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Newsmaker: Billy Collins

November 2011

Interview by Rita Catinella Orrell

Billy Collins
Photo © Steven Kovich.

AR: What is the role of poetry in contemporary life?

Billy Collins: It is a vital but minor one. Poetry isn’t for everyone; it suffers from the competition of other louder and more immediately glamorous forms of information transferal like television. We have a National Poetry Month in April, but usually if you have a day or a month or a week devoted to something, it’s a sign of its neglect. Many people can do without poetry because they have been driven away from it in high school, but it’s very much alive and well. There are more MFA programs, and reading series and prizes, and poetry hoopla in the country than ever were before.

What was your experience of the new Poetry Foundation building?

BC:The center is an amazing building; it’s spectacular in the original sense of that word — it really knocks your eyes out when you see it. But the odd thing about having a building for poetry is that poetry doesn’t require housing. It’s distinguished as an art because of that. You need a concert space in which to play symphonic music, paintings need a museum in which to be exhibited, but poetry is distinguished from those arts because of its portability. You can carry a poem in your head; it doesn’t require a place to go see it. Having said that, the John Ronan building is really quite impressive. I was there for the opening, and I watched people on the street walk past it and they are struck by the building. Then they read Poetry Foundation in front of it, and they are really confused, because they are experiencing some kind of dissonance or puzzlement. I love the building, but it really does look more like a building that would house a corporate office or even an architectural firm. But a building of this kind for poetry is something that people tend to stand on the sidewalk and scratch their heads over. One of the things having a very glamorous building like this does for poetry is that it corrects the idea of poetry as the poor Little Match Girl of the arts. We think of poets as living in garrets and hiding in universities; we don’t expect poetry to make such dramatic architectural statements as this building does.

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AR: What was it like to read there?

BC: The acoustics are very good. The one drawback is that, facing the podium, the wall on the right is glass, and that’s where people walk into the entire building. So as a reading or lecture is going on you have a distracting traffic of people coming in and out that are looking in to see what’s going on, so people look out to see them. It was an attempt to have a kind of flowing communication between outer and inner, but there are drawbacks to that. Sometimes you want a space to be enclosed and sealed off from what is going on without.

AR: Do you think the building is poetic?

BC: A lot has been said about poetry and architecture, but usually that’s just a metaphor; it means architecture is like poetry in the same way as you’d say something is poetry in motion. Ronan did say that he wanted to construct this building as a kind of a parallel to a poetic experience. One thing about the building is that it’s basically glass, and you might say there are two kinds of poetry: One is stained glass, and one is clear glass. Stained glass poetry wants to be very decorative and colorful and have a brilliant surface, and the poetry I prefer is the poetry of glass, which is clear and makes you want to see through it to something vital. It’s true that as you walk through the building you get many angles from which to look at the interior of the building. So if you walk 25 or 30 feet in some direction and turn around, you are seeing an entire reconfiguration, and that is actually a quite accurate physical representation of what a poem does.

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