Hummingbird Review (HBR) Editor Bob Yehling caught up with former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins (BC) in San Diego in late February before Collin’s presentation at Dean Nelson’s “Symposium By The Sea,” Point Loma Nazarene University. Here’s an interesting excerpt talking about titles for poems:
HBR: A poem of yours which goes along those lines is “Brightly Colored Boats Upturned on the Banks of the Charles,” which kicks off "Ballistics." The whole poem seems to be right there – in the title. Was that your plan?
BC: Yeah, that’s making fun of poetry. What’s there to say that isn’t said in the title? Where do I go from here?
HBR: What are your feelings about the titling of poems, the titles we choose? We see so many works, in all genres, where the title either doesn’t seem to connect to the work, or it’s too obscure.
BC: There are two kinds of titles: the simple title, like “Soap,” or “Monday,” or “Poolside,” a little locator like that; and then titles like “Brightly Colored Boats Upturned on the Banks of the Charles,” that are very informational. James Wright had those titles like, “Lying in a Hammock (on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island) Minnesota,” or “In Response to a Rumor that the Last Existing Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned.” Those are good, because it pushes all that information in the title and you don’t have to deal with it in the first stanza. You don’t have to bother with the scene and setting stuff.
HBR: What is a title’s most important function?
BC: The main thing about titles is this: You shouldn’t use, in the title, the information you have, as the poet, which the reader doesn’t have. Let’s say you’ve written ten drafts of this poem. You put it in your drawer, and you work on it the next week. And the week after. Well, you’re so into this damned thing, you know? And then here’s this poor reader, who’s wandering down the street and bumps into your poem, and you have a title that is something like, “Serpentine Vortex of My Consciousness”. Maybe you know what that’s about! (laughs) You should never put above a poem a title that only you can understand, or that depends upon the benefit of having been inside the poem. It’s like insider trading. The title is the way the reader steps into the poem; it should be unobstructed.
Read more: The Hummingbird Review Spring 2013
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