Biography of Billy Collins

Billy Collins
Collins at PEN Gala, May 5, 2015
Collins at PEN Gala, May 5, 2015
BornWilliam James Collins
(1941-03-22) March 22, 1941 (age 78)
New York City, New York, U.S.
OccupationProfessor, Poet, Book Author, Anthologist
Notable worksThe Apple That Astonished Paris, Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning

William James Collins, known as Billy Collins, (born March 22, 1941) is an American poet, appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. In 2016, Collins retired from his position as a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York after teaching there almost 50 years. Collins is the Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. Collins was considered as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library (1992) and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004 through 2006. As of 2018, he is a teacher in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.

Personal life

Billy Collins was born in New York City to William and Katherine Collins and grew up in Queens and White Plains, New York. William was born to a large family from Ireland and Katherine was from Canada. In his late seventies, Collins described his childhood to The Wall Street Journal. His mother was a nurse who stopped working to raise their only child. She had the ability to recite verses on almost any subject, which she often did, cultivating in her young son a love of words. Collins attended Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains and received a B.A. in English from the College of the Holy Cross in 1963; he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in romantic poetry from the University of California, Riverside. His professors at Riverside included Victorian scholar and poet Robert Peters. There he came under the influence of contemporary poets like Karl Shapiro, Howard Nemerov and Reed Whittemore, and during his adolescence he was influenced by Beat Generation poets as well. In 1975 Collins founded The Mid-Atlantic Review with his friends Walter Blanco and Steve Bailey. In 1971 Collins married Diane Olbright, an architect, and later settled in Westchester County, New York. The couple have since divorced. Collins moved from New York to Winter Park, Florida to be with Suzannah Gilman, now his fiancée.


Collins in La Jolla, San Diego, 2008

Collins was a professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, from 1968 - 2016. He is a founding advisory board member of the CUNY Institute for Irish-American Studies at Lehman College. Collins has taught and served as a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York as well as teaching workshops across the U.S. and in Ireland. Collins is a member of the faculty of SUNY Stony Brook Southampton, where (2015) he teaches poetry workshops. Collins was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001 and held the title until 2003. Collins served as poet laureate for the State of New York from 2004 until 2006. Collins enjoyed a stint with the Winter Park Institute in Winter Park, Florida, an affiliate of Rollins College. Collins was named the senior distinguished fellow at the Winter Park Institute in 2008. He maintained this fellowship until 2015. Over the years, Collins has invited many of his friends of his to be guests at the institute, including such luminaries as Paul Simon, Sir Paul McCartney, Jane Pauley, Pulitzer Prize winners Jules Feiffer and Marsha Norman, and Garrison Keillor. In 2012, Collins became poetry consultant for Smithsonian Magazine. During the summer of 2013, Collins guest hosted Garrison Keillor's popular daily radio broadcast and email newsletter, The Writer's Almanac, on NPR. Collins gave readings at The White House three times—in 2001, 2011, and 2014. In 2014, he traveled to Russia as a cultural emissary of the U.S. State Department. In 2013 and 2015, Collins toured with the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, performing on stage with her in a music-poetry-conversation format. Collins and Paul Simon have engaged in four onstage conversations about poetry, music, and lyrics, starting in 2008. The conversations were held in 2008 at New York's 92nd Street Y, The Winter Park Institute, at the Chautauqua Institution, and at Emory University as part of the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature, where Simon was the 2013 Richard Ellman Lecturer. Collins presented a TED talk, Everyday Moments, Caught in Time at TED 2012. Collins, as one of the Favorite 100 TED speakers of all time, gave a second TED talk at TED 2014 in Vancouver, Canada.

