Billy Collins was born the only child of William S. and Katherine M. Collins. Collins’s father was an electrician, and his mother was a nurse. Each of his parents was forty at the time of Collins’s birth. Collins grew up in Jackson Heights, a community in Queens, New York City. When he was in junior high school, his father became an insurance broker on Wall Street and, enjoying success in business, eventually moved his family to Westchester County.
Collins recalled his own precocious behavior at the age of four or five. When company arrived at his family’s home, he sat in a chair and pretended to read an encyclopedia, presuming that the guests were impressed. He also recalled his first effort to record an impression in writing: At age ten, he was in the family car as his parents drove along the East River, and Collins, seeing a sailboat, asked his mother for writing materials. At church he was an altar boy, and he cites his memorization of Latin phrases for the Mass as an influence on his later writing. He memorized the music of the sounds without knowing their meaning. Collins also remembered that his father brought home copies of Poetry from the office, and this reading material strengthened the young writer’s interest in poems.
Collins received a B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross in 1963. At the University of California, Riverside, he studied Romantic poetry, completing his Ph.D. in 1971. He had become assistant professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York in 1969. There he taught composition and literature, writing poems during his free time. Always connected to student activities, Collins contributed poems to Echo, the student literary arts magazine at Lehman. These poems were short and effective because of their creative imagery and humor; they exhibited some of the wit and style made popular by Richard Brautigan. Soon these short, provocative poems began to appear regularly in Rolling Stone, the magazine that in the early 1970’s focused on music and counterculture. He married Diane Olbright on January 21, 1979. Collins became distinguished professor of English at Lehman College, and Diane, who once worked for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, was an architect.
Pokerface, a limited edition of four hundred copies, was Collins’s first book. Video Poems, also a small-press publication, appeared in 1980. The poems are free from rigid metrical patterns and rhyme schemes. Drawn into the poems are daily events as well as figures from literature, the world of entertainment, and history. Often the poems are humorous and provocative because of imaginatively surreal images.
An important turning point for Collins was his contact with Miller Williams, the editor at the University of Arkansas Press. Having examined a set of poems by Collins, Williams selected seventeen poems and, after fastening them with a paper clip, returned them to the author. Williams advised that a book-length manuscript that consistently rose to the level of the clipped poems would warrant a book. Collins responded well to Williams’s selection and produced additional poems. In the end, the product was The Apple That Astonished Paris.
A key factor in the development of Collins’s popularity was his appearance on A Prairie Home Companion, a program on National Public Radio (NPR) hosted by Garrison Keillor. Subsequent appearances on NPR, including an interview on Fresh Air, brought further attention to Collins, boosting the sales of his books. His readings were also well received, leading to further book sales.
Collins’s rise to popularity made him the subject of controversy. The University of Pittsburgh Press, which had published two of Collins’s books, was unhappy when Random House sought permission to republish poems in Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. The negotiations slowed down the publication of the book, and the disagreement generated interest. In addition, Collins stirred controversy among critics, some of whom regard him as a minor poet, his poetry as light verse. Because the poems are easy for readers to understand, some critics complain that the work lacks substance and fails to present an enduring challenge to the reader. Other critics applaud Collins, finding him a refreshing alternative to obscure, resistant verse. Collins avoids the terms “accessible” and “resistant”; instead, he prefers to say that his poems are “hospitable.”
Collins accumulated a distinguished record of awards. He was recognized by the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Poetry magazine has given Collins the Bess Hokin Award, the Oscar Blumenthal Award, and the Levinson Prize. The New York Public Library declared Collins a Literary Lion, and Collins’s Questions About Angels was the winner of the National Poetry Series Competition in 1990. In 2001 Collins became the eleventh poet laureate of the United States, and on April 25, 2002, he was appointed to a second term as poet laureate.
As poet laureate, Collins initiated Poetry 180, a Web site intended to revise the way students have contact with poetry. For Poetry 180, Collins selected 180 poems that are readily understandable for high school students, one poem for every day of the school year. Instead of presenting poems as part of the curriculum, Poetry 180 strives to make poetry part of the daily lives of students.
Daily things, for Collins, are a great source of material for poets. In seemingly trivial events, the poet discovers profundity. While poetry may express truth, provide inspiration, and create an experience that makes people look into their hearts and contemplate change, it can also be satirical, even an instrument for inflicting pain. Acknowledging these possibilities, Collins likes to view poems as a means of transportation. The poet engages the reader, and through the poem, takes the reader to a new place, a particular destination. Revision has its place, but too often revision strips life and energy from poetry. For Collins, ambiguity is a key component of poetry. The poem that is funny and serious at the same time makes the reader pleasantly uncertain.