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Billy Collins '63 and The Names

Holy Cross Magazine Podcast

Billy Collins '63 was U.S. Poet Laureate in 2002 when Congress gave him what seemed like an impossible assignment: commemorate the nearly 3,000 victims of 9/11 in a poem. In the inaugural episode of the Holy Cross Magazine Podcast, Collins talks about why he balked at first and why he changed his mind, and details how he wrote the historic piece, "The Names." More on Collins and "The Names" Collins profile: “The Making of an American Poet" Holy Cross Magazine, Summer 2020 Collins' website Collins' Facebook page, home of his live broadcasts Collins' "The Names" notebooks and drafts The Paris Review Interview with George Plimpton, Fall 2001 Podcast interview with Cheryl Strayed, May 2020 Holy Cross Remembers Lost Alumni on Anniversary of Sept. 11, September 2016 Transcript of this episode: Melissa Shaw: Hello and welcome to the Holy Cross Magazine Podcast. I'm your host Melissa Shaw, Editor of Holy Cross Magazine. This podcast takes a deeper dive into stories covered in our latest quarterly issue or examines a timely topic in between publication. In this episode, we'll be focusing on the latter with the man the New York Times has called the most popular poet in America, Billy Collins, class of 1963. Collins was serving as Poet Laureate of the United States on September 11th, 2001, and was later asked by the Library of Congress to write a poem to commemorate the victims of the attacks. Melissa Shaw: He read the resulting poem, The Names, at a special joint session of Congress in September 2002. It was a work the best-selling writing doesn't discuss much. But today, in light of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Collins reflects on the assignment and the poem with writer Marybeth Reilly-McGreen, class of 1989, who profiled the native New Yorker and former New York Poet Laureate in the summer 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine. Here are Billy Collins and Marybeth Reilly-McGreen. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Thank you, Billy Collins, for being here today. And we are anticipating the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the attacks on America. At the time of the attacks you were U.S. Poet Laureate. Billy Collins: Correct. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: You were asked to write a poem, The Names, which you then presented to a joint session of Congress on September 6th, 2002. If you would, we would love it if you would read it for us now. Billy Collins: Right. I'd be happy to read it then we can... and even happier to talk about it. The poem is called The Names and there is a parenthetical epigram below the title, and it reads, for the victims of September 11th and they're survivors. Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night. A fine rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze. And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows, I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened. Then Baxter and Calabro, Davis and Eberling, names falling into place as droplets fell through the dark. Names printed on the ceiling of the night. Names slipping around a watery bend. Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream. Billy Collins: In the morning, I walked out barefoot among thousands of flowers heavy with dew like the eyes of tears, and each had a name. Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal. Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins. Names written in the air and stitched into the cloth of the day. A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox. Monogram on a torn shirt, I see you spelled out on storefront windows and on the bright unfurled awnings of this city. I say the syllables as I turn a corner, Kelly and Lee, Medina, Nardella, and O'Connor. When I peer into the woods, I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden as in a puzzle concocted for children. Billy Collins: Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash. Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton, secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple. Names written in the pale sky. Names rising in the updraft amid buildings. Names silent in stone or cried out behind a door. Names blown over the earth and out to sea. In the evening, weakening light, the last swallows, a boy on a lake lifts his oars. A woman by a window puts a match to a candle, and the names are outlined on the rose clouds, Vanacore and Wallace, let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound. Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z. Billy Collins: Names etched on the head of a pin. One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel. A blue name needled into the skin. Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers, the bright-eyed daughter, the quick son. Alphabet of names in green rose in a field. Names in the small tracks of birds. Names lifted from a hat Or balanced on the tip of the tongue. Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory. So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart. Billy Collins: To talk about the poem a little bit, I was asked by Congress, well, not everyone at once, in Congress, but I was, I received a phone call I was appointed Poet Laureate in June of 2001. And, of course, that was not too far away from September. And so being the Poet Laureate then, Congress, it wasn't Congress, it was really a group of people who were organizing this event, which was a congressional event. Congress was meeting outside of New York City, extremely rare in the history of the country. I think, maybe the second or third time that it happened. One of them occasion by the British, when the British burned down the capital. That's something we might not think of when we're buying Burberry raincoats and stuff. Billy Collins: But anyway, so they asked me if I'd write a poem to read to Congress and I balked. I mean I was sort of, "A homina, homina homina." I didn't know what to say. I wanted to say, "No, I don't think so." Because my poems are about such small things, such small matters, leading to larger matters. But this was just facing a larger matter head on, instead of telling it slant, instead of finding a way into a topic. This was facing the topic head on. And that's sort of the nature of an occasional poem, a poem that's on a certain subject, a certain event, really. Billy Collins: So I said, I did say, "No." I didn't say wouldn't show up, because you really can't say that to Congress. But I said, "I don't think I could write a poem like that." I kind of bargained my way out of it, but it took a while. I said, "I'm honored to attend and I will read something. I will find something appropriate to read and powerful." And I thought, "Walt Whitman will somehow come to my aid." But then they continued, I thought that would be the end of the conversation. They being at least three people on this conference call. Billy Collins: One of them said, "Well, if you did, just saying, if you did right upon, please include the heroism of the first responders." Another person said, "Well, yeah, if you happen to change your mind, please mention something positive about the future of our country." I mean, it's on and on like that. So the more they kind of jumped on me with all these parts that I should, the more I thought I couldn't write that poem. But one morning, like a week or so later, I woke up, startlingly, about five in the morning, it was still dark. And I thought I really should get off the bench here. I mean, this was the duty of all poets laureate in the past. Billy Collins: The reason to have a poet laureate, and is a British condition and invention, which is about 370 years old at this point. The whole idea of having a poet laureate was to preserve in writing, in rhyme and meter, which were the preservatives of ice and salt, that Yeates calls rhyme and meter, preserving sentiment and preserving national events. We didn't have videotape cameras, recorders, any of that. So the poet was to store in the national memory some event rendered in poetry. So that sort of, thinking of that at five in the morning, got my attention. That I would join this sort of noble tradition of poets laureate who wrote occasional poems. Billy Collins: But then I figured out, and this is sort of more interesting for people who write poetry than not, I figured out a way to do it. I figured out a strategy, because I was writing on demand and I figured out two things. I figured out I could write an elegy, so that's a specific genre and English literature and literature. And if you're an English major, if you get to graduate school anyway, you'll know by heart the probably six or seven great elegies in the English language. By choosing the elegy, that meant I could circumscribe the fields of my endeavor or play. It's a poem for the dead. That's what an elegy is. Billy Collins: That's why the little epigram, for the survivors, that's there, because it declares that the poem is an elegy. So I could stay within these elegy boundaries without dealing with geopolitics, the uncertainty. I mean, by then we were at war. I mean, war was declared, I think, nine or 10 days after September 11th. It was a pretty hair trigger response. And who knows where that war was going to go? Well, we know something about that now. The other thing, the other device I used was I could use, going through the dead, I could use one letter of the alphabet to stand for, to symbolize, to represent all the people, all the victims, the 3,000-and-something victims of 9/11 by the letter of their surname. Billy Collins: So there, I had two things to hold on to, the enclosure of the elegy, where I'm writing a poem for the dead and then the alphabet, and then this whole sense of the tolling of the bell of the names. I haven't counted it up, but the word names must appear 30 times in that poem. It's kind of names doing this, names doing that. That kind of repetition, as it turned out, created this rhythm in the poem. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Talking about the repetition of the names, I remember, in watching C-SPAN, watching you give the poem to America really. But in watching you read it, Senator Moynihan looks spellbound. He looks absolutely enraptured. His mouth is a little bit ajar and he just looked so, so attentive. Billy Collins: Yeah. Well, he's crying. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So there was that- Billy Collins: His eyes were watering up. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: And Jack Reed and John McCain are sitting next to one another. You could see, there was something happening in that room. It was magical. Billy Collins: For some. