Billy Collins: The Poetry of Travel
Travel Interviews: The former U.S. poet laureate brought the world in-flight poetry. Frank Bures asks him about travel, writing and the Delta Airlines flight on which poetry trumped Keanu Reeves.
11.22.05 | 12:31 AM ET
Former poet laureate Billy Collins may be the closest thing America has to a poetry rock star. We at World Hum have been fans for some time, in part because his poems often explore travel: the isolation of travel, traveling in your mind, and wishing you were somewhere else. In one interview, Collins said, “Poetry for me is a kind of travel writing—travel writing of the highest order because it provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of consciousness. The poem’s music and its rhythms combine to form the sound track to these mental excursions which carry us in two directions at once: out into the world and back into ourselves, for we read poetry not so much to discover who the poet is as to discover who we are.” Which, of course, is why we travel too. In Collins’ new book, The Trouble With Poetry, he continues to mine this worldly vein with poems like “Eastern Standard Time” and “Traveling Alone.” He also has a new CD out, Billy Collins Live, with an introduction by Bill Murray. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Sander, New York.
World Hum: You write a lot about places, even if you haven’t been there.
[Laughs] Well, that’s the beauty of not being a travel writer. Which ones did you read?
Well, “Japan” wasn’t really about a place, but there was one about Egypt.
Yeah, I’ve never been to Japan or Egypt. I’ve written a poem called “Istanbul,” and I have been to Istanbul. I have a poem called “Paris,” and I have been to Paris a few times. Although I just wrote a poem called “January in Paris,” and I’ve never been to Paris in January. So some of them are real places I’ve been to. Others I’m just using as settings.
What about the poem where you’d rather not be in Tuscany?
That’s a poem called “Consolation.” The first line is, “How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer.” It’s sort of a tongue in cheek celebration of the joys of staying at home, where I can understand all the billboards and the road signs and all the hand gestures of my compatriots.
Tongue in cheek?
Because I’d really rather be in Italy.
Would you say traveling inspires your poetry?
Not in a literal way. I don’t write travelogue poems that celebrate the curiosity of the destination. But often I’ll pick something up. I was in Alaska this summer, and for the first time I saw someone smoking out of a whalebone pipe. And I’m working on a little poem that isn’t about Alaska, but it has a whalebone pipe in it. So often there will be a little detail or something I notice that happens to feed into the poem. But after I’ve come back from Alaska or some place, I don’t sit down like a travel writer and feel like I have some geographic obligation to put it into verse.
It just goes into the mix.
Pretty much. And the persona that is speaking in most of my poems tends to be someone who doesn’t leave the house very often. He tends to be a reclusive fellow who likes to look out the window.
Do you think there’s something about travel that lets you step back and look at yourself in the same way poetry can do?
The easy answer for you would be yes. [Laughs] I’m trying to think about that.
I was just thinking about what you were saying about poetry “transporting the reader from the familiar to the mysterious.”
Well, I guess I have to start with the familiar, so that’s why my poems start in more of a domestic setting. But the writer Malcolm Lowry said traveling is moving from a place to which you bear little relationship to a place to which you bear no relationship whatsoever, even though he actually did a lot of traveling. I guess he found traveling kind of disorienting. And I like to leave readers at the end of poems a little disoriented. I find disorientation or defamiliarization is one of the pleasures of poetry and other kinds of literature. So there’s an analogy there—I’d like my readers at the end of a poem to feel like they’re adjusting to a foreign environment.
Do you read much travel writing?
Oh yes. I read [Paul] Theroux a lot. I like how he’s really unimpressed by his surroundings. Jonathan Raban. Redmon O’Hanlon. John McPhee, if you can consider him a travel writer. Peter Matthiessen. In Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, one thing I like about that is that he gets on this BART in Boston, and it’s a weekday morning, so most people are going to work. And he’s going to Patagonia. I like the sense that on these local rails that take people to their jobs, he’s going to find how they connect all the way through North and South America, and take him to this continental extreme.
That kind of the reminds me of your poem, “Traveling Alone,” about people coming into contact with so much going on under the surface, with their worlds brushing against one another.
Well, that’s certainly about the isolation of travel. You just go through the whole day without talking to anyone and you just see these nametags. And the speaker is just desperate to talk, and to talk about himself. It’s about moving through a world of strangers.
What are some of your favorite places you’ve traveled?
West of Ireland is a place that I continue to return to—particularly county Claire, a town called Vaughn. For me a place really takes over when I’m in that place and I am freed of any desire to go anywhere, and I can kind of imagine sitting in that place forever. That hasn’t happened very often. It happened in Siena, Italy. I was sitting in the campo. It just seemed like this could be the center of the universe. I’ve had that experience at this place in Bimini called the Angler’s Rest, this hotel/restaurant where Hemingway stayed and wrote. The temple of Apollo at Delphi was a real eye-opening experience.
I liked your poem, “A Room of a Thousand Miles.”
