Billy Collins Interviewed on Stage at Chautauqua
Billy Collins says you can't have people in your poems.
It can only be you and your reader.
You think of all the people in your poems:
your Aunt Evelyn, your sister, your friends Linda
and Dick and Ross. John Porter.
Your mother. Your mother. Billy Collins says
your job as poet is to give your reader pleasure.
Giving pleasure has always meant
one thing to you—sex. And your reader's crotch
is the one thing you never worried about. Billy Collins says
sometimes he takes his penis off
when he writes a poem. You wonder what his penis does
when it knows its master is writing. Goes to bars? Appears
for Margaret Atwood
as a remote-signature pen? Billy Collins says strangers
don't care about your thoughts and feelings. You want
to put up your hand, tell him
about Adam, who fixed your car for nothing on a washed-up
Sunday afternoon in Ayton, Ontario. But Billy Collins is back
on pleasure. He says
how you give your reader pleasure is form. Dusty old form!
Grade ten sticking-to-your-varnished-wooden-seat iambic
pentameter! You're still mulling that
when Roger Rosenblatt asks Billy Collins why he didn't
become a jazz musician. Billy Collins says he wishes he had
become a jazz musician,
he wouldn't have to be on stage answering these questions.
So much for that egg-over-easy persona of the poems, eh?
Now he's saying no decent poet
ever knows the ending of a poem he's composing. You think
sadly of all those endings you thought of in the shower,
even though you know
you shouldn't use an adverb in a poem, even in a thought
about a poem. Then Roger Rosenblatt asks Billy Collins:
What is the importance of poetry?
Billy Collins sits up straight and says, Poetry is optional.
That's right, reader. Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate
of the United States of America
is sitting here on stage saying poetry is optional. And you
always thought people died for lack of what is found there.
Wait a minute. Something's happening
on stage. Billy Collins is donning his wings—they're
detachable, like his penis, I guess. There he goes—rising,
rising, riding the currents
of institutionalized sublimity. Billy Collins has the wingspan
of a frigatebird. Beating his defiant way across the ceiling,
beneath the track lighting,
brushing the Stars and Stripes aside. He's off to find
his roving mojo. You sigh and think about going home.
You'll have to rub out
all those people in your poems. You'll have to have a cold
shower whenever you feel an ending coming on.
You think sadly—
okay, adverbially—about your Aunt Evelyn.
you loved her. How proudly she wore her moustache