Billy Collins interview (2001)

this is fresh air i'm terry gross by guest billy collins is taking on his new position as us poet laureate in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks we invited him back to fresh air to read some new and old poems he has a new book called sailing alone around the room new and selected poems Collins is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York and a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College I asked him if the terrorist attacks are affecting how he sees his role as poet laureate well it's interesting in the days following the attack there was a kind of surge of poetry activity and it seemed that there was a kind of need for poetry and people turning to me as as the laureate for reactions to this I found it stepping back from it I found it interesting that at a time of national crisis that we don't turn to the novel you know we don't turn we don't say well we should all go out and see a movie and that would be kind of a make us feel better we turn to poetry and it's interesting to put that next to the reputation of poetry as being the sort of poor little MatchGirl of the literature you know the neglected genre that that has a tiny audience that it seems that in times like these poetry stands up very well I find that the following the events of sep tember 11th clearly there was that there's there was and continues to be a torrent of language on the part of the coming from the media and it's it's as if this language is trying to fill a hole somewhere that was left in America and I don't think that language ever will fill that hole but I think poetry stands apart you know in its own space with its own integrity and poetry obvious clearly one of its oldest functions has been to as a place for grief to go a place to ritualize grief and to make it possible to press and some coherent way feelings that seem to resist expression I denise levertov has a wonderful line about that she says grief is a hole you walk around in the daytime and at night you fall into it hmm I've been reading you know a lot of artists and and journalists writing about how these the impact of September 11th and this war on terrorism is affecting what artists want to say in their work and what film goers and music listeners and readers want and I'm wondering if it's I wonder if you thought about this a lot like how how our inner lives and how what we want from art is is changed at a time like this I think we want the same things that we always wanted I don't think as I've heard the irony is now passe I think it's a Miss I feel that I ranee is very much a part of our basic to our freedom of expression you know and I think I think also that occasions like this can create deadening Lee false kinds of sincerity if we forget irony and humor and also forget the everyday I think that's the most important and a catastrophe like this i mean the event certainly is too big and too stupendous for a single poem or painting or whatever to get its arms around and because i think poetry particularly is private it does announce personal feeling and it does create a chapel if you will for the importance of everyday experience and i think poetry should continue to do that I think all poems stand against the wholesale murder that took place on September 11th and I think that's more important than a poem that would be about that event that would respond to that event in mistakenly direct way after all you don't want to read a poem that delivers the news or makes the announcement that wholesale murder is morally bad right you didn't need the poem to tell you that you didn't need the poem to tell you but maybe it'll carest it but that's true well the terrorists have gone I mean they've done something that is that moved beyond language yeah I'll agree to that I think there's a trouble with I mean we use metaphor to handle if anything metaphors in jeopardy because we use metaphor to handle and explain experience we try to compare something that's hard to understand to something that we know a little better but I remember someone compared the collapse that sickening heart-wrenching architectural II spectacular collapse of the world trade center as looking like a cigarette burning down at high speed but of course that you have to realize that there are thousands of people inside that cigarette so at that point the metaphor seems absurd inadequate even offensive it's like a bad matter for orcas yeah separate turns to smoke it doesn't it doesn't collapse and tons and tons and tons of rubble I mean even just as a strut that's just an awful metaphor in every way I'm reminded of a scene in that movie I think it's called going home or coming home about those of vietnam war movie and the the the character is on leave and he joins up with his wife i think in japan for some R&R and when they finally have a moment alone she turns to him he just come back from Vietnam taking a break from Vietnam and she says well what's it like and he looks at her and if F sharp eye and says it's not like anything and that's also another moment where we're comparison falls down and where there's no file for it we have no file to put this and that's why I think it's still in the air and will continue to be in the air and we'll probably cast a shadow over the page of many writers my guess is our new poet laureate Billy Collins will talk more after Blake this is fresh air Billy Collins is my guest the United States new poet laureate he also has a new book of poems is called sailing alone around the room new and selected poems Billy were talking about the importance of still having poems that speak to everyday life Sarah poem like that of yours you'd like to read well this is a poem called morning why do we bother with the rest of the day the swale of the afternoon the sudden dip into evening then night with his notorious perfumes as many pointed stars this is the best throwing off the light cover speed on the cold floor and buzzing around the house on expresso maybe a splash of water on the face a palm full of vitamins but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso dictionary and atlas open on the rug the typewriter waiting for the key of the head a cello on the radio and if necessary the windows trees 50 100 years old out there heavy clouds on the way and the lawn steaming like a horse in the early morning we have you gone through a period of feeling both almost you know like relieved to be alive and guilty about feeling quite that way that that you should be feeling sad and not feeling that sense of relief no I feel I mean I try to feel this is not something that this is something only a saint could sustain that I try to maintain the feeling of gratitude I think gratitude is the gratitude for existence for daily experience for being alive is at the core of so much poetry and the poetry so much of it lyric poetry really reiterates the simple joy or the simple blunt fact of actually existing that's my feeling about all haiku just about I mean every haiku i think is essentially saying the same thing it might be about a you know a cherry tree or a frog jumping into a pond but these incidental and seemingly peripheral observations are at their very heart our declaration that I was here to see this I existed I saw this frog period and thats efficiency is I think part of the prayer of gratitude that a lot of poems offer you've also written some poems that are about death but are also about life I'm going to ask you to read one of them and this is a poem called no time it was written pretty recently I think to recently