A poet's surprising war of words


While rival publishers vie over rights to his work, poet Billy Collins keeps at his craft -- watching ducks and waiting for inspiration.

January 16, 2000|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- The man whom the New York Times has called the most popular poet in America slides into the booth of a Greenwich Village restaurant looking tired. Having just completed one interview, Billy Collins is about to begin another, and he's not comfortable talking about himself as much as he has been asked to do in the last few weeks. He'd rather talk about his poetry.

But for Collins, art and personality are almost inseparable these days. His poetry, which has been published and praised for 12 years, has now pushed him into the news. The 58-year-old poet's work has been caught in something of a tug-of-war; specifically, he is having difficulty persuading a previous publisher to sell the rights to dozens of his poems to a new one.

Last fall, Random House gave Collins an almost unheard-of six-figure contract for three books, the first of which, "Sailing Alone Around the Room," would be a collection of new poems and others from previous books, including three published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. But "Sailing" hit a snag when Pittsburgh refused to let Random House reprint those 61 poems.

The academic press worries that the inclusion of the poems in "Sailing" will cut into the sales of its existing Collins books. Collins maintains that the opposite would happen; that the publishing giant's marketing of "Sailing" would boost the Pittsburgh's sales. And if he's wrong, he says, he's offered to take a smaller royalty from Pittsburgh.

"Poets don't get advances," Collins says, swirling his snifter of Jameson's. "It's unprecedented. It says a little something about my poetry and about Random House's new commitment to poetry."

'A grass-growing mood'

Despite the present impasse, "Sailing" will come out, he says, though probably not on the same schedule. Putting together a book of new poetry is not that easy. Poems, Collins explains, are "like a little something landing on your shoulders." About 60 land on his each year, and of those, he thinks maybe half are worth publishing.

"Poets have a lot of time on their hands," he says. "I'm always busy doing something. But busy may be looking at ducks through binoculars. Poetry requires ... keeping your periscope up and being in what [Herman] Melville called a 'grass-growing mood.' "

By way of example, Collins talks about how he got the idea for a new poem, "Bodhidharma." It was while he was walking his dog, Jeannine, around the lake near the 19th-century farmhouse he inhabits with his wife, Diane, and two large cats in northern Westchester County, N.Y.

"Bodhidharma was the man who brought Buddhism to China from India in the fifth century A.D.," he explains. "He was a huge, hulking figure depicted on a little reed. The smoothness of the water reminded me of [Bodhidharma's trip]. The poem was kind of a meditation on that travel. ... I thought the poem through as I was walking. There was a hurry to get home because poems are fleeting little things."

At home, Collins spent close to an hour giving the poem "shape and movement." Then, as he does with most poems, he would tinker with it over the next week, maybe the next month, before he considered it a finished work.

"I think of myself as a sociable poet," he said, "a minor player in a long tradition that would extend directly from Horace and Catullus to Pope and Byron, and the Romantics to some degree, and certainly Whitman, poets who are extremely aware of the presence of a reader. ... The reader's really secondary to my own pleasure, but I'd like it to be a shared pleasure."

Making a living

Poetry, he says poetically, is something he has done with his left hand. With his right, he has taught English at Lehman College (part of the City University of New York) in the Bronx since 1969; he also teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. Taking the academic route made the most sense for one with a Ph.D. in English literature; Collins never thought he could make a living writing poetry.

He got his first literary impulse when he was around 9 or 10 in the back seat of his parents' car as the family drove along Manhattan's East Side Highway. "There was a sailboat with sails up sailing down the East River. ... I asked my mother for a piece of paper and pencil, and I wrote something down. ... I don't know what it was, probably the fact that there's this wind-driven thing that is moving through this landscape of concrete.

"Then," he concludes, "I laid off writing for 10 years." Collins, a "well-adjusted" only child of an insurance broker and nurse, attended parochial schools through college, at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. It was around that time that he returned to poetry.

"I took 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' very seriously," he said. "I was Stephen Dedalus with bongos. ... I was writing extremely false poetry then; I wanted to be a poet because I thought it was a cool thing to do. I wanted to go to Paris and smoke big cigarettes, [be] the angry young man.

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