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: For some. Billy Collins: I mean, it was a very strange occasion. I'm kind of poetry reading hardened, or a veteran, I've done hundreds of poetry readings. But this is before everyone in Congress, and so you see, and you stand among, of these people that usually just see on television. And what happened was there were a number of speakers, of course, and they were senators and they were giving serious speeches, of course, to fit the occasion. They were speeches about, they mentioned, there was a kind of recycled vocabulary. Billy Collins: I mean, the words, tragedy, and national interest, and protecting our, et cetera. And when I got up to read, it was very formal. And, "Blah, blah, blah, Poet Laureate of the United States," or something, and I got up and started. As you've just heard, the poem starts with, "It's nighttime and it's raining." And, "What's this? We're supposed to be talking about 9/11 and this guy's talking about how he's lying awake at night and it's raining." Well, that's poetry. It starts with imagery. Billy Collins: It starts with, at least my poems, tend to start with a place and even weather and a time of day, some kind of locator from which to begin. And at that point, as I've said before, many of the people in Congress were cocking their heads as sort of like a border collie hearing a whistle or something. They just couldn't place it, they were... And then it became clear that it's a poem. And then at that point, the audience kind of divided into two sections. Those who were actually interested in hearing a poem and those that kind of checked out and deployed their anti-poetry shields that have been installed in high school, or at some point. Billy Collins: It made a very strong point in my mind about the difference between political and poetic language. And you're right, whenever I had some doubts, I would always look over to Senator Moynihan. On a scale of one to paying attention, he was paying a lot of attention. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: He was. He was. Cheryl Strayed drew you out on her podcast talking about this poem, and you said that it was nerve racking. You can't see that on the C-SPAN tape, that there's any, your delivery is classic you, very controlled. I'm just wondering, was that an unusual experience for you to be keyed up and nervous? Because I've never seen you, and I've seen you live many times, I've never seen you look nervous. Billy Collins: You haven't seen me get on a roller coaster. A lot of things make me nervous. But no, my heart was racing. I was holding it together. I think I pulled it off. I mean, I've looked at the tape and I seem to be in control. I believed in the poem, I think. I revised the poem a lot, I read it out loud a few times, and I believed in the correctness of the poem. And I believed in the, if I can say this modestly, the strength of the poem. And so I had that in front of me. It wasn't like I was trying... I didn't have to make anything up on the spot. The poem was there and it was solid. And that kept me going, but I was glad when I was over. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Did this one take longer from conception to finished form? Billy Collins: It was done pretty quickly, actually. I didn't have the list of the dead before me, and I made up names as I went along, just as they occurred to me. I was trying to aim for some diversity. But later, it was odd, when I got the list of the names, which was available on the internet, I had picked some common ones that were represented there. Once I had the elegy and the alphabet, it really didn't take that long. I think I wrote the poem in a number of hours that morning. But I went back and meticulously went through every line, and mainly for say ability, and rhythm, and sound ability. Billy Collins: Like even in the beginning when I say the glaze on the windows. I'm awake, and then blaze and rain. And then I started with A and Ackerman, and happened, and then Baxter and Calabro, right, how it's all that A, A, A. So I was going for trying to make it sound and rhythm made sense there. But yeah, it was nerve wracking. It was a pretty tough audience. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Well, yes. And so I went to the Ransom Center to look at your notebooks, and saw the pages, and the asterisks by certain names. Billy Collins: Right. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: One of which was Quigley, which is, I believe, the name of Beth Quigley who was a Holy Cross graduate. Billy Collins: Oh, I didn't know that. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Yeah. What I'm wondering is it, after you read this, and it had its circulation on the internet, did you hear from any families or- Billy Collins: I heard from two families. And frankly, it was long time ago, I forget the names. But I should remember, but they're probably in with my other papers. But I did hear from them and they were very happy to be included. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: You also [crosstalk 00:18:52]- Oh, sorry. Billy Collins: That seemed to be something they did at Ground Zero, was the all the names were read to a tolling bell. In many instances, it's not a very difficult thing to come up with. I mean, what else are you going to do with it besides say their names. If you have over 3,000 people that need mourning, they can't be named individually. And even here, I only mentioned 26 names actually or 25 actually, because the X, there was no one whose name began with X. So I said, "Let X stand, if it can, for those un-found." And as we know, 20 years later, there are still people whose remains are being uncovered just on last night's news. Billy Collins: Then that's another odd thing about... or thinking about 9/11 now, which we are, because it's the 20th anniversary. But now, we see that we've had the, well, the embarrassment of this shabby ending to the war, which is so reminiscent of the helicopter leaving the rooftop of the hotel in Saigon. We've spent I think $2 trillion. $2 trillion is 2,000 billion dollars. Trillion is a little beyond our reach I think of our imagination, but 2,000 billion. We've suffered losses. I mean, 1,000s of people will have been lost in the war. I think something like they estimate 47,000 Afghan citizens, and the Taliban are back, and have reclaimed the entire country in a way that they didn't even have that kind of power