Writing Process

Billy Collins

Lesson time 9:09 min

Billy shares his personal notebooks and gives rare insight into the process of writing his poem “Grand Central.”

Billy Collins
Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] - So my usual process, if you will, is that I start by writing in a notebook with a pencil or a pen. And I make a mess. I try to write a good line and then another good line and another good line. But I'm not-- no one's a good line machine. So often, there will be a lot of cross outs. And the reason I write in the journal is to make a mess, to cross out this stanza, change a word. And then I can kind of see the development of the poem. And I might want to go back and change my mind. If I wrote it on a computer, we delete all the mistakes. And you always have a clean copy which I think is deceptive, because it does not express the randomness and that kind of chaos of constantly changing and trying to improve self-correcting. And then at the very last minute, after I write multiple drafts-- sometimes it's one, really one, or two, or three, or four, it depends on how long the poem is and how quickly it came to me-- then I will put it up on the computer screen in word processor. And what I learn there is how the poem is actually going to look on the page. Now, when I'm writing it, I'm trying to write what they call isometric lines. That is, lines of poetry that are about the same length. I don't want a two word line, then a 10 word line. I want the poem to look like-- you know, they look like flags. The left side is justified. And the right side is raggedy. So like a kind of flag that's a little weather beaten. But. I'll know exactly, then, when I type it up how the poem is actually going to look. And you know poems have a look. They have a look on the page. And it's the first thing we see when we're introduced to a poem. We turn the page in a magazine. And there is a poem. We can see it's a skinny poem or it's a fat poem. Or it looks disorganized or it looks very tight and quatrained. It's dressed for some occasion or not so well dressed. And I make adjustments to give it a better shape to make it look a little more shapely. If I have a line that's just way too long, I'll just try to make it two lines maybe. But I'm really organizing the statue of the poem on the computer. That's a little thing on a page. And you can carry it over to the computer and see how it looks again. There's a lot of staring involved at the poem. [MUSIC PLAYING] Well, this is a typical notebook that I have a Post-It that says full. So it's not usable anymore. All the pages are covered. Well, all sorts of stuff comes into this. I mean, I have some notes about teaching poetry. There are poems that are begun and