Literary achievements

As U.S. Poet Laureate, Collins read his poem The Names at a special joint session of the United States Congress on September 6, 2002, held to remember the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The poem also appeared in the New York Times, September 6, 2002. As Poet Laureate, Collins instituted the program Poetry 180 for high schools. Collins chose 180 poems for the program and the accompanying book, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry—one for each day of the school year. Collins edited a second anthology, 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day to refresh the supply of available poems. The program is online, and poems are available there for no charge. Collins poem's are known for willingly representing the affluent life of suburban middle-class America. Collins avoids the kind of autobiographical writing and instead encapsulates a "sybaritic moment" as objectively as possible.

In 1997, Collins recorded The Best Cigarette, a collection of 34 of his poems, which became a bestseller. In 2005, the CD was re-released under a Creative Commons license, allowing free, non-commercial distribution of the recording. He also recorded two of his poems for the audio versions of Garrison Keillor's collection Good Poems (2002). Collins has appeared on Keillor's radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, numerous times, where he gained a portion of his large following. In 2005, Collins recorded Billy Collins Live: A Performance in New York City. Collins was introduced by his friend, actor Bill Murray.

New York Times considered Collins as "The most popular poet in America."

Over the years, the U.S. magazine Poetry has awarded Collins several prizes in recognition of poems they publish. During the 1990s, Collins won five such prizes. The magazine also selected him as "Poet of the Year" in 1994. In 2005 Collins was the first annual recipient of its Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts and in 1993, from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

One of his acclaimed works, "Fishing on the Susquehanna in July", has been added to the preserved works of the United States Native American literary registry. The poem has been included on national Advance Placement exams for high school students.

In 2012, Collins performed in an episode of the PBS animated series Martha Speaks.

Collins is on the editorial board at The Alaska Quarterly Review. Most recently he contributed to the 30th anniversary edition. He is on the advisory board at the Southern Review, and is similarly named in other journals.

Awards and honors

  • 1983 Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts
  • 1986 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts
  • 1991 National Poetry Series publication prize. Winner for Questions About Angels
  • 1992 New York Public Library "Literary Lion"
  • 1993 Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation
  • 1994 Poetry magazine's "Poet of the Year"
  • 1995 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, Academy of American Poets. Shortlist for The Art of Drowning
  • 2001 American Irish Historical Society Cultural Award
  • 2001–2003 United States Poet Laureate
  • 2004–2006 New York State Poet Laureate
  • 2005 Mark Twain Award for Humor in Poetry
  • 2013 Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry
  • 2014 Norman Mailer Prize for Poetry
  • 2016 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award
  • 2016 Elected into The American Academy of Arts and Letters

Other Awards include these from Poetry magazine:

  • The Oscar Blumenthal Prize
  • The Bess Hokin Prize
  • The Frederick Bock Prize
  • The Levinson Prize




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  • Video Poems (1980)
  • The Apple That Astonished Paris. University of Arkansas Press. 1988. ISBN 978-1-55728-024-4. See also version printed by University of Arkansas Press, 2006, ISBN 978-1-55728-823-3
  • The Art of Drowning. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1995. ISBN 978-0-8229-5567-2.
  • Picnic, Lightning. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1998. ISBN 978-0822956709.
  • Questions About Angels. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1999. ISBN 978-0822956983.
  • Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes. Picador. 2000. ISBN 978-0330376501.
  • Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. Random House. 2001–2002. ISBN 978-0-375-75519-4.
  • Nine Horses. Random House, Inc. 2002. ISBN 978-1-58836-278-0.
  • The Trouble with Poetry. 2005.; Random House, Inc., 2007, ISBN 978-0-375-75521-7
  • She Was Just Seventeen. Modern Haiku Press. 2006. ISBN 978-0974189420.
  • Collins, Billy (2008). Ballistics. ISBN 978-1-4000-6491-5.
  • Horoscopes for the Dead. Random House. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4000-6492-2.
  • Aimless Love. Random House. 2013. ISBN 978-0-6796-4405-7.
  • Voyage. Bunker Hill Publishing. 2014. ISBN 978-1-59373-154-0.
  • The Rain in Portugal. Random House. 2016. ISBN 978-0-67964-406-4.

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