Billy Collins found his voice while living and writing in a little cottage on a larger estate on Old Army Road in Edgemont in the late 1980s. When he moved to Somers in 1989, Collins took the voice that has been the most recognized among American poets of the last 30 years with him.
“Finding your voice is a kind of creative discovery, but it’s also relative to all other poets,” Collins said. “I think finding your voice, crudely put, means you’ve figured out how to write like no one else writes.”
Seamus Heaney felt that way about one of his own early poems, “Digging.” “He said after he finished writing it he read it back and realized that no one else could have written that but him,” Collins said. “That’s what finding your voice really means.”
Poetry, for Collins, is like jazz, which is no surprise as it often makes its way into his poems, and remains, along with blues, his favorite music genre.
“I can identify I’d say seven saxophone players just by hearing a little bit of them,” Collins said. “And that’s amazing to take an instrument that clearly thousands of people have played and you figure out a way to sound like you. John Coltrane sounds like nobody but John Coltrane. That’s a thrilling point in a writer’s life, especially a poet’s life, is having a voice. I discovered that during the ’80s.”
Collins, who turned 79 last month, began teaching at Lehman College in the Bronx in 1968 and after a couple of years living in the city he realized his writing needed a change of scenery. His mother saw an ad for a “quaint” cottage with two fireplaces in Edgemont and he moved there in 1970. After publishing a pair of chapbooks, “Pokerface” in 1977 and “Video Poems” in 1980, Collins made his more mainstream debut with 1988’s “The Apple that Astonished Paris.”
Still, his best was yet to come.
1991’s award-winning “Questions About Angels” may have been published after Collins moved, but the roots were deep in Edgemont soil as he began writing that collection locally. Collins sent renowned poet Miller Williams a group of poems, of which Williams chose the 17 best and instructed Collins to pen 17 more like that to have a complete collection. He was on his way and a year later he had a work he could be proud of.
“The germination of my writing really started in Scarsdale,” Collins said.
Collins, who attended Archbishop Stepinac in White Plains, grew up knowing he wanted to be a poet. In high school he was strictly writing poems.
“I didn’t want to write anything else,” he said. “I wanted to be a poet ever since I was a teenager, but in a very aspirational way. I was aspiring to be a poet and I knew I wasn’t very good and I still kept trying. I thought I’d never be very good and I thought if I could get a book out and sell a thousand copies I could die a happy person.”
It wasn’t until he was in his 30s that it “started clicking together” in Edgemont. “Although I like the city, my writing voice didn’t like the city,” he said. “I found it difficult to write when I was in the city. I grew up in Westchester from about [the] age of 12 on.”
All of Collins’ homes, from Edgemont to the mid-19th century antique house in Somers to his house in Florida, where he’s lived for close to a decade, are conducive to writing, as are the small towns he’s called home. The house and cottage at 135 Old Army Road were, he learned, torn down and the whereabouts of the commemorative plaque that former friend and property owner Daniel Sciarra put on the cottage in 2002 is unknown.
“The main house was set back from the road and the cottage was set even farther back, so it was very quiet there, a lot of privacy,” Collins said. “That’s probably what I needed. I live in a similar house in Florida now in a small town. It’s very quiet now, but ordinarily quiet also.
“The older indigenous sweet little houses are being torn down and these narcissistic monsters, temples to the ego are replacing them.”
“Whale Day,” which comes out Sept. 29, will be Collins’ 13th collection since “Questions About Angels.”
“Who knows what the world will look like, but I have a book tour set up and all that,” Collins said referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have the book cover. Flap copy. All the ingredients are taken care of, so it’s in line to be published in September.”
Publishing a collection every two or three years isn’t necessarily on purpose. If the quality isn’t there, the collection isn’t ready.
“When I’m writing poems I’m never thinking, ‘I’ve got to get a collection together,’” Collins said. “It’s kind of like cuts on a record — I’m doing one poem at a time. But it turns out that with my rate of productivity or laziness that in two or three years I’ll have maybe 60, 65 poems I think might add up to a book. Sometimes I’ll put them all together and see that I don’t have a book because 20 of the poems are not even A-minuses, so I’ll write some more.”
Collins has two main readers, his wife Suzannah and Manhattan-based poet George Green. Green has been a thoughtful eye for more than a decade.
“He gives them As, Bs and we don’t get any lower than Cs. We just don’t do that,” Collins said. “If he wasn’t spot on right 90 percent of the time I wouldn’t keep sending them to him. He’s kind of an aesthetic conscience because he’ll identify the weaker poems.
“A weak poem in a book is a poem that’s weak in comparison to the best poems in the book. So you’re judging the poems by your best poems. He knows what my best poems are. He knows where to give the As.”
