William “Billy” Collins was born on March 22, 1941, in New York City, the son of William Collins, an electrician, and Katherine Collins, a nurse. He attended parochial schools and received a B.A. from College of the Holy Cross in 1963 and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside, in 1971. His primary area of study was the Romantic poets. His career has been mainly academic; in 1971, he began teaching at Lehman College of the City University of New York, where he became distinguished professor of English. He has also served as writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College. He married and settled in Westchester County with his wife, Diane, an architect. He jokes that he is in competition with her, planning for his poems to outlast the buildings she designs.
Despite the domestic setting of much of his poetry, Collins’s writing reveals little of his private life. In 1999, however, his career received considerable publicity when the University of Pittsburgh Press refused to allow Random House to reprint some of Collins’s earlier poems, ostensibly because the university press still found them profitable. The conflict was covered in The New York Times and the online magazine Salon, leading Collins to say that he would like to forget about the mechanics of publishing and “get back to writing poems.” As writing, originally a sidelight to his academic career, has become increasingly important to Collins, he has developed a lively schedule of readings and workshops, several of the latter in Ireland.