Right, where my wife wants me to write about all these exotic locations, and stop writing about the front porch. Because I do quite a bit of travel, but I keep writing poems about the birdfeeder. We went to Nepal last year, and New Zealand. Pretty far flung places. I did do a poem called “Kathmandu” about Nepal. I would say 75 percent of the poems take place looking out the window. But there is that other group that represents trips to Istanbul and Katmandu. I’ve got a poem called “Bermuda.”
What’s that about?
It’s about being in Bermuda with my wife. Lying on the beach. There’s a tradition on Good Friday in Bermuda. They fly kites. And they make hot cross buns. It’s all about the shape of the crucifixion. So that supplied some pretty handy imagery. And [looking through book] here’s one called “By a Swimming Pool Outside of Syracusa,” which is in Sicily. Those are in a book called Nine Horses. So the more I look, the more I seem like this world traveler.
And you also managed to get poetry on Delta Airlines, didn’t you?
Yeah. I got a poetry channel on Delta. I did three programs. I think the themes were love, animals, and maybe travel was the third theme. They weren’t my poems. They were poems of other people that I read in the studio, and they’d put jazz between the poems. So there’d be this little jazz interlude. It was in the [in-flight] program, right next to the country music and everything. And that lasted about six months, then it just got dropped. I was a little too busy to pursue it and try to figure out how to continue it. But I did get it going. And it’s their fault that it stopped.
Did you get any response from that?
I did get one bit of positive feedback from a woman who was traveling across the Atlantic. She wanted to watch “The Matrix,” which was showing. So she put her earphones on and the movie began, but she had the poetry channel on. And she thought, How interesting that this movie would start with this poem. Then she realized she was on the wrong channel and, bless her heart, she closed her eyes and continued to listen to the poetry channel. One example of poetry trumping the movies.
Trumping Keanu Reaves.
That’s right. It’s not every day.
When you did the poetry channel, you put together poems about travel?
I remember dogs and love and I think the other one was travel. There are two books you might be interested in. One is called On the Wing: American Poems of Air and Space Flight. It’s mostly about space travel. And then of even more interest is this book the Paris Review put out: The Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms. And Elizabeth Bishop has many poems about traveling to South America. Her book is called Geography III. She’s traveled and lived in South America for a long time. And she has poems that are from a tourist’s point of view. She has a book called Questions of Travel, mostly about Brazil.
Great. But the poetry channel disappeared?
Right. After I left being Poet Laureate, my poetry activism kind of slumped. I’m not really into waging public programs any more. I gave it a shot, though. I always thought poetry is good at surprising people. And I like poetry in unlikely places, not just the library and the classroom, but on airlines and billboards. It was an interesting adventure—that people would put on their earphones, and find a poem on there.
Yeah, I would love that.
I would too. Maybe it’ll come back again. The other thing is, I have a friend I’m pursuing this with: I just got a new car that has satellite radio. And it has 138 channels or something, with like 10 sports channels and the Elvis channel. And there are so many channels, I thought, why not a poetry channel? So a friend of mine who’s more entrepreneurially inclined than I am is looking into that possibility.
I was reading an interview where you were talking about how you think of a poem as a kind of journey, or a way to transport the reader to another place.
Right. Well, I did give a lecture once called “Poetry: the Original Travel Literature,” because literature can obviously take you to different geographical zones. But it also takes you to what Keats called the “realms of gold,” about when he first read a translation of Homer. He wrote, “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,” by which he means literary travel. For me those realms of gold are imaginative territory. And when I compose poetry, I am moving in some direction, toward some unforeseen destination…For the reader I try to make it a kind of adventure in imaginative travel. Maybe a short one—not a journey to the center of the universe or anything. But I try to give the reader some sense at the end of the poem that the reader is some place quite different from where they started.
By Billy Collins
At the hotel coffee shop that morning, the waitress was wearing a pink uniform with “Florence” written in script over her heart. And the man who checked my bag had a nameplate that said “Ben.” Behind him was a long row of royal palms. On the plane, two women poured drinks from a cart they rolled down the aisle—“Debbie” and “Lynn” according to their winged tags. And such was my company as I arced from coast to coast, and so I seldom spoke, and then only of the coffee, the bag, the tiny bottles of vodka. I said little more than “Thank you” and “Can you take this from me, please?” Yet I began to sense that all of them were ready to open up, to get to know me better, perhaps begin a friendship. Florence looked irritated as she shuffled from table to table, but was she just hiding her need to know about my early years—the ball I would toss and catch in my hands the times I hid behind my mother’s dress? And was I so wrong in seeing in Ben’s eyes a glimmer of interest in my theories and habits—my view of the Enlightenment, my love of cards, the hours I tended to keep? And what about Debbie and Lynn? Did they not look eager to ask about my writing process, my way of composing in the morning by a window, which I would have admitted if they had just had the courage to ask. And strangely enough—I would have continued as they stopped pouring drinks and the other passengers turned to listen— the only emotion I ever feel, Debbie and Lynn, is what the beaver must feel, as he bears each stick to his hidden construction, which creates the tranquil pond and gives the mallards somewhere to paddle, the pair of swans a place to conceal their young.