In the quiet world of poetry, Billy Collins is a rock star. The former U.S. poet laureate regularly draws standing-room-only crowds, his books top best-seller lists, his poems enthrall readers and critics, and each time he reads on National Public Radio, he wins more fans.
He's so popular that after a skirmish between competing publishers, he won a three-book contract and a six-figure advance unheard of in the poetry genre with publishing giant Random House. His celebrity status even extends to his friendships; actor Bill Murray gave Collins a hilarious introduction at the sold-out reading captured on his Billy Collins Live CD.
Celebrated for not only his written words, but also for his wit and charm, Collins seems a natural for reading his poetry to adoring audiences. Asked about it, he explains:
"I have really no interest in any of my poems once they're written, and to give public readings is to feign interest."
Wait, what? Could it be that "America's favorite poet" doesn't like us as much as we like him? Is he faking it to please his fans?
Generously, he softens this admission.
"But, I'm happy to do it and I'm grateful to be invited and it's gratifying ... to get the feedback from people, because writing poetry is one of the most solitary things you can do."
Whew. So maybe the love is mutual.
Collins, who turns 67 on Saturday, has created a brand of poetry that illuminates ordinary life experiences, with observations both laugh-out-loud funny and insightful. Take "Litany," for instance, which opens with the poet saying things like, "You are the dew on the morning grass," but quickly moves on to insist, "There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air."
"The perfect poem for me to write," Collins says, "... would be a poem where you, the reader, can't tell if I'm being serious or funny, and the poem is simultaneously both."
The characterization actually applies to his tales of being a 15-year-old, when, as an aspiring poet, he says, he wrote plenty of horrific verse.
"Most of it featured imagery that you would find in a tattoo parlor knives, daggers, barbed wire around my heart," he deadpans. "I had my heart broken by some insensitive ninth-grade girl, so that spurred me on."
He didn't publish his first volume of poetry until after age 40. He pleads ignorance in regard to what he was doing in "those missing years," though he and many thankful would-be poets know he was working as an English professor, most recently at Lehman College in New York.
Collins downplays any contributions he may have made to a younger generation of poets by claiming that much of his art can't be taught.
"You can be a guidance counselor to writers," he says, "... but very little of what happens in the throes of composition is transferable or even explainable.
"A fellow poet once said, "If I knew where my ideas came from, I would go there and not come back.'"
Fortunately for fans everywhere, Collins remains stuck here even at those pesky readings with all of us.