Billy Collins on the funny, serious poem

Billy Collins
Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003, has a new collection of poems entitled "Aimless Love." Collins was photographed at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

As a former poet laureate of the United States, Billy Collins is used to reading before large crowds of people. Though he reads for them, he doesn't write for them.

"It's really kind of ridiculous to talk about one's own successes or popularity, but I've developed, I guess you'd call it, a fan base of steady readership," he said. "I just want to make it clear that when I'm writing I'm never thinking of the public, or an auditorium full of book-buyers. I'm basically trying to communicate with one reader, some anonymous individual. Because I think of the poems as really being quite intimate. Even though I'm happy and sometimes delighted to read them in public ... When I'm writing I'm trying to just think of my consciousness and one other person's consciousness and trying to get them to overlap.

"But, happily, that seems to be multiplied into lots of people who tend to buy books."

In an interview Thursday on The Daily Circuit, Collins spoke about his writing process and his new book of poems, "Aimless Love." The book has debuted at No. 14 on the New York Times bestseller list.

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'Aimless Love' by Billy Collins
Book cover courtesy of publisher

One signature of Collins' work is that it's funny. Part of his development as a poet, he explained, involved his discovery that it's possible to be funny without being clownish, which he had not understood before.

"Nobody did," he said, "starting with the English Romantic poets. They killed humor. They eliminated both humor and sex from poetry. They substituted landscape. Which strikes me as a pretty bad deal, I think, for the reader."

"I was suppressing whatever sense of humor I had. I didn't think it belonged in poetry. I thought it was indecorous." But then he found that humor could be "a point of entry into something more serious."

"In more serious poetry, humor is a strategy ... you can start out by engaging the reader with something funny, and then the poem can sneak in the serious stuff at the end, or it can go the other way."

Another step in his development was to learn to write in his own voice. He was unable to get a book published until he was past the age of 40. "I was doing what a poet or any creative person should do," he said. "I was being influenced by other poets, or other trumpet players for a trumpet player. I was imitating their voices, but I was doing such a bad job of it ... I was just producing what you would call travesties of their voices. I think I was learning something about poetry, but I hadn't found my own voice."

And now he produces work that he believes is uniquely his.

"The late great Seamus Heaney talks about his signature poem, called 'Digging,'" Collins said. "He wasn't boasting about the greatness of the poem, but he was convinced that no one else could have written that poem but him. Prior to that — and I had the same experience, but not in one flash — you have a sense that, 'Yeah, that's OK, but other people could have written that poem.'

"There's a tipping point in one's career, if you ever get there, where you're writing poems that you're pretty sure no one else could write."

Collins is in town for appearances at the Pantages Theatre and A Prairie Home Companion.