before. Billy Collins: Well, I guess for my sake, I'm saying... I'm thinking, I'm not saying, but I will say it now, that choosing [inaudible 00:21:03] was a very smart play, because I did not get into politics, didn't want to get into too, "Let's get back, serve any note of revenge," which really was the emotion that drove us into Iraq. Getting back at the terrorists. I don't see... Where did that get us? Well, there's arguments that we get into with friends. Billy Collins: We got Osama bin Laden, et cetera. Now, we're closing [inaudible 00:21:35] and we're also getting out of Afghanistan. Afghanistan, as we know, always had the reputation of the I think it's called the burial ground of empires, because no one gets it. No one wins in there. We had the Russians as an immediate example just prior to us, and they didn't get anything, it's where are you go to lose a war. But that's something we didn't know then and that just kind of puts all of this into a greater perspective. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: One of the things I remember in a very early conversation that we had is you told me you don't read the names that often. Billy Collins: Well, no, I don't, I don't make a habit of it. I was reading out of a book... I think since the poem was written, I published maybe three books of poems, maybe even four, probably three. I didn't put it in any of those books and I didn't read it. I was at a school on I guess maybe it was the third anniversary of September 11th. I read it then. I've read it a couple of times, but I didn't... I finally thought, well, this book was published in 2013. It's called Aimless Love and I waited over 10 years to publish it, because as I say, I didn't want to make just another poem in my reading. I would have felt that I'm kind of disrespecting the dead and making it part of my poetry show. It was a very special poem for me and it seemed completely and inextricably tied to that occasion. I still don't read it. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: It holds a place of honor in “Aimless Love.” It is the very last poem. Billy Collins: Yes, that was really intentional, that it's not trying to make it not part of the other poems, but having that special place. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: When you received this request, this was only I think you told me the second or third commissioned poem you had ever... Billy Collins: Yeah, there was one poem on the 300th anniversary of a school in New York, the Trinity School. I can't think of another one that I've... I've rarely written on demand. I think anyone who ends up being a poet or chooses to be a poet does so because you will never be asked to write. It's the opposite of on demand, there are no deadlines, no one's waiting for your next poem. It's a very... It changes... I mean, the main thing about writing on demand is you have to stick to the topic. That's something we learn as students in writing compositions, the five paragraph composition, introduction and conclusion, three something's in the middle, three points. Billy Collins: You have to stick to the topic. With an occasional poem, it's the same thing. If it's a poem about the death of the Queen Mother in England, you can't just drift off in the middle of that and talk about how your dog has fleas or something, whereas you can do that in a poem that's not on demand. It's fun to always drift away from the topic in poetry, for me at least, and to discover a topic in the process of writing. That's the imaginative freedom that poetry graces us with or allows you. You don't have that in writing an occasional poem or a poem on demand. However, once I found the word names, and the analogy, and all that, I did have enough imaginative freedom so that I could talk about seeing a name on a monogram on a torn shirt, or seeing a blue name needled into the skin, going into tattoos. Billy Collins: Names silent in stone, like on a gravestone, or the opposite of silent in stone, or cried out behind a door. I kind of charged myself with coming up with one good image after the other. The only one I regret is I think going out of the morning. Also, the poem has a diurnal organization, you might call it. It begins at night, and then this morning, and then in the evening. It kind of goes through an imaginary day, but that line about the flowers heavy with dew like the eyes of tears, I'd like to get rid of that. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Really? Billy Collins: Yeah. Well, there's just too much there. Eyes, tears, and dew, there's too much going on. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: It's funny that you should bring up that line, because when I read the names, and still, I think of I wandered lonely as a cloud, and I know that you're an expert in words worth, and there are... I have always wondered and never asked you if you thought about the poet laureate of 1842 as you thought about writing this poem. Billy Collins: No, I don't think so. I don't think I was thinking of anybody in particular. I was born in New York, and I was a New Yorker then, and I was thinking of the imagery of New York. I have bridges, and tunnels, I have storefront windows, and the awnings, the unfurled awnings of the city. That was names rising in the updraft among buildings. So there's quite a bit of kind of urban imagery. Billy Collins: Now, I just have, in the evening, weakening like the last swallows, a boy on a lake lifts his oars. That has nothing to do with it. I can't just say the names in every line, so let this boy lift his oars in the evening. There's a moment of thoughtfulness there. It was actually pleasurable to write in that once I had the grid and the alphabet, it was, I don't want to say fill in the blanks, but indeed, there was a grid I was filling in with lines, and that made it very readable. Whereas when I got the phone call from Congress, it seemed like a totally impossible task. