Thursday, January 15, 2009

Billy Collins

From the poet Billy Collins' conversation with James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief, Barnes & Noble Review:

JM: Since Ballistics is your ninth or eleventh book, depending upon what you're counting, I'm wondering if the enterprise of writing poems has changed for you in any way in the course of composing that shelf of volumes.

BC: I think there may be some subtle changes. Some poets develop in very distinct ways by getting either better or worse. I wonder about the legitimacy of expecting improvement from writers, which seems to press more heavily on fiction writers than poets. The disappointing second novel is measured against the brilliant first novel -- often no novel lives up to the first. Literary improvement seems like an unfair expectation. I don't know anyone who's getting better in life particularly. I don't see signs of improvement in people I know [LAUGHS], or in politicians, or in me for that matter.

The reason I said that poets don't need to develop is tied up with the idea of the persona. While I don't much like the expression "finding your voice, " my sense is that the important breakthrough moment for a poet is when he or she has developed a kind of character through which he or she can speak with ease. This character -- or persona -- resembles the poet in many ways but is clearly a refinement of the actual person. Your persona is your better. And what marks that discovery of a character is the conviction on the poet's part -- and subsequently, we would hope, on readers' parts -- that this character is different from all other poetic characters, at least in some small way. So once a poet has put together that character, perhaps like some kind of Frankenstein monster, borrowing this and that from other poets, a style is established. In my own case, I find that once I had constructed a persona, I had no real interest in changing to a radically different voice. I know my voice has a limited range of motion; I don't write dramatic monologues and pretend to be other people. But so far, my voice is broad enough to accommodate most of what I want to put into my poetry. I like my persona; I often wish I were him and not me.
Read the complete dialogue.

--Marshal Zeringue