When did you first encounter poetry?
When I was three or four, my mother starting reading Dr. Seuss, A.A. Milne and other poets to me under the largest tree in our front yard.
How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
An Arbor Day poem I wrote as a class assignment in the third grade somehow ended up in the local newspaper, and within a few years I was writing poems regularly. Thank you, Mrs. Hughes.
At Yale I had some discouraging interactions with a well-known poet, and I stopped writing for about a decade until I recognized that I was missing something important in my life. I didn’t start publishing (except for my lost Arbor Day poem) until I was in my mid-thirties.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
At 20 I proposed to a college classmate; together we raised two wonderful children and two springer spaniels. I ran large companies and worked in senior roles for four Presidents of the United States, so until very recently I never had the luxury of much or dedicated time for writing. It was almost all stolen time in airport terminals, dreary commutes, and pointless committee meetings. Occasionally those settings bleed into my poems.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
For a long time I would start with an opening line that popped into my head, and then I would try to take it somewhere interesting. In my forties that started to change and I would sense that an image was moving me, perhaps in some way I didn’t understand. Poems started coming more from trying to wrestle with images that were unsettling to me.
I have tried starting poems with an idea or a point I want to make, but for me that approach almost always leads to terrible results.
Which writers (living and dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I started writing poetry again after I discovered Philip Larkin, so I owe him an unpayable debt. For humorous poetry, Martial, Jonathan Swift, Byron, Dorothy Parker, X.J. Kennedy and Wendy Cope have been major influences. It is a little trickier for the “serious” poets, but I would start the list with the great Richard Wilbur, followed closely by Horace, Shakespeare, Yeats, Auden, Heaney, Plath and Walcott. On a more personal level I would have to name Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy and Rhina Espaillat.
Tell us about your two new books.
Sleaze and Slander (Measure Press, 2016) is my “new and selected” comic verse from 1995-2015, and it is very much in the tradition of the comic poets I mentioned. It is a meaty volume that audiences seem to enjoy, and about of a third of it consists of translations from Latin and Middle Welsh.
The Billy Collins Experience (Kelsay Books, 2016) is a collection of satirical poems based on the premise of my “discovery” of lost chapbooks and juvenilia of our former Poet Laureate. All of the poems imitate Collins’ voice, subjects and techniques. It is more of a poet’s book, but you can still enjoy it even if you are unfamiliar with Billy Collins.
Read and view sample poems from his new books here:
A Painting of Echo
Foolish artist, why must you sketch my face
And hound a goddess eyes cannot detect?
I am the daughter born of Speech and Space,
Babble’s mother, a voiceless intellect.
I snatch a word before it disappears
Then mimic mindlessly what I have found.
I am Echo—I live within your ears.
If you believe you can paint me, paint sound.
(Translated from the Latin of Ausonius)
A Note from Echo
Narcissus, I no longer haunt the canyons
and the crypts. I thrive and multiply;
uncounted daughters are my new companions.
We are the voicemail’s ponderous reply
to the computers making random calls.
We are the Muzak in the empty malls,
the laugh track on the reruns late at night,
the distant siren’s chilling lullaby,
the steady chirp of things that simplify
their scheduled lives. You know I could recite
more, but you never cared for my recitals.
I do not miss you, do not need you here—
I can repeat the words of your disciples
telling lovers what they need to hear.
(2000 Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, W.D Snodgrass judge)