I wouldn’t recommend that authors go back and read their early work, unless they are getting paid to do this out loud in front of an audience. I learned long ago not to let a poem out of the house until it was fully cooked, but I still had to restrain my present self from correcting the flaws of my younger self as I read some of these older poems. Writers, if you have to read your earlier work, make sure no pen or pencil is within reach.
First edition, signed twice on title-page. Nearly every one of the 105 pages of Collins’s book bear his annotations. Starting with the “Historic note” on the half-title: “For a time this copy was in the possession of Billy Collins himself.” On the copyright page he circles 1991 and says, “My 1st Big Book at 50!” On the dedication page he explains how he and his now ex-wife Diane “decided we loved each other too much to spoil it by living together.” On the poem, “Student of Clouds,” he explains “I’m still a big cloud fan though for a while a blue sky with white clouds would make me think of ‘The Simpsons.’” Alongside the title for “the Norton Anthology of English Literature” he has drawn a tombstone with his birth year, 1941 and the ominous open dash. His playful “Forgetfulness” has, he tells us, “become a kind of signature poem. I don’t think I’ve ever not read it in public.” It also serves “as a very accurate indicator of audience intelligence. If no one laughs [at the last line], I feel I should get out of town.” He introduces us to his poem “Invective” with “why should we be nice in every poem?” Alongside the marvelous line in “Nostalgias,” “Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult,” Collins writes: “Back in the 20th century, we made sense of the past by dividing it into decades and then glibly referending the 50s, the 60s, etc. So this in response.” A marvelous, ebullient commentary.
COLLINS, Billy (b. 1941). Questions About Angels. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991. 8°. Original cloth-backed boards; dust jacket.