to write an intentionally bad formal poem. I wanted to write a poem in which the poet couldnít handle the rules of a genre, and botched it. And I thought, well, I could write a really bad sonnet, or a bad villanelle, but I figured thereís enough of those around, so I would just make up a new form, and I called it the paradelle, which is a kind of combination of a parody and villanelle, and then I made up this insane set of rules for it, and I tried to pass it off in a footnote as actually an old, fixed form from, I think, from the 11th century France. And the first rules are that the lines just repeat themselves. So that is almost, you know, kind of a numbskull sense of simplicity. But then the secondary set of rules asks you to use all only the previous words, and itís a little hard to explain without looking at it, but it would be like having a really bad set of letters in a Scrabble game, and being asked to write the Lordís Prayer with them.

Grace:
Well, everyone loved writing it. I know your own paradelle had kind of a funny last stanza. I thought it was a mess. But then I thought, well, you know, this might be language poetry.

Billy:
The bad poet who wrote the Paradelle canít fit in all the words, so all these remainder words, like if and to and with, are just kind of stuffed into the last few lines of the poem.

Grace:
At the end of the page, you should say, ďdonít try this at homeĒ. So it was lots of fun. Billy Collins is our new Laureate, and weíre wearing him down, but weíre still going to get information from him. You once spoke of writing a poem from the first lines of an existing poem.

Billy:
I have a poem that takes off on another poem. Itís called Litany and I use the first two lines of another poet to begin my poem. And I found a poem by this poet, and he begins his poem by saying, ďYou are the bread and the knife; the crystal goblet and the wine,Ē and I thought I would just restart his poem and produce a different version of it, and the title of my poem is Litany. It's a takeoff on those poems where the woman is the moon and the stars, and itís kind of a parody of that kind of poetry.

Grace:
In Litany we have a moment, a little moment of still water, with the sound of the rain and the shooting star, because, in a way, in the midst of all the kind of attention youíre getting, I mean thatís the way you must feel, really, as a poet. And thatíd be great for a title of your new book, "The Bread and the Knife." What is your title going to be? I see you have almost ten pages of new work here..

Billy:
I donít know yet. Iím playing around with a number of titles. So I donít want to say one, but itís Ö usually I just pick a title from a poem Öand paste it on the front of a book. I really donít think of titles as having to be a key to the whole book. I really think of titles as an interesting couple of words on the cover that will encourage people to open the book.

Grace:
University of Pittsburgh has been really good to you over the years, and Random House will now pick up the banner for you. Do you have an editor?

Billy:
Well I just lost my editor at Random House.

Grace:
What is the relationship between a poet and his editor?

Billy:
We had a very friendly relationship, but I donít really need any editing Ö

Grace:
He doesnít change anything.

Billy:
No, he doesnít. I mean I think he, perhaps made some suggestions. We did a New and Selected Poems, and he made a few suggestions about which poems he thought should be included.

Grace:
Were they good suggestions?

Billy:
Yes, they were, but I donít need a line edit or anything. I donít want to compare myself to Nabokov, but Nabokov wrote to his publisher at one point and he said, ďBy editor, I assume you mean proofreader.Ē

Grace:
And who could edit him anyway. Billy Collins is here, and on September eleventh, he had actually been inaugurated as Poet, although we hadnít had all the festivities yet. And he did have a chance to make one of the first public statements, which I read in the New York Times, about the purpose of poetry in a time of tragedy. I thought it was a really important remark. Do you remember how you framed that event, and why poetry was called for? I know all of us got a lot of poetry. My email was glutted. And poetry was the preferred method of communication.

Billy:
Well, the expression people have used is that, in this time of crisis, people have turned to poetry. The cynic in me feels that those people will probably be turning back away from poetry, because poetry is either part of your daily life or it isnít. I think people turn to poetry in order to ritualize their grief. Poetry is a stabilizing force, because it has form. Itís a way of taking grief, and turning into something sensible. Also, I think, poetry connects us to the past in very telling and dramatic ways. I think in that comment I said something that I still feel, which is that poetry is the only history of the human heart that we have. Itís a history of human emotion. I mean, itís not a history of battles or treaties, but itís the history of human emotion. And when we feel overwhelmed with emotion, itís like looking at that history, and seeing that weíre not alone.

Grace:
The words to say it. If we could just put it in words, that takes care of it.

Billy:
Well, it stabilizes it to some degree.

Grace:
Thatís right. Music goes through us, but poetry becomes permanent, and then we can put it aside, once weíve jelled it, maybe, with words. I know Brodsky said that our only record of human sensibilities, from earliest time, was the poetry that was. We have no other record of human sensibilities but through the poetry.

