Poet, lover of WWI books and series on animals

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

Billy Collins, perhaps America’s best-known poet, may have retired from the college classroom, but he’s still teaching. He does that by giving talks and readings around the country. Lesley University’s Boston Speaker Series brings the former US poet laureate to town for a reading at 8 p.m. on Feb. 26 at Boston Symphony Hall. TICKETS ARE AVAILABLE ONLY THROUGH A SEASON SUBSCRIPTION. He’ll read from his new collection “Aimless Love.”

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

COLLINS: I just came back from an annual literary gathering in Key West, and this year’s theme was crime writing. I don’t read detective novels, but now I have a stack of them, one by Lee Child, one by Michael Connelly, one by Scott Turow, and the one I started, “Holy Orders” by Benjamin Black, John Banville’s nom de plume. I don’t have high hopes for my progress in this genre. I just reached the point where plot-driven novels don’t hold my interest because I don’t care about the fate of characters anymore — whether Emily marries Tom or not, that kind of thing.


BOOKS: What kind of novels are you drawn to?

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COLLINS: Ones in which not much happens, but they have great sentences. That would cover Banville’s other novels. Among fiction in which nothing happens my favorite authors are José Saramago, particularly “Blindness,” and the late Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. Both authors seem terribly negative, which I like. Nothing much happens in their books except everything gets worse.

BOOKS: Have you always been drawn to the negative?

COLLINS: I think the comic negative. Discovering Samuel Beckett in college was a big deal for me. I realized you could be very funny and very dark at the same time. Whenever I go to a Beckett play I always notice that the audience divides itself into the ones who are laughing and the ones who are looking disapprovingly at people laughing. I’m one of the people laughing.

BOOKS: Do you read mostly novels?


COLLINS: I read a lot of nonfiction too, including a number of World War I books, such as “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell, which I should have read a long time ago, and Geoff Dyer’s “The Missing of the Somme.” What I really like these days is this series by Reaktion Books, these beautifully illustrated books devoted to one animal, say pigs, lobsters, or owls. I have 15 of them. You can fit them in a purse or a trench coat pocket. I’m reading “Bear” now, and it covers everything I want to know about bears.

BOOKS: Any other subjects you are drawn to?

COLLINS: No. I find myself filling holes like the Fussell. That’s one of those books you’ve heard about so much that maybe you don’t have to read it. I reviewed a book called “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” by Pierre Bayard. It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek, but it actually shows how you can absorb books through reading reviews and through conversations. Freud is a good example. Very few people have actually read Freud, but everyone seems prepared to talk about him in that Woody Allen way. To read Freud is not as much fun.

BOOKS: Which poets do you read?

COLLINS: Mostly poets I already know. I’ve been reading a lot of E.E. Cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I always go back to Philip Larkin. I’ve lost interest in finding the cutting edge, if there still is one. When I became poet laureate I was in a slightly uncomfortable position because I think a lot of poetry isn’t worth reading.


BOOKS: Do you have any tricks for teaching poetry?

‘What I really like these days is this series by Reaktion Books, these beautifully illustrated books devoted to one animal, say pigs, lobsters, or owls. I have 15 of them.’

COLLINS: When I was teaching, I always made my students memorize a poem and recite it. If they forget everything else I said, which is probably the case, they’d at least have that poem stuck in their heads. I met a student on a subway in NYC who I had had 15 years or so earlier. He had become a doctor. He insisted on reciting this Emily Dickinson poem for me on the subway. AMY SUTHERLAND

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