An interview with Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States
Billy Collins initiated Poetry 180 as a way to help young people recognize poetry as a source of pleasure and inspiration. The program gives high school students the opportunity to hear a different poem read aloud each day. Launched in 2001, and sponsored by the U.S. Library of Congress, Poetry 180 is still going strong.
Collins is the author of many books of poetry, including The Trouble with Poetry, Nine Horses, and Sailing Alone Around the Room. The recipient of numerous awards for his poetry, he is Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College. He has been a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College, served as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library, and teaches poetry workshops internationally.
Highlights: What do you think about the way children respond to poetry?
Billy Collins: Very young children respond well and pick up on the playfulness and rhythm of song and dance. There's intrinsic joy in rhyming, and when children discover rhyme, they couldn't be happier. The spoon has something in common with the big thing in the sky, the moon. Our basic desire is to connect what's around us.
Highlights: Why do you feel so many of us, as adults, are intimidated by poetry?
Billy Collins: A poem is something to respond to in a very interpretive way. However, poems are often presented in a manner that makes them more difficult than they are. When that happens, the immediate joy that poetry conveys is replaced by a more purely mental approach. Children stop dancing and being silly with rhymes and are asked to be more serious--and that can create a lifelong fear that they won't be able to understand a poem.
Highlights: What turned you on to poetry as a child?
Billy Collins: I suppose poetry tends to come to children from their parents, if they're lucky.
Highlights: How did you start writing poetry?
Billy Collins: I started by playing around with words. When you put two words together, maybe nobody has ever put those together before. You are creating something original. The foundation is the fascination with words, with syllables. You must have a love of words and their meanings. Then, if you have something to say, that playfulness helps you say it. Poetry is a great place to be playful and serious at the same time.
Highlights: What would you like parents to know about encouraging their kids to appreciate poetry?
Billy Collins: The best thing is just to expose them to it. Show your love of poetry. It helps if the child sees the parent reading a poem out loud or saying a poem that the parent has memorized--if poetry is a normal and acceptable activity in the house. Don't create a poetry lesson. Listen to poetry in the car on CDs.
Highlights: How did you decide to create Poetry 180?
Billy Collins: I wanted to give young people a situation where they don't have to respond. They'll take in poetry as something that's amusing and playful. They don't have to think about it, even. If they hear poetry frequently enough, one of these poems will stick. I wanted to free poetry of interpretation--as a supplement to interpretation--not as a substitute to the classroom teaching of poetry.
I'm in no way against academic approaches to literature. One of the pleasures of poetry is to ferret out meaning--to explicate poetry.
Highlights: How did you select the poems to include in Poetry 180?
Billy Collins: I was looking for poems in which someone was talking to me in a direct voice, a human voice. I looked for poems that seemed to be aware of my presence as a reader and would take me on an interesting journey or play on some emotion. In some, the subject matter is aimed at students, but most are fine for adult readers, too. You can get them on the first read, and you can read them again or read them to a friend.
Highlights: What do you ask yourself when you look at a poem?
Billy Collins: What does the poet mean? How does he make his discovery? How does the poem go from place to place? You can chart the progress of the poem as you sail from one place to another.
Highlights: Poetry 180 was designed for high school students. What about younger children?
Billy Collins: A number of teachers have said, "What about middle school?" I remember what I was like as a high school student, and can relate to the concerns and feelings of those children. I don't know if I could pick poems with accuracy for younger students. A judicious teacher can find poems in the 180 books that are appropriate for much younger readers.
Highlights: How do you feel about kids memorizing poetry?
Billy Collins: I'm absolutely in favor of having my students memorize poetry. Students tend to resist it at first. Once they have the poem internalized, they are really proud. It's a gift. If it gets in there young, it stays. My mother lived until 97, and she remembered poems she'd learned as a schoolgirl in Canada.
To find out more about Poetry 180, go to www.loc.gov/poetry/180.