TED Radio Hour: Billy Collins: When Does Creativity Start And End? Two-term U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins captures readers with his understated wit and profound insight. He shares a look into his own creative process, which requires a lot of patience, intensity and trips to the dry cleaner.

When Does Creativity Start And End?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.


BILLY COLLINS: Next, I'd like to call up Tiffany.

STEWART: Let's start today with a riddle.


TIFFANY: Good evening.

STEWART: A riddle wrapped inside a poem.


TIFFANY: Can you find my poems? My poems are in a place you could never go. They're not in my shoes, because they wouldn't fit.

STEWART: This is Tiffany Adams. She's an 11th-grader at Balou High School in Washington D.C. She's giving a public reading of a poem she wrote, which is about poetry.


TIFFANY: So can you find my poems? Can you find the place I hid them? The place where my pen goes? From in your own head. From in your own book. Can you find my poems?

STEWART: Tiffany's poem asks a pretty remarkable question: Where do poems exist? On the page? In your head? Out in the world?


TIFFANY: They're not in a obvious place. No, they're not anywhere but one simple place. So can you find my poems?

TIFFANY: When you ask me where my poems are, I'm just going to leave you still guessing. Because if I just tell you, it just takes the whole surprise and everything out of the poem.

STEWART: Fair enough. But where does a poem come from?

TIFFANY: It just happen. I was writing it and it just came on the paper.

STEWART: What does it really mean that words come out of you? How does an idea go from an inkling to ink?

Well, today on the TED RADIO HOUR, we'll explore the mystery of the creative process and the challenge of nurturing our creativity. We'll hear from a best-selling author who went searching for her muse in some unlikely places. And a musician who finds her inspiration from the American south and the Far East. But first, let's stick with poetry.


COLLINS: I'm here to give you your recommended dietary allowance of poetry.

STEWART: Onstage, at the TED 2012 conference, Billy Collins presented a number of his poems, with a twist. They were animated videos. Let's listen to one. It's called "Budapest."


COLLINS: ...called "Budapest." And in it, I reveal, or pretend to reveal, the secrets of the creative process.

(Reading) Budapest. My pen moves along the page like the snout of a strange animal, shaped like a human arm and dressed in the sleeve of a loose green sweater. I watch it sniffing the paper ceaselessly, intent as any forager that has nothing on its mind but the grubs and insects that will allow it to live another day. It wants only to be here tomorrow dressed, perhaps, in the sleeve of a plaid shirt; nose pressed against the page, writing a few more dutiful lines while I gaze out the window and imagine Budapest, or some other city where I have never been.


Thank you.

STEWART: At first, Billy Collins was not sold on the idea of adding visuals to his poems.


COLLINS: Because the mixing of those two media is a sort of unnatural or unnecessary act.

STEWART: At TED, he shared the challenges of working through that creative process.


COLLINS: When I was United States Poet Laureate - and I love saying that... it's a great way to start sentences. When I was him back then, I was approached by J. Walter Thompson, the ad company, and they were hired sort of by the Sundance Channel. And the idea was to have me record some of my poems and then they would find animators to animate them.

And I was initially resistant, because I always think poetry can stand alone, by itself. And the poem, if it's written with the ear, already is - has been set to its own verbal music as it was composed. And surely, if you're reading a poem that mentions a cow, you don't need, on the facing page, a drawing of a cow? I mean, let's let the reader do a little work.

But I relented, because it seemed like an interesting possibility and also I'm a total cartoon junkie since childhood. I think more influential than Emily Dickenson or Coleridge or Wordsworth on my imagination, were Warner Bros., Merry Melodies and Loony Tunes cartoons. Bugs Bunny is my muse.

And this way, poetry would find its way onto television, of all places. And I'm pretty much all for poetry in public places: poetry on buses, poetry on subways, on billboards, on cereal boxes. When I was Poet Laureate - there I go again - I - I can't help it, it's true...


...I created a poetry channel on Delta Airlines that lasted for a couple of years, so you could tune in to poetry as you were flying. And it - my sense is, it's a good thing to get poetry out of the - kind of off the shelves and more into public life. Start a meeting with a poem. That would be an idea you might take with you.

When you get a poem on a billboard or on the radio or on a cereal box or whatever, it happens to you so suddenly that you don't have time to deploy your anti-poetry deflector shields that were installed in high school.

