It’s the birthday of American poet Billy Collins (1941) who once said, “While the novelist is banging on his typewriter, the poet is watching a fly in the window pane.” Collins is widely considered the most popular poet in America.
Billy Collins grew up in Queens. His mother was a nurse who could recite verse on numerous subjects, and his father was an electrician who used to bring home copies of Poetry Magazine. Collins was a focused and voracious reader, tackling Compton’s Encyclopedia at the age of four before moving on to books like Black Beauty, The Yearling, and the Lassie series. His mother read to him often, and, Collins says: “I have a secret theory that people who are addicted to reading are almost trying to re-create the joy, the comfortable joy of being read to as a child by a parent or a friendly uncle or an older sibling. Being read to as a child is one of the great experiences in life.”
Collins never attended a writing program, or took writing workshops, though he did meet poet Robert Frost when Frost visited his class at Holy Cross College. The students were shy, though, so Frost spent most of the evening talking to the Jesuits. Collins remembers mostly staring into his soup. He published his first poems in the back of Rolling Stone magazine. They paid $35.00 a poem. He didn’t publish his first book until he was 40 years old. He said, “I thought I would be completely content if I was recognized at some later point in my life as a third-rate Wallace Stevens.”
Billy Collins uses a Uni-Ball Onyx Micropoint pen in 9 x 7 notebooks to draft his poems before typing them out. When he thinks he might have enough for a book, he puts all the pages on the floor and walks on top of them in his stocking feet, trying to figure out the order. He revises his work carefully, he says, because, “Revision can grind a good impulse to dust.”