Vol. 110 (2021) 

Five Questions for Poet Billy Collins

By Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.  

Sayreville, NJ, USA

The way former Poet Laureate Billy Collins describes it, one might get the impression that writing poetry was the simplest, most natural thing. A pencil. Paper. Time alone with both. Alas: a poem.

Perhaps the poems are as easy as stringing a chord for Collins because he has practiced that strumming since 1977, with the release of his very first collection, Pokerface. Practiced even before then. Practiced even more intensely after. And practices, still, less than one year after the release of Whale Day: And Other Poems (Random House, 2020), Collins’s thirteenth collection of poetry.

During the months leading up to the release of Whale Day, our individual and connected lives grew not with anticipation but with fear. The COVID-19 pandemic put its fingers everywhere, shutting down small businesses, cancelling major events, postponing poetry readings. More and more, the people around us struggled to breathe.

To encourage stronger connections between his readers (or, as he calls them, his listeners), Collins and his wife Suzannah created The Poetry Broadcast. From the time that I write this, it has been 289 days since the Broadcast’s first eight-minute premiere. Since then, Billy and Suzannah founded a space for thousands of poetry lovers from around the world. With each Broadcast, Billy and Suzannah share moments of personal joy and strife, developing an intimacy with their community. On September 29, the Broadcast even held a virtual celebration for the release of Whale Day.

Before the pandemic, millions of readers turned to Collins’s words for pause. Now, more and more every day, people are tuning into his presence as a source of consistent comfort during a time of panic and fear.

This winter, I caught up with Collins to talk about Whale Day and The Poetry Broadcast.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: Whale Day: And Other Poems marks your thirteenth collection, a powerful, superstitious sort of number. I think there is maybe even an element of superstitious play to the book which blends lugubrious tones with poetic wonder. What was the process of composing this collection like for you? What inspired the title?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, I appreciate “lugubrious” and “poetic wonder.” Being amazed while we mourn. That about sums up what poetry is best at. As for Whale Day, it occurred like all my previous collections. I write one poem after another and at some point, I realize I have enough good ones to make a book. Strictly speaking, I’ve never written a book of poems. I write one poem at a time (sounds like ball players who say they play one game at a time?), and in doing that, I’m never conscious of a poem in progress being in a book. My books don’t have themes as such. They’re more like cuts on a record than chapters in a novel. Each poem is either a keeper or fodder for the wastebasket. When I have about 60 keepers, it’s book time. As for Whale Day being my 13th collection, I have my superstitions, like never passing or receiving the salt by hand, but none based on numbers, except at the track. I like betting on odd-numbered horses. Except for 9. I have a problem with 9.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: [Now we all want a poem about the number 9!]

There is a unique and specific form to your poetry: compact stanzas, a calm, narrative voice, and the delight of unlikely connections. While much of Whale Day meditates on aging and therefor longing for the long ago, there is also (and has been throughout your work) the powerful meta-sub-theme (if you will) about the making of the poem. What does the “making” of a poem look like for you? Is there a sense of “first idea, best idea”, or is the process more contemplative?  


BILLY COLLINS: It’s something of a simplification, but writing a poem for me is letting the poem seek out its own ending. Along the way, the poem discovers itself, then decides when that’s enough, when it finds a legitimate place to stop. Sometimes, as with many other poets, the poem’s initial interest is replaced by another one. But as in music, such shifts (like from the melody to the bridge) have to make chordal sense. Ideally, I write a poem in one sitting. This encourages an organic movement so the poem sounds like someone thinking, instead of someone writing. We call the reader “the reader,” but he/she is also a listener to a person talking, as well as a reader reading someone’s writing. And yes, my speaker tends to have a calm, meditative tone. I don’t like poems that want to get after me, so I don’t write them.



ABRIANA JETTÉ: That’s a lovely point, that our readers are our listeners.

Unlike many of your other debuts, Whale Day was released in a year of a global pandemic, which changed much of how you might have celebrated and shared your work. In response to travel restrictions and business-closures, though, you created The Poetry Broadcast. Can you talk to us about what inspired the idea, and the ways the community started to form during those first few months?

BILLY COLLINS: The Poetry Broadcast was created on March 23, the day after my birthday, when my wife suggested that I could read a couple of poems on Facebook as something to do every day as we faced the prospect of a national lock-down. I’d never done social media, but I gave it a try. That first day, I read 2 or 3 poems and signed off. The episodes took 8 minutes. The broadcast is still going and has evolved into a show with music (usually jazz), poems of mine and others and a freewheeling chat about everything from the names of dogs to my favorite kind of pencil. We fill about 30 minutes now. From the start, I made it clear that I was not going to read poems designed to comfort or sooth the listener, that is, poems with a “palpable design” on the reader. I would read good poems. Larkin, Koch, Dickinson, Bishop, Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, Szymborska etc. On one episode we discussed a poem by John Donne, on another a few poems of Dickinson’s. But mostly I just read the poems. We have thousands of listeners from around the world, and sure enough, it gives me something to do every weekday.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: What are some of the more surprising moments that have occurred during the broadcast over the past 8 months?

BILLY COLLINS: One surprise was that a discussion of an interval in music called the minor 3rd led me to write a poem titled “The Minor 3rd.” I read several versions on the broadcast and the listeners/viewers had a sense that they were part of the genesis and evolution of the poem. That the poem appeared in Whale Day was the icing on that cake. The audience, over the months, also began to trust in me and Suzannah, who is a vital part of the broadcast. We were told about births and deaths, which were joyfully and sadly acknowledged.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: How has participating in this online community impacted your literary life?

BILLY COLLINS: The broadcast has become a substitute for the usual string of public appearances that I was making pre-COVID. And I am back to writing poems, or watching them roll down the page! You would think all the new free time that comes with sheltering in place would spell productivity for creative people, but the pandemic actually has bent time so out of shape, especially by removing our sense of a future, that many people, including me, have experienced a standstill, where writing seems pointless, like a low-grade depression. Only recently, have I noticed some new poems—some even keepers—piling up on my desk.


ABRIANA JETTÉ: I know I speak for so many of us when I say we can’t wait to read them. Thanks so much, Billy!

(Header photo of Billy Collins credit: Suzannah Gilman)


Billy Collins    
The Poetry Broadcast   

Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.  


Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Abriana Jetté, Ph.D., is the editor of the anthology series Stay Thirsty Poets, as well as a poet, essayist, and educator. Her work has appeared in The Seneca Review, Plume Poetry Journal, Poetry New Zealand, River Teeth, among others. Her research interests include creative writing studies and alternative pedagogies. She currently teaches at Kean University and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.