An Interview with Billy Collins , New York State Poet Laureate 2004-06
By : Farideh Hassanzadeh ( Mostafavi) , Iranian poet and translator

Introduction :

One day I was reading the Plume Review. Among the poems, ‘The Death of the Hat’ by Billy Collins amazed me. I read it many days and nights and felt thirsty to read more poems by him. Reviewing at American sites, I found he was one of the most famous poets of America: United States Poet Laureate (2001-2003) and New York State Poet Laureate 2004-06. In spite of the many prizes he had won, I had a sense that he was my own discovery!
I wrote to him and I was disappointed to receive answer; for a simple reason:
Well known people are arrogant. He kindly answered to my e-mail and humbly accepted my request for an interview. And generously sent me his books.

Billy Collins as a poet has unveiled the sad mask that poetry is bound to abide to. He has taught poetry how to smile. He can express to the reader the most tragic love affairs or political issues with such a great confidence that the reader instead of feeling petrified, will unfetter. This kind of poem turns an absurdist reader to an optimist who can venture into everyday life, without fear of failing.

Collins showed considerable intelligence throughout the interview. The roots of the word poetry in Farsi (Persian), comes from perception. In this respect he is a true poet. Also Collins has a great sense of humor. My effort in this interview is to highlight this aspect of a very popular American poet.

                                                                                         Farideh Hassanzadeh ( Mostafavi)

Farideh : You are a well-known poet .Please tell me what are the good or bad points of being well known? Ann Stevenson in her book Bitter Fame claims that Sylvia Plath 's greatest mental distress was Fame. She needed it . James Tate in one of his essays says , An artist needs art. Fame for a true artist is luxurious. What is your interpretation ?

Billy Collins:Novelists, playwrights, painters and others may hold in their heads the expectation of fame, but not poets. Having chosen that road, all one can dream of is the jealousy of one's rivals. Celebrity is unexpected and almost unseemly--it forces one to wear a constant look of chagrin, if that is possible. Unless you are Byron, who was the first poet to become a star. At its worst, fame means being known by strangers--enough to bring on waves of paranoia.

Farideh : In America I know poets who have published translations of other poet’s works in their books. Do you believe the translation of a poem is in fact a form of recreation by which the resulting poem belongs to the translator and not to the poet?

Billy Collins: For the translator of poetry, there is no activity that brings you into a closer, more intimate contact with language, both the second language and your own language, which translation allows you to experience freshly. Of course, translation is the impossible art which is why it attracts often the best minds, at least those driven by difficulty. The best metaphor I know for translation is from my friend Eamon Grennan, who translated the poems of Leopardi. It's like walking in a clear mountain stream, looking at colorful stones in the water. You find one so gorgeous, you put it in your pocket, take it home and put it on a shelf. In the morning you are surprised that the stone looks so dull and without luster. You have the stone, but you have removed it from the water of its home language so it has lost its luster.

Farideh : I've translated your poems not at my desk but at a veil of tears, due to their purity. Which stream of water do you know , my dear poet , with more lustre than a drop of tear ? It polishes the hardest stones .

Billy Collins: It is important for the poet not to be emotional because you cannot see the world clearly with tears in your eyes.

Farideh :In 1949, Muriel Rukeyser wrote : "Poetry is foreign to us ,we don't let it enter our daily lives."
Does poetry have an acknowleged place in American life today ?

Billy Collins:Poetry in America is no longer a dirty word. While it is still far from the center of the culture, it is moving slowly inward from the margins. I believe more and more people are shedding their outmoded notions of poetry as an exotic hobby--the result of bad teaching and worse public image problems--and coming to the realization that poetry is about their lives. Poetry is about them.

Farideh : And I should be very obliged if you would please tell me the name of your favourite poets in America, England , and other countries.

Billy Collins: I find it impossible to think of "favorite" poets. I would rather list the ones I cannot stand.

Farideh : Nazar Qabbani , Arab poet says : Artists in their everyday life are not what they are in their works ; a kind of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. What do you think about this?

Billy Collins: The person in the poem is a character like a character in fiction whom the poet has invented--without clothes or a family, or a place of birth, just a voice--to convey himself. Any resemblance he bears to the poet you meet on a signing line is slightly less than coincidental. Meeting the author is one of life's most reliably disappointing experiences, not because authors are such nasty people, but because you have already met them under the best possible circumstance--on the page.

Farideh : I agree with you: "Meeting the author is one of life's most reliably disappointing experiences.” But regarding my favourite poet it is because:
” Beyond our body's boundaries I miss you
Beyond the veil and color...
Beyond our body's boundaries
Beyond love, I miss you ”

You know ? Whenever I read Edwards Hirsch's poems ,I feel I fall in love with someone unknown. Whenever I read your poems I feel I terribly miss someone unknown.

Billy Collins: Dear F, I expect to see Ed Hirsch at a party tonight. I will tell him that you love him, but you miss me!

Farideh : I am Farideh, not the sixth letter of the English alphabet ( F ).
My name in Farsi means precious or unique pearl. Please call me Farideh .

