From a January 12, 2008 interview with Billy Collins on Bigthink.com. To watch Collins discuss religion, global warming, war, and how those topics affect arts and letters, please see the full interview at Big Think.
Billy Collins: The joy in writing poetry is being down on your hands and knees with the language. If someone carves swans and animals out of soap, that person loves soap. And if you write, you love the language. Writing a poem is an opportunity to get as close to the language as, pretty much, you can get.
It is a pleasure. I have no high mission that drives me to write poetry. It is a very hedionistic activity. I write it for pleasure. I go there to get pleasure. And, if possible, to give pleasure.
One of the key pleasures—and most poets would agree with this—is starting out not knowing where you're going and finding a way to get there. The poem becomes not a whole expression of something you think or feel but a journey through itself to an ending. And that ending is unforseeable. In fact, that ending is something the poem is busy creating. It's almost as if the poem is the only way to access that particular ending.
I have a poem called "Questions About Angels." At the end of the poem, an angel appears. I didn't know she existed before I wrote that poem. I guess, strictly speaking, she didn't. The job of that poem was to bring her into being, to bring its own ending into being.
Education, I mean teaching literature, allows you as a writer to re-read literature, the kind of literature you'd want to re-read, semester after semester. And teaching also gives you time to write. I find that teaching and poetry go right together, and I don't see any conflict there.
There's an interview-type question that involves the word "balance", and it's often, "How do you balance having six children, and starting this new company, and writing a novel, and being a ballerina at the same time? How do you balance all those things?" I'm not trying to put a question in your mouth, but if the question were asked to a poet, it would be something like: "How do you manage to balance writing a poem every two weeks and doing absolutely nothing in between?"—that "very delicate" act of balancing there. It's not a labor-intensive job. Max Beerbohm—I like quoting this—said that, "The hardest thing about being a poet was knowing what to do with the other 23 and a half hours of the day." So, there are times for other things.