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: I can't even imagine being in that situation and my response would have been, "No, I don't..." I wouldn't have known how I could approach such a... It's an impossible ask. Billy Collins: Well, that was why I said I couldn't do it, but I figured out... But once the poem was underway, and once I'd figured out these constraints, then it rolled, because once it got moving, it rolled right to the end just about. I got to the final jolt of z, I could've ended it there, but I had more. I wanted names etched on the head of a pin, just an image of that. Then citizens, workers, mothers, names in the small tracts of birds goes back to that kind of Chinese myth I think about writing being invented by a man who watched the tracks of birds in the snow, or in the dirt, and saw those forums as a way of writing. Names lifted from a hat gets at the kind of randomness of who was killed there. Billy Collins: It's like a lottery. Some people I know, a friend of a friend, had to have... Her watch was broken, and she stopped in a jewelry shop to have her watch fixed, and it took a little while. Otherwise, she would have been on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center. It was very much who was sick that day? Who was late for work? Where the plane happened to strike. It's still horrifying. I mean, we watched just the other night this Day in America, I think it's called. It's a long documentary, many part documentary, that's solely about 9/11. It does take you back to the shock of it. But remember that if you teach high school or even college, most of your students, and almost all of your students in high school, weren't born then. Billy Collins: Even many of your college students were toddlers. For a lot of us, it's really in the fabric of our unforgettable parts of our lives. We all remember being overwhelmed by it with fear and uncertainty. For me, it was the two towers had been hit, but then there was... they cut to Washington, and there was a correspondent with a microphone. Well in the background, because he didn't want to get near it, was the Pentagon on fire. That was really a mind blower, because now, it's not new... It was sort of a New York thing, if you will, but now it's the nation that's under attack. The last plan that was forced down, heroically, they still don't know if that was going for the Capitol or the White House, but it could have gone right into the Capitol of the White House. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Were you in the city that day? Billy Collins: No, I was at home in Westchester County to the north, walking the dog. Usually drove the dog for her walk around this lake. So I was back in the car with the dog going back home, just a few miles, and NPR was on, and there was a fire in one of the Twin Towers, just a fire. That's all I knew. I have a really antiquated idea of what an office is. I thought somebody threw a match into a wastebasket, I don't know why I had that image, and that started a fire in some of the offices. When I got home, I didn't think anymore of it. Then, somebody, I forget who, called me and said, as your mother said, "Turn on the television." That's all they said, they just hung up. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: I don't know when exactly it was published, but you had just given George Plimpton a long interview. I have it in front of me, of course, where you talked about commemorative poetry and about the roots of commemorative poetry. Then you find yourself. That, to me, is a stunning coincidence that you should be actually having a conversation with George Plimpton. It was issue 159, came out in the fall of 2001, and then- Billy Collins: I'll look it up, I forgot that coincidence. I never realized that was a coincidence. The other coincidence was that the night before 9/11, September 10th, there was I'd say a pretty big book party for me at George Plimpton's house. My book, Sailing Alone Around the Room, had just come out. Paul McCartney was there and all sorts of interesting people. There was a terrible thunder and lightning storm that night and Plimpton's apartment was right on the East River, on 72nd Street. Billy Collins: The storm was so violent that the party actually kind of quieted down. Many people went over to the windows, and were watching this strobing lightning, and the glass and the windows actually trembling. That storm clear things out so that the next day was crystal clear, beautiful fall, autumn day in New York. For a while, it was called terrorist weather. I think pilots have a word for it. It's like super clear or ideal flying conditions, I guess. Then, many of my friends, I called them during the day of September 11th. They said, "That's the last party people are going to go to for a while." And it was. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Returning to the poem just for a moment. I just want to read this line again, "Let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound." And just a couple of other lines, "The bright eyed daughter, the quick sun, names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory, so many names, there's barely room on the walls of the heart." Those lines, they make me choke up. And I'm I'm wondering in the writing, do you have moments where a line stops you? Billy Collins: Yeah. I mean, it does and I don't know where parley is, I don't know where the line comes from exactly. Once a poem is really underway, I think, personally, I feel my mind is on in a way that's it's not on, it's not fully on, and just walking around the house. And that on-ness of the mind really... things do come to you. I just thought sons and daughters, those are the big losses I think, and bright eyed and quick, just wanted to give a sense of what the vitality of a living person, quick, quick on his quick thinker. Athletically quick, but also like the quick in the dead. Quick means alive. And bright eyed is the same thing, a sign of life and also a sign of, well, vitality. I'm not thinking of any of that, the line just... it rolled out. I don't think... It's not exactly like thinking for us. What are some good images of vitality? They just rolled out and later you see what they mean. