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Amber Paulen

Poetry Conversation: Billy Collins

6 June 2012


Last night at John Cabot in Trastevere, the small room where the literary events usually happen was packed full. Billy Collins drew a crowd, and not even for a reading, but for a discussion on poetry. The flighty light voice of Moira Egan pitched a few questions to the confident steady voice of Collins. He read a few poems. The hour passed quickly.

He talked about his beginnings as a poet, something he said writer’s invent. He began in high school, and thought he was influenced by the poetry his mom recited from her school years. He read Poetry magazine and submitted some poems to rejection; he waited twenty-some years to submit again. In the meantime, in those twenty-plus years, he learned to write. He repeated the phrase, “learned to write” so flippantly and equally loaded.

He talked about informal and formal poetry; formal means rhyme and meter, and informal means without. How Walt Whitman was the first to break these old rules. And how contemporary poetry must invoke the old predictability of rhyming and metered verse. Or as Collins suggested, reestablish the reader’s trust by creating a “game” in the poem and continuing the pattern of the game until the end. Giving a poem predictability gives it the ability to surprise, such an important element of a poem. Much of informal poetry begins with psychological problems and is unnecessarily difficult. Collins suggested beginning poems with friendly invitations. Through the poem he wants his readers to travel, and come out at the end slightly disorientated.

And he mentioned a metaphor I thought extremely pertinent to whatever kind of writing: think about writing a poem as playing with a deck of cards; some cards need to be flipped over, and some cards should remain covered. Finding the delicate balance between what is told and what is left untold in a story, in a poem, is something I struggle with, but I have found that within that balance is a sort of play: the writer plays with the reader, keeps cards covered, shows others, lets the reader form their own ideas while guiding them somehow.

Of course I bought a book, and in it I’m discovering the wonderful simplicity of Collins’s poems, their casual diction, their play, their lively titles, and their swift method of transportation. Here’s one for you to enjoy:

Advice to Writers

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devotes ants
that followed you in from the woods.



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