Billy Collins to Read at Guild Hall: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Dentist

When I heard that Billy Collins would give a reading at Guild Hall, I wanted to talk to the U. S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003). I caught up with him in transit.

I hope I'm not interrupting anything.

I am on the way to the dentist, so figure I have just a few minutes. I just spent two weeks in Italy at a writers retreat, Civitella in Ombria in a 15th century castle, so now I have to catch up with things like the dentist. I recommend going to a writers retreat: It is a unique sensation to wake up in the morning and have nothing to do, so I opted to write and came up with a dozen new poems.

Will you read them at Guild Hall on July 12?

I always read new poems [at my readings].

I've never had the good fortune to take a class with you. Do you enjoy teaching?

I've taught at Key West for 10 or 13 years. I also go to the Southampton Writers Conference--I don't have a house but I'm a good guest. My family rented in Southampton in the '50's before Ralph Lauren came and it became The Hamptons. I go during the last two weeks in July. There are workshops and readings every night, with good writers. Groucho said there are 100 better places than Europe to spend the summer, and 99 of them are on Long Island.

Do you enjoy giving readings?

I enjoy public speaking. Public speaking is the number one phobia in America, more than spiders. When I started I was nervous. The readings took place in church basements. The lectern had a glass of water near electricity. That's a bad combo: darkness, electricity, water. I do what the actors do: I work on breathing. I get confidence from doing it. I do 30-35 readings a year. This is my first time reading at Guild Hall.

I fear that poetry has fallen out of fashion, or thought to be dangerous. What is the role of the poet in society?

I think about traditional poetry. The genre of the novel marginalized poetry. It became the "Poor Little Match Girl" of literature. Poetry talks about parts of human experience that other media doesn't cover. Poetry is the ultimate freedom of speech, wandering in directions that no other genres explore. The role of the poet is to make society read poetry, and pay attention to certain themes that come up again and again, like carpe diem: we don't have much time; stop and smell the roses.

Did you hear that a teacher in Connecticut was fired for reading aloud from Allen Ginsberg's poem "Please Master?"

A teacher in L.A. was fired for reading my poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes."

That's a very sexy poem, a great expression of relationship to a predecessor poet, and in a great poetic tradition.

Besides, high school is not reflective of the mores of the culture. I was in high school when I started writing poetry. The beats were models. I wrote fake beat poems. It was a Catholic high school in White Plains. In the '60s in Paris I hung out in the same cafes with Gregory Corso. Ann Campbell was a girlfriend of his. Realites had an article on the American beats calling her "Queen of the Beats." I thought, if I ask her out, would I be "King of the Beats."

That title actually went to Jack Kerouac, who by the way is known for his poetry as well as his "true life novels." What's happening when you compose a poem?

Best time to write is when I am flatlining, unemotional. The reader should be emotional, not the poet. The poet should be thinking about verbal strategies to manipulate the reader into an emotional state. In my poetry, I don't convey a lot of personal misery, or what is called baggage. In my poems, I am only allowed one carry-on

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