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: You also said to that you were very careful in the language that you chose for this poem or maybe in what you didn't choose. Billy Collins: I was walking a thin line. I mean, I'm using very basic imagery of named stitched into the cloth of the day. What else? Names outlined on the clouds. I'm avoiding political language, I'm avoiding words like terrorism or freedom. I'm avoiding the big language of politics and the big language of the big Latinate words of public language. I'm sticking with what poets know, which is green rows and fields, small tracts of birds, a hat, the tongue, the warehouse of memory, needles, pins. Notice that the word needle is two lines away from the word pin. Tunnel and bridge. So I'm using concrete language. I chose them carefully, but it's the natural language of poetry. I mean, James Wright I think said big words like constitution and independence, they just scare him. He finds them scary because they're so vague and can be used so loosely. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: You said to her, "It was picture languages, Emerson calls it. It was the language of the world, of rain, and windows, and reality." Billy Collins: Right. Well, that's good. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: That is good. It sounds good. Billy Collins: Who said that? Yeah, it's picture language. Children like picture language. It's the language that... It's that part of your growing up when you don't understand concepts. You understand train, plain, sun, toy, oatmeal. For me, poetry, I like to read poetry that returns to that simple language of childhood now that we are adults that understand more difficult things. Paradoxically, the best way to access those difficult, complex human thoughts, if you will, is really through the language of nature, the language of ordinary things. Billy Collins: The shovel, the toaster, the bookend, the glass of water. Yeah, the one thing you don't want to do is, in a poem like this, or maybe any poem, is to make the language emotional, because that's why the line about the tears I think is a little too emotional. You want the language to be very, very calm, very assured of itself. You don't want to get emotional, you want to make the reader emotional, but you can't do that by being emotional yourself. That actually creates a distance between you and the reader. You can just lure the reader in with more images, more pictures, one picture after the other. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: You say you follow a poem to its end, as opposed to if you come at a poem as, "I'm going to I have an idea and I'm going to write about it in a poem," you should just write an email. Billy Collins: Right. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Right. Billy Collins: And don't send it to anybody. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: No, I would not do that. But did the ending surprise you? Billy Collins: Well, it's got to end somewhere. Names lifted from a hat, balance on the tip of the tongue, I could've kept going from there or not, maybe I'm running out of imagery at that point too, where you're just writing on rims, you've run out of rubber. But something summative had to be said at the end, I thought. You don't want to say in conclusion, but I thought names, plural, and now they're being stored away. They're no longer at play. In my imagination, they are being wheeled into this dim warehouse. Billy Collins: We're seeing them kind of get packaged and stored. Then, it's just so many names. Now, I mentioned 25 names, 25 letters. Well, I don't know how many names I mentioned. Yeah, I mentioned one for each letter, so exactly 25 names. But there are nearly 3,000 who lost their lives. I wanted to make sure that was said, there's so many names that have not been mentioned in this poem. So many it seems. The pro's way to put that would be to say so many names, it's emotionally overwhelming. The poetic way to say it is so many names, there's barely room on the walls of the heart. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: That's a beautiful way to end, unless you have other parting thoughts? Billy Collins: No, I thank you for giving me this opportunity to reflect on the poem, and to think a little bit about the 20 years that have passed since then, and how much has changed, and how much has not changed, really. So I'm very happy to talk about it, especially to a Holy Cross audience or people with Holy Cross interests. Marybeth Reilly-McGreen: Well, it's my honor, and we look forward to your next book, and to watching you on the on the on the broadcast. Billy Collins: Great. Oh, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure. Melissa Shaw: Thank you, Billy, and thank you, Marybeth. In the show notes for this episode, you will find links to Collins's notebooks and notes he used while writing The Names, the 2020 Holy Cross magazine profile of Collins, his website, and his popular Facebook page. Thank you for joining us today. I'm Melissa Shaw.

