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For many NPR fans, Billy Collins needs no introduction. The former Poet Laureate is widely acknowledged as America’s most popular poet, regularly popping up on national best-seller lists (terra incognita for most poets, even beloved ones). Nurse She’s black She’s a queen She’s a healthcare worker Living her best life poster
Public radio fans might know him best from his frequent appearances on A Prairie Home Companion … Or may remember his lack of Phil Collins know-how, as displayed on Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.
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So when Collins sat down with NPR for a reading on Facebook Live, we didn’t have to do much work to drum up an audience. The comments were quickly filled with his longtime fans.
The crowd was clearly familiar with Collins’ poetry, which is marked by observation, straightforward language and humor. But they peppered the poet with questions about the stuff even die-hard fans don’t get to see: the work that went into the words. (After all, Collins fans know a poem doesn’t just happen … Suddenly.)
One fan asked: How would someone who wants to become a poet get started?
Reading, Collins answered — lots and lots of reading. He cited Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000 hours” benchmark as a good standard.
“It’s such dull advice. There’s no key to it,” he said. “It really lies in the simple act of reading tons of poetry. And I mean not just stuff you find in magazines but if you really want to be trained in poetry you need to read Milton — you need to read Paradise Lost. You need to read Wordsworth — you need to read Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude.'”
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“That’s if you want to take it seriously. If you don’t want to take it seriously, you can just get a 79-cent pen and express yourself,” he laughed. “No one’s gonna read it with any pleasure because … You haven’t paid attention to what happened in the past.”