Billy Collins: William, I think, means "helmet of wisdom" but I still don’t understand what that means. Pearl is a good thing, something beautiful caused by pain.

Farideh : -The Turkish poet Enis Batur writes: “If ‘Death’ didn’t exist, Mankind would never write poetry. He would never need it.” The Iranian poet Soufi writes: “Everyone fears death: Poets fear it more.” How do you interpret this? To what extent do you agree with it?

Billy Collins: The underlying theme of Western poetry is mortality. The theme of carpe diem asks us to seize the day because we have only a limited number of them. To see life through the lens of death is to approach the condition of gratitude for the gift (or simply the fact) of our existence. And as Wallace Stevens said, Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.

Farideh : The Dead are no longer alive. They no longer can see. They cannot sense the fragrance in a flower any more either. Yet, it is customary that all over the world people visit their dead in cemeteries with flowers. As a poet, how do you interpret this common behavior?

Billy Collins: We visit graves because they give the illusion that the person is somewhere, in some place. But like a mandala, the gravestone
itself is a focusing device. The treatment of the dead as if they were still alive is ancient. The Egyptians would entomb you with your favorite food, flowers, even pets (poor dears). In that way, maybe we are all in some form of hopeful denial.
Do you know my poem called "No Time". I will attach it anyway.

Farideh : One night I saw my mother in sleep. She was knitting . My father asked me with utmost wonder : Why are you crying so bitterly ?They didn't know they are no longer alive. My mother was knitting and my father was about to stand up and hold me in his arms .I've never gone to cemetery to see my parents. I can’t. I wanted to say I never forget your kindness in sending me your poem: “No Time ". This was the poem I needed. Thank you. Please have another question:" How do you view the main source of war?

Billy Collins:I will just jump over the beautiful reverie on your parents (glad you liked "No Time") to the question:
Wars begin through greed and vanity and are continued through the insanity of nationalism in which the boundaries of a land replace God.

Farideh : Reading world Contemporary poetry in poetry magazines, it seems to me, the young generation have lost the TIME .They can write about very unimportant details, very relaxed and without a worry .And astonishingly they win important prizes! Their poems are talkative, and in spite of saying everything, say nothing .What do you think specially regarding ARS POETICA by Great Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova:
you simply won't have time
to correct your mistakes.
write each of your poems ,
tersely, mercilessly,
with blood-as if it were your last .

Billy Collins: Dimitrova's poem contains ancient advice, but it's like a car alarm that has rung all night. We get used to it.
And that is why poets have been repeating this ancient theme of carpe diem--because of the weight of human complacency and the presumptuousness of being alive. Such urgency would interfere with my concentration, I'm afraid.
I can only write every poem as if it were my second to last.

Farideh : Dimitrova has written that poem at her 78. I ask myself: Did she feel such urgency If she was young? One day my father at 80
said: O God ! Your world is at the end of itself .His nurse, a very beautiful young lady sneered: Poor old man! He is dying and he thinks it is the end of the world!
Anyway I feel this urgency in your poems : The FIRST DREAM and ISTANBUL more than Dimitrova's poem. And I don't know why. ? And of course it is not like a car alarm rung at all. It fills my heart with desire for immortal love and peace .

Farideh : Is poetry kind towards you? I mean is it easy for you to write a poem or do you find it difficult?

Billy Collins: The writing is not difficult, it is a pleasurable puzzle. The not writing is the painful part.

Farideh : I had a friend who was saying that she could not cry when her father died, even though she liked him. However, after she heard the news that her favorite poet had died, she could not stop her tears from falling. Since, it was the poet and the impact of his poetry that helped her manage her life in times of difficulty.
Have you ever had such a connection with a particular poet?

Billy Collins: I am careful to make such strong emotional connections only with poets who are already dead. It's hard to imagine Coleridge or John Clare being my contemporaries, but their death would get my tears running. They took my emotions to school, showed me how to feel and look at the same time.

Farideh : All over the world, there is a gap between artists and politicians. They are vastly different in their ideals. It seems in your country this gap is widening. How do you feel about America's big-stick policy towards third-world countries?

Billy Collins: I am looking closely at your question. I agree with the first part of it so much that I cannot bring myself to answer the second part. I defer to Yeats' "On Being Asked for a War Poem.":

I think it best at times like these
a poet's mouth be silent.

Farideh : And I defer to Marina Tsvetaeva :
I know the truth - give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look - it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
What do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?
And now another question :
If you could have traveled the time tunnel and were in the village of
Yelabuga; arriving on a morning when Marina Tsvetaeva has decided to commit suicide, what would you have done to make her change her mind?

PS: If you don't like to go to Yelabuga please answer this one :
What is you feeling about “the face of our Old Neighbor – God –”?

Billy Collins: Now that is a better question, maybe the ultimate one. I was raised in a fairly strict religious family and attended 16 years of Catholic schools. I feel now that my sense of the spiritual is directly connected to my sense of wonder, my ability to be amazed by the fact of my existence in all its vital impermanence AND by the spectacular environment I wake up to every morning. I am guessing that this sense of wonder is what the creator, if there is one, is still feeling.


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