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.
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...
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