43mins

10 Sep 2021

Episode artwork

Gregisode I: Billy Collins Jr - Fists Like Cement

Unfortunate History

Greg and Cody discuss the life and tragic death of boxer Billy Collins Jr in this very first Gregisode. The boys discuss Billy's final fight and his spiral into depression, as well as the seedy underbelly of the boxing world. Watch Billy's final fight here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEVdywAtk50. Support our show by sharing it with your friends and family! Learn more at https://www.unfortunatehistory.com. Join our FB group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/unfortunatehistory PeriTune (peritune.com) | Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

42mins

15 Jul 2021

Similar People

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Episode 43: Billy Collins

AWM Author Talks

This week, we kick off National Poetry Month with former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who is interviewed by Irish Ambassador to the US Daniel Mulhall. This conversation took place December 8th, 2020 and was recorded live via Zoom. We hope you enjoy entering the mind of a writer. ALL PODCAST EPISODES HERE

48mins

5 Apr 2021

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120: Billy Collins & Cynthia Sears

Bainbridge Pod Accomplice

Beloved Cynthia Sears joins the January 29 episode of the Bainbridge Pod Accomplice to talk poetry with former two-time US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, as well as share tales of their long friendship and Billy’s connections to Bainbridge and especially BPA.  Billy Collins’s newest collection, “Whale Day” brings together more than fifty poems and showcases his deft mixing of the playful and the serious that has made him one of our country’s most celebrated and widely read poets. Billy Collins is the author of twelve collections of poetry including The Rain in Portugal, Aimless Love, Horoscopes for the Dead, Ballistics, The Trouble with Poetry, Nine Horses, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. He is also the editor of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, and Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds. A former Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, Collins served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and as New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006. In 2016 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Florida with his wife Suzannah. 

33mins

29 Jan 2021

Most Popular

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Mr. Billy Collins & Wasting Time - Episode 19

Getting Stoned

Greetings dear listener! As always, thank you so much for taking some of your precious time and stopping by! In Episode 19 we read a couple poems, Obituaries and Horoscopes for the Dead by the amazing poet Mr. Billy Collins. And I sing a new original song, Wasting Time. I hope you enjoy!  Peace, Love & Rock and Roll, Stone--- Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/stonepetoskey/message

29mins

24 Oct 2020

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September 22nd | Nephi, Utah | Pee Wee Reese & Billy Collins

Mornin'

Song: Gregory Alan Isakov Town: Nephi, Utah Player: Pee Wee Reese Book: Billy Collins

43mins

22 Sep 2020

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August 31st | Lucas, Iowa, Number 1 Overall pick Dave Hilton and Billy Collins

Mornin'

Song: Josh Ritter Town: Lucas Iowa Player: Dave Hilton Book: Billy Collins

36mins

31 Aug 2020

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August 24th | Scituate RI, Dentist Stuff, Jackie Hernandez & Billy Collins Poem

Mornin'

Song: John Prine Town: Sea Breeze, NJ Player: Jim Palmer Documentarty: Momentum Generation

29mins

24 Aug 2020

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Billy Collins' Dharma. Lessons in simplicity and naturalness from a dog.

Ordinary Mind Zendo

13 Aug 2020

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Ep 1: Billy Collins revisits Robinson Crusoe

This Book That Book

Former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins shares the lessons and memories he has from Defoe's tale of survival Robinson CrusoePoems recited or mentioned by Billy Collins:"The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by W.B. Yeats"Only Child" by Billy Collins from The Rain In Portugal"Robinson Crusoe" by Elizabeth Bishop"Names" by Billy CollinsPreorder "Whale Day: And Other Poems" coming September 29th

48mins

23 Jul 2020

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