Billy:
When you realize that the human sensibility is something that ties us all together, despite our individual eccentricities, and that, when you must take into account the sense that human beings have a thoroughly limited range of feeling -- we feel separation, we feel joy, we feel grief, but there is a limited number of things we can feel. And history has recorded the way human beings have registered those feelings for thousands of years. So, to read poetry, returns us to a community of feeling, and a history of feeling. And that, I think, acts as some consolation to our personal feelings. Because when we feel, when we are emotional, we feel alone, I think.

Billy:
I could read a little poem that I wrote very quickly, actually. Well maybe youíd be able to tell this was written quickly. Iíll let you decide that, but itís just about something I saw on a train quite recently, and I more or less just wrote the poem as I was observing what the poem describes, and the poem is called Love.

Grace:
I have to comment on the way you love God in your poetry. I love it.

Billy:
I hope God loves it.

Grace:
Itís in a lot of your work, itís in all the lines. I really love that. That is from your background, youíre so reverent Ö in your incorrigible way.

Billy:
Iím a bad altar boy.

Grace:
There is just so much belief at stake in your work. We must talk about the lovely Diane, when we speak of love Ö because, you know, literary gossip is important too. Billy Collins is married to this fantastic woman, Artemis, who is an architect? She is now about to be a furniture designer. Sheís a visual artist, and she is very charismatic. But I want to say how humbling it must be to be married to someone who knows calculus, physics, and the wind stress of buildings. This puts you in your place, doesnít it?

Billy:
She knows real things like Ö she knows about concrete and I-beams..

Grace:
And does she wear a hard hat sometimes?

Billy:
She carries a hard hat around in the trunk of her car, and Öand stomps around these building sites, telling contractors what to do.

Grace:
Sheís a proper soulmate for you.

Billy:
Yes, I take care of the, kind of, airy stuff, and she deals with making the roof not cave in. I feel competitive with her Öbecause Iím really driven to write poems that will last longer than her buildings. "When all your buildings fall down, people will still be reading these poems!Ē Sounds like one of these Shakespeare boasts.

Grace:
Well, sheís going to be a great asset in Washington as well. Youíll have to bring her every time you come. And weíll look for her furniture design, which is about to be launched. I think that is truly exiting. Will it have a name?

Billy:
The Billy Collins Memorial Chair. No- Iíll have to stay out of that.

Grace:
Weíre at the Library of Congress, and we have time for another poem.

Billy:
Well, hereís a poem thatís called Sonnet. Itís a slightly more formal poem, and it mentions, maybe the first sonneteer, the Italian poet Petrarch, and also his, you might say girlfriend, Laura. Sonnet.

Grace:
How do you describe your education? From the beginning. Holy Cross CollegeÖ

Billy:
Jesuit would be, probably, the one word explanation. I went through the ďfull metal jacketĒ of Catholic education.

Grace:
From kindergarten?

Billy:
Well I did lapse there. I went to a public kindergarten. And then, I donít know why, but then from the first grade on, I was in Catholic school. And all this culminated with four years of Jesuits at Holy Cross College.

Grace:
Yes. Well the incense has left but I still get the essence of it in your writing.

Billy:
That education can certainly get an amazingly vivid set of religious images.

Grace:
and imagery!

Billy:
And you also get a taste for Latin, the sound of words without understanding what the words are, because as altar boys (now, altar people) memorize the Latin, presumably without having much of a clue of what it means. And so you memorize syllables. And youíre memorizing these sounds.

Grace:
The music.

Billy:
Youíre memorizing the music of the language without understanding it, and itís similar to the pleasure you get, you can get out of listening to a poem in a language you donít understand.

Grace:
If our children go to Catholic school, there's no guarantee they'll be poets, is there?

Billy:
Ö but there are examples like Gerard Manley Hopkins. It doesnít prevent poetry.

Grace:
Nothing prevents poetry in a room with Billy Collins. He has launched a website, which will be available in January 2002. We will hope that all of the teachers call the Library of Congress and find out more about it. The site is www.loc.gov/ poetry And that will give you the first image, and then you go to the home page, and punch that up, I guess, and just follow the directions from there.

Billy:
And what youíd be looking for is the program called Poetry 180.

Grace:
Thatís the title.

Billy:
And I think if you go to the homepage, youíll be directed to Poetry 180.

Grace:
And even if thereís a search mechanism, you may be able to write in Poetry 180. As you leave us today, what poem shall we remember?

Billy:
A poem is called Forgetfulness. Something that happens to us all.

Forgetfulness.

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.


Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. Her latest book of poetry is Water on the Sun c2006 (Bordighera Press.) The Xoregos Performing Company recently presented a staged reading of her new play ďHyena in PetticoatsĒ at New York City Public Library. Contact information gracecav@comcast.net. Grateful acknowledgement to Word Wrights! Magazine, 2002, and to www.cortlandreview.com whose streaming audio first featured this program