There are around 20 poems that might not make the cut for a collection, but the majority of Collins’ works that don’t see the light of day wind up in the wastepaper basket.
“Something I have now that I didn’t have before is earlier on I would labor over a poem and rewrite it and rewrite it,” Collins said. “Robert Frost said you can’t fret a poem into being, you can’t worry it into being, you can’t force it into being. The poem has to show some cooperative interest and for me the poem has to show an interest in traveling, it has to show momentum. If I find out after 20 minutes it just doesn’t want to go anywhere I just get rid of it, throw it away and do something else… I try to ditch uncooperative or C-minus poems. I try to get them into the landfill as quickly as possible.”
Live daily readings
Although Collins had no interest in social media, his agent set up a Facebook page many years ago. Collins didn’t give it a second thought until March 23, when he made his quarantine debut on Facebook Live at the urging of Suzannah. With the exception of April 18, Collins has gone live at facebook.com/BillyCollinsPoetry/ around 5:30 p.m. to read poems during the pandemic as many other artists of all sorts were taking to social media to reach out to people who were sheltering in place. Collins has an international following.
“The little program I do for Facebook is there for me every day and it really gives me some structure to have one thing to do rather than have absolutely nothing to do,” he said.
It started out with about eight minutes for his first session and one poem each for the first three days, but Collins soon graduated to two and then three poems each time and on Tuesday he read six poems. More recent sessions have seen Collins stay on for close to a half hour. “It got more of an intimate feel once I started to relax into it and started to get all this feedback from people,” Collins said.
The big challenge for Collins — and he sees this with late night comedians like Jimmy Kimmel — is not having audience reaction during his readings. Collins has a dry, casual sense of humor constantly on display in his works and when he speaks — he was awarded the first Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry in 2005 — but for him it’s strange not being able to “read the crowd, look at their faces and see what they need, sort of.”
Suzannah is the producer, director and camera operator, and does hair, makeup and lighting as they shoot on an iPhone. Collins sits at the desk in his home office, which has become of interest to many of his followers. The artwork often changes and he discusses what’s hanging behind him, but the biggest mystery is what appears to be a shovel leaning against the wall behind him that seems to disappear and reappear as the days go by. “I don’t know what people are talking about,” he joked. “They’re hallucinating. I don’t have any farm equipment or gardening equipment in my office. That’s crazy. You’ll just have to say you couldn’t get it out of Collins.”
What Collins is doing on Facebook is somewhat similar to what he did as poet laureate of the United States from 2001-03, and that’s to make poetry accessible to the population. One of his big focuses as poet laureate — he was later named New York State’s poet laureate in 2004 — was delivering poetry to students. In addition to a long speaking tour at schools, including one at Edgemont High School in 2002, Collins edited two anthologies, “Poetry 180” and “180 More,” so students could read a poem by a different author each day, exposing them to the many different voices of the genre. He believes the 360 poems from the “180” anthologies still stand up today. (The first 180 are available at loc.gov/poetry/180/p180-list.html.)
“Being poet laureate there is kind of an obligation that’s not written, but to go out and spread the word, to bring poetry to more people,” Collins said. “Because I don’t like a lot of poems — I don’t think they’re worth reading — I wouldn’t go out and say you should read more poetry. I’d say here are two anthologies, you should read these poets. That’s why I don’t read many other poets on the Facebook thing. I might do that a little more maybe, but this is all Billy Collins poetry. So I’d recommend myself.”
Some Collins classics for newcomers to get introduced to his work include “Introduction to Poetry,” “The Lanyard,” “Forgetfulness,” “You, Reader” and “Nostalgia.”
Though on Facebook he’s only read a handful of poems that aren’t his, he’s reaching not only his fans, but creating new ones among his more than 40,000 page followers. Some of his sessions have been viewed by more than 10,000 people, and each reading garners hundreds of comments, which he enjoys reading afterward.
While each session is a glimpse, the MasterClass, which is three or four hours long and was cut from 18 hours in front of the camera over three days, is “pretty much everything I know about poetry.”
“I try not to make it like a professor-student class,” he said. “I just try to read two or three poems and say a little something about them, maybe demystifying the poetry experience a little bit by taking them inside the writing of it and making that seem like it’s a perfectly natural thing to do with language.”
Though Collins said he tries not to go back to his professorial ways, it’s not that easy and you can learn a lot about the background of his poems, his thought process and how he has been inspired by artists, writers and the world around him for decades. More recently he’s developed themes for his daily readings. He might even break into a lesson about oxymorons such as “social distancing,” or wax poetic about how the coronavirus has impacted society.
As Collins said in his April 19 broadcast, “The virus is slowing us down to the speed of poetry.”
A perfect summation of life during April, also known as National Poetry Month.