A Backstory to a Billy Collins
I would call this less of an interview - and
more of an encounter with Billy Collins.
I began studying the award-winning poet because
of his exposure of all places on
YouTube. The crowd there loves him. There have been
several animated videos made with Collins reciting
his poetry as a voice-over.
Hes one of the more popular poets in the
world, selling 100s of thousands of his
books. Theres a site where you can listen to
him recite many of his works: www.bestcigarette.us
Collins has a very conversational, and yet
precise way of writing that I enjoy very much. He
doesnt like wordy poems, nor do I. And, his
work has some meat on the bones that is very
He was riding a motorcycle when I got him on his
cell phone. It was a confluence of mixed
communication with his voice, my voice, and the
wind blowing raucously between us.
Right off, I asked him if hed support a
Poetry Category on YouTube. (Im at the
forefront of this ongoing campaign.)
I was somewhat surprised that he actually tried
having a conversation with me. I imagined the
67-year-old poet with one hand on the bike and the
other on the phone. One of us suggested we talk
So later on, I called Billy Collins, the former
Poet Laureate of the United States (2001 and 2003)
and the Literary Lion of the New York Public
We spoke briefly. He asked me more questions
than I asked him. He wanted to know who I really
and why did it matter if YouTube had a
I dont know if you need a
category, he began. Im all for
poems being in unexpected places. Im all for
arranging poetry as an ambush
that is to
say, poetry in places you dont expect to find
When Collins was acting Poet Laureate, he said
he put poetry on the sides of buses.
I created a channel on Delta airlines
you know with the earphones you plug in for
music? Well I had a poetry channel
As the Vice President of Poetry In Motion -
- a cross-promotion with the New York Metropolitan
Transportation Authority Collins said he is
an advocate of putting poetry in places people
least expect it.
When you stumble across a poem, its
more exciting than looking for it. Ive tuned
into the radio and unexpectedly found someone
reading a poem. The listener doesnt have time
to resist the poem. Most people would not be caught
dead in the poetry section of the library; however,
theyll often enjoy it if they hear
I could tell he had a passion not just for
writing, but for sharing poetry.
People may not seek out poetry,
Collins noted, but poetry will seek them
Collins told me he created Poetry
180 - a poem a day for American High Schools
Listening to poetry can encourage students
and other learners to become members of the circle
of readers for whom poetry is a vital source of
pleasure. I hope Poetry 180 becomes an important
and enriching part of the school day.
Robert Bly is included three times among the
many poets in the Poetry 180 list. In
my research, I found a recent picture of Bly
shaking hands with Collins.
As I ponder now on our brief conversation,
Im still curious as to why Collins took a
somewhat adversarial posture with me as I advocated
a Poetry Category for YouTube.
You do your part, he said, and
Ill do mine.
To me, the statement wasnt mean-spirit,
but rather a challenge. I liked it.
I think you deal with similar themes that
my audience of men would find interesting, I
proclaimed into the telephone. And, I have a
viewership of one million people on
He was silent.
You deal with the motif of death, I
continued, and I think thats a
necessary part of masculine initiation. Its
essential to accept the reality of death in our
mytho-poetic work. And, you do it with a sense of
humor, which is very rare.
He remained silent.
So, I pressed him again on a quote I could use
for my YouTube video. He acquiesced.
I would say that poetry needs to take the
onramp onto the Information Highway, and become an
active part and presence on the Internet,
I thought that might be an important piece of
advice for MKP. I thought of Gordon Clay and his
work with www.menstuff.org
As we concluded, I thanked him for his time, and
bid him adieu.
Just as I was hanging up, he stopped me and told
me he appreciated the kind words I had said about
his writing. I was surprised. I smiled, and hung
I loved the encounter with this bright man. I
loved crossing swords and ultimately finding common
ground with such a man of heart and mind.
© 2008, Reid Baer
* * *
The fame you earn has a different taste from the
fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria
Reid Baer, an
award-winning playwright for A Lyons
Tale is also a newspaper journalist, a poet
with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide,
and a novelist with his first book released this
month entitled Kill
The Story. Baer has been
a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and
currently edits The New Warrior Journal for
The ManKind Project www.mkp.org
He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife
Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.
* * *
Menstuff® is a registered trademark of Gordon
©1996-2019, Gordon Clay