• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"So many people who never read want to write."

"It's extraordinary. It's absolutely extraordinary. It's part of this self-expression craze that comes with this emphasis on the self and self-esteem. Wilfred Sheed is one of my favorite writers; he has a great line about self-esteem. He says, 'When I was a boy we had another name for low self-esteem, it was called humility.' Humility was a virtue not a defect.

"The title poem of this book of mine, The Trouble with Poetry, says in a half-facetious way that the trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry. It's true that there's much too much of it. The government should pay poets not to write, like they pay farmers not to grow corn or soybeans. That would be a program that I would endorse."

"People don't think that any preparation is necessary for writing poetry."

"It's a hobby," Mr. Collins said, laughing. "Well, no one would think of just picking up an oboe and trying to play it."

"Not a single reed. Maybe a clarinet."

"Even a stand-up bass. But they will pick up a Bic pen and a piece of paper and start trying to commit an act of literature without any preparation whatsoever."

"I wonder why that is. Maybe it's that we all use words."

"We have a common language, yes, and I think it's a romantic idea. Everyone has a story to tell and people say 'You should write a book, you've got a good story there.' Poetry has feelings, so you might as well sit down and write them out."

"But poetry isn't 'feelings'," I protested.

"Oscar Wilde said that 'All bad poetry is based on genuine feeling.' He didn't mean that all poems that have genuine feeling are bad, but that if you see a bad poem you can be pretty sure that the author meant it. There's a connection between sincerity and badness."

"Not unlike the difference between compassion and sentimentality."

"That's good. And it's the difference between being emotional and concentrating on the work you have to do verbally to create a good poem. It's not necessary to be emotional when you write. In fact, it's the worst condition to be in. You should be clearheaded and ready to concentrate on the language.

"As you're composing you want to be smart in that you're skillful, you know the language, you know connotations, you've spent your time in the dictionary. But you're also ignorant of where the poem is going.

"You're going into the unknown equipped. It's a combination or mix of knowledge and ignorance that actually makes the experience exciting.

"It is an adventure. The writing will carry you to a destination that was unforeseen, and the only way to access that destination is through this poem or this piece of writing, which adds some sense of adventure to it."

I said, "You have so many windows in your poems."

"Someone described me once as an indoor nature poet. Fifteen years ago my wife and I bought this house we live in. It's an old 1860s farmhouse in the semi-country. At that point my poems became very domestic. Prior to that we rented; it was like we were born to rent.

"There are lots of poems about the house, about the garden, about the windows. I loved this house, and I still do. I found this very happy domestic space to write in. I let that into the writing. I make that part of the subject of the writing. But you're right about the windows -- what daffodils are to Wordsworth, windows are to me."

"Your salt and pepper shakers on the table are often featured in a poem."

From "You, Reader":

and I was only thinking

about the shakers of salt and pepper

that were standing side by side on a place mat.

I wondered it they had become friends

After all these years

"They do come up in a few poems."

"Who do you read?"

"I've been putting these anthologies together — Poetry 180 and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. So my poetry reading has been scattering, because I've been beating the bushes for poems in every magazine I can get my hands on. I've got this big anthology of Chinese literature and poetry. That's something I always dip into. I often will flip open to a page as I'm writing, just to be reminded of lessons in clarity and simplicity and simple vocabulary."

I mentioned that, while writing, I will open a volume of James Schuyler or Wallace Stevens or an anthology, whatever is nearby, because I want a sense of someone with whom to be — "company."

Mr. Collins seemed to understand. "It is like having a companion with you. Someone said that writing is a lonely or isolated procedure, but that you're always in the company of all these other writers that you've absorbed.

"I like Charles Simic's poetry a lot, but I don't turn to it the way I used to. I used to read a few poems of Simic before I wrote. I didn't want to write like him, or I didn't think I could. But he had a certain imaginative sense of freedom and a fairly simple vocabulary and a wiggy imagination that would put me in a good mood to write."

"There is something similar between your poems and Simic's: even when you guys are funny, there's something poignant about your poems."

Mr. Collins did not disagree. He went on. "I had an eye-opening experience. When people ask me about the difference between reading a poem in a room and going to an auditorium and hearing somebody recite it, the experience that always comes to mind is that of the first time I heard Simic read. I'd been reading his books for years and years. He had a sense of a dark humor, but it was more a very gothic mood in these Eastern European cities with store windows and street lamps and mannequins."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close