on writing poetry: Billy Collins

The process of writing, particularly how poems are formed and re-formed, fascinates me. To collect pieces that I find along the way, I’m going to place them here so the accumulated wisdom of others who write poetry can seep into my bones.

From The Paris Review No 159 – Fall 2001, here’s an excerpt from George Plimpton’s interview of American poet, Billy Collins, No 83 in The Art of Poetry series.

There’s a lot of waiting around until something happens. Some poets like David Lehman and William Stafford set out on these very willful programs to write a poem a day. They’re extending what Catullus said about “never a day without a line.” But most poets don’t write a poem a day. For me it’s a very sporadic activity. Until recently, I thought “occasional poetry” meant that you wrote only occasionally. So there’s a lot of waiting, and there’s a kind of vigilance involved. I think what gets a poem going is an initiating line. Sometimes a first line will occur, and it goes nowhere; but other times—and this, I think, is a sense you develop—I can tell that the line wants to continue. If it does, I can feel a sense of momentum—the poem finds a reason for continuing. The first line is the DNA of the poem; the rest of the poem is constructed out of that first line. A lot of it has to do with tone because tone is the key signature for the poem. The basis of trust for a reader used to be meter and end-rhyme. Now it’s tone that establishes the poet’s authority. The first few lines keep giving birth to more and more lines. Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going. The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.

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