He’s a 73-year-old university professor whose poems carry a wry sense of humor and a widespread appeal. She’s a 53-year-old rocker with a shock of long blond hair and a crop of smart, lyrical songs. Tonight, Billy Collins and Aimee Mann will appear together onstage at UCSB’s Campbell Hall to offer up their distinct yet complementary forms of word play.
In advance of their Santa Barbara appearance, Collins spoke to me from his home in New York about the animating spark for his poems, the writing process, and the relationship between the words on the page and poetry as a spoken form.
What’s the animating spark that begins a poem for you?
That’s a good question. Without that triggering point, there’s really nothing. Poems don’t start with plans or agendas. A poem can’t achieve flight if it’s bogged down in delivering emotional news—and the emotional news in poetry runs pretty much toward misery. So more important than any of those things is an initiating line: some single line that not only sets the poem in motion but also establishes the tone.
In my case, I think it’s usually a little bit of wonderment or curiosity about something. Maybe I could cite a poem of mine: “I Chop Some Parsley while Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice.’” In fact, I was chopping parsley for dinner, that song was on, and I was in one of those good moods where my mind was drifting. I started thinking about the three blind mice, and how they came to be blind. As soon as I knew I could take this in a silly direction, I stopped chopping parsley and started writing a poem. I followed my curiosity: was their blindness congenital, was it an explosion that caused them all to go blind, or were they separately blinded and somehow found each other? I realized there was some momentum to the thing, but I didn’t know where it was going or where it would end up. So that’s an example of an animating spark.
I’m guessing those sparks don’t tend to come when you sit down at your desk and will them forth. What do you find you’re often doing when a poem comes to you?
I came across an article in the newspaper one morning that announced what happened today in history, and it said today Cheerios was invented 70 years ago today, which was how old I was when I read the article, so I realized I was a few months older than Cheerios, and that was enough to write a poem about mortality. Yeah, you’re very right about not willing the poem into being, or as Robert Frost put it, you can’t fret or worry a poem into being. That’s why people have writer’s block, I think. They’re trying to squeeze it out of themselves. I take much more of a wait-and see-what-flies-in approach. Of course, often nothing flies in for quite a while.
Do you have a method for capturing poems—writing on napkins, say?
I try to always be prepared, as the boy scouts said, and that just means having a little notebook in a back pocket, and something to write with. I was recently caught without something to write on: I was walking in New York and felt a poem stirring, and I had absolutely nothing to write on, so I went into one of the many banks nearby and grabbed one of those pens they have on the chain and started writing the poem on the back of deposit slips.
What’s the relationship between the words on the page and the words as they sound being read aloud?
I think they’re inseparable; I don’t think there’s any such thing as silent writing. As I’m writing words, I’m hearing them. I think the mind is a little auditorium where even if you’re reading or writing in silence, you’re hearing the words. People who move their lips when they read give physical proof of that. So when I feel a poem is done, I do not leap up from the desk or get up on the roof and declaim it out loud. I would confidently take that poem that has never been said out loud into any auditorium and read it, because I already know how it sounds.
UCSB Arts & Lectures brings Billy Collins and Aimee Mann to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, April 17, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.