STEWART: There was something about the anti-poetry deflector shields that really rang true, and I was an English major. What happens in the teaching of poetry that - that can repel a student?

COLLINS: Well, it's mostly - and I'm guilty of these sins. I mean, I've been a professor all my life and I've committed all these sins in the classroom repeatedly. But it's the emphasis on interpretation, to the detriment of some of the other less teachable, maybe even more obvious or more bodily pleasures that poetry offers. But that mental and cerebral pleasure seems to be so dominant that it leaves out other pleasures.

And the other pleasures are not so teachable, so they don't require the intervention of a teacher. The pleasure of rhythm, the pleasure of - the sound pleasures, as the poem is a little sonic auditorium. The pleasure of metaphor. The pleasure of imaginative travel. All of these pleasures that we experience in a gestalt fashion, you know, simultaneously as we read a poem, are difficult to discuss, really.

So the emphasis tends to be on what does the poem mean? And at some point in my teaching, I realized that, when I'm writing a poem, that's the last thing I'm thinking about. I'm never thinking about what does the poem mean? I'm just trying to advance the poem to some point where it can stop, basically.

So I started to re-engineer my teaching and, instead of asking what does the poem mean, I substituted other questions such as how does the poem go? How does the poem progress? How does it get from its beginning to its end? Through a series of maneuvers or negotiations. And in that way, the poem seemed to be more like an animated thing, rather than a text that has to be reduced to another, lesser text, the text of meaning.

STEWART: Let's go back to your TED Talk. I want to let people hear one of your poems. It was one of the ones that was animated. This is "Some Days."


COLLINS: And I think you could boil this poem down to saying some days you eat the bear; other days, the bear eats you. And it uses the imagery of dollhouse furniture.

"Some Days."

(Reading) Some days, I put the people in their places at the table, bend their legs at the knees - if they come with that feature, and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs. All afternoon, they face one another; the man in the brown suit, the woman in the blue dress. Perfectly motionless. Perfectly behaved.

(Reading) But other days, I am the one who is lifted up by the ribs and then lowered into the dining room of a doll house to sit with the others at the long table. Very funny. But how would you like it if you never knew, from one day to the next, if you were going to spend it striding around like a vivid god, your shoulders in the clouds; or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper, staring straight ahead with your little plastic face.


Thank you. Writing is not as - actually as easy as that for me, but I - I pre - I sort of - I like to pretend that it's - that it comes with ease. One of my students came up after class one - an introductory class and she said, you know, poetry is harder than writing. Which I found both erroneous and profound.


So I like to at least pretend it just flows out. A friend of mine has a slogan which - he's another poet. He says that if at first you don't succeed, hide all evidence you ever tried.

STEWART: Billy, what do you do on those days when it just doesn't come to you?

COLLINS: Oh, the - poets do the thing - we'd go to the dry cleaner. I mean, the usual stuff. Well, I wait. I mean, I - there's this term, writer's block. I - I don't believe in it. I don't like to even hear the term. I mean, you can't be writing constantly because you'd be insane. So there must be periods of non-writing.

And then it's just a matter of how do you view them? And I just view them as I'm - I'm waiting. Waiting for something to come along. And I think that's a kind of healthy way, rather than thinking I'm not writing. That means I'll never write.

STEWART: What do you do immediately after writing a poem? Do you put it away? Do you go for a walk? Do you re-read it?

COLLINS: When it's really done? Yeah, I go out and shoot some baskets or something. I mean, I - you know, you just - you - you want to - you just ... I don't want to make it sound too romantic but, I mean, it's a quite intense experience and there's - there's always the frustration about how will this end?

My poems tend to be going somewhere and they end when they get there. I mean, and you need to know, of course, when to stop. There was a story about a kindergarten teacher. Her students produced the best art of any of the other teachers in the school. And they asked her, how come your - your students' paintings are so good?

And - and she said, well, it's 'cause I know when to take them away from them.

STEWART: Everybody stop.

COLLINS: Yeah, 'cause eventually it'll become mud, if they just keep going. And she would see a - a good painting and just - ah, that's enough for you. Yeah. So there's deep satisfaction in finding an ending. At which point I don't want to say anything more and the reader, I'm guessing, doesn't want to hear anything more.

STEWART: Billy Collins, thanks for joining us.

COLLINS: Thank you for having me.

STEWART: Billy Collins' latest collection of poetry is "Horoscopes for the Dead." You can watch some of his animated poems at our website: ted.npr.org.

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