to be included in your new collection sailing alone around the room but I first read this poem a few months ago and quite like it I'm going to ask you to read it for us no time in a rush this weekday morning I tapped the horn as I speed past the cemetery where my parents are buried side by side under a smooth slab of granite then all day long I think of him rising up to give me that look of knowing disapproval while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down when did you write that and maybe you could tell us a little bit about the writing of the poem I think I wrote that in the car that's one of these poems that just came out i think i may have might have changed the word or two just for for sound but there is a road that goes by a cemetery where my parents are buried it's a road I'd travel sometimes and often feel compelled to stop and make a visit but I did actually tap the horn I just could feel that my father would would feel that that was rather inadequate acknowledgement is passing and that my mother as usual would step in to reassure him that the boy is okay so I it's I don't know it's a little poem fond of because I I think it it mixes two things I try to mix in a lot of poems maybe not as successfully which is something that's somewhat humorous and something that somewhat sorrowful the fact that my parents are buried there is is a heavy bit of the poem but the way I turn it into a kind of Thurber asked marriage with the disapproving husband and the reassuring mother tries to leaven it with some lightness their humor reading that poem both before and after September 11th I had slightly different reactions I I mean I after September 11th I started thinking about how the people who died before missed such a fundamental change in American life I mean I know several people who died this year and that they to think that they left right before they don't they'll never know they'll never know how everything changed I felt the same way and I felt it pretty immediately I felt especially my parents I felt that they were spared that they did not have to see that and that almost they I think the people who died prior to september's 11th to me in so far as I thought about them felt like children that had been that I was happy happy that they've been protected and spared that that experience I'm going to ask you to choose a poem here well I have a poem called the parade which is about simply death as natural process the parade how exhilarating it was to march along the great boulevards in the Sun flash of trumpets and under all the waving flags the flag of desire the flag of ambition so many of us streaming along all of humanity really moving in perfect sync yet each lost in the room of a private dream how stimulating the scenery of the world rows of the roadside trees the huge blue sheet of the sky how endless it seemed until we veered off the broad Turnpike into a pasture of high grass heading toward the dizzying cliffs of mortality generation after generation we have shouldered forward under the gliding clouds until we high step off the sharp lip into space so I should not have to remind you that little time is given here to rest on a wayside bench to stop and bend to the wild flowers or to study a bird on a branch not when the young keep shoving us from behind not when the old are tugging us forward pulling on our arms with all their feeble strength tell us about when you wrote that I think I I came up I mean often am a poem is just well for me maybe it's been my limits of my imagination that I take one metaphor and just kind of extend it as far as I can so it just occurred to me to use the parade as in the parade of life without exactly falling into that cliche and and I think there's a sense of that you know the there is a there's a natural progression right your parents died before you do they're supposed to and your children died after you and that logic to get back to September 11th we which keeps them which keeps intruding on any conversation anyone is having these days that that that people went grotesquely out of order the order the natural progression of the parade toward the graves was grotesquely violated Billy Collins is my guest he's the new us poet laureate he also has a new collection of poems called sailing alone around the room new and selected poems you listen to a lot of jazz and the recordings that you listen to the musicians who you like most show up in a lot of your poems I'm going to ask you to read one of those poems it's called nightclub tell us something about it before you read it I actually jazz is usually on in the house and I read i write about jazz only because it tends to kind of leak into the writing as I'm going along I usually don't sit down and say I'm going to write about jazz and in it was one afternoon Johnny Hartman was playing in the background I kept hearing I was writing something else but I kept hearing words like beautiful and foolish and love and love and view the in foolishness and that that they just seemed to be kind of revolving words almost as you would have an assist ena alloyed to know the patience to write one of those and that's the way the poem got started it's called nightclub you are so beautiful and I am a fool to be in love with you is a theme that keeps coming up in songs and poems there seems to be no room for variation I have never heard anyone saying i am so beautiful and you are a fool to be in love with me even though this notion has surely crossed the minds of women and men alike you are so beautiful too bad you are a fool is another one you don't hear or you are a fool to consider me beautiful that one you will never hear guaranteed for no particular reason this afternoon I am listening to johnny hartman whose dark boys can curl around the concepts of love beauty and foolishness like no one else's can it feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette someone left burning on a baby grand piano around three o'clock in the morning smoke that billows up into the bright lights while out there in the darkness some of the beautiful fools have gathered around little tables to listen some with their eyes closed others leaning forward into the music as if it were holding them up or just twirling the loose ice in a glass slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream yes there is all this foolish beauty born beyond midnight that has no desire to go home especially now when everyone in the room is watching the large man with the tenor sax that hangs from his neck like a golden fish he moves forward to the edge of the stage and hens the instrument down to me and nods that I should play so I put the mouthpiece to my lips and blow into it with all my living breath we are all so foolish my long bebop solo begins by saying so damn foolish we have become beautiful without even knowing it you were telling me you usually end your readings with that poem what do you choose that poem to endless I think at the I think it says something almost sentimental at the end but I I think I really mean what I said there at the end and perhaps the whole poem is a sort of elaborate setup that allows me to say that who we are beautiful it could be that cloning the Collins thank you so much for talking with us and for reading for us it's been all my pleasure turn Billy Collins is the new poet laureate of the United States his new book is called sailing alone around the room new and selected poems who in selected poems who in selected poems who in selected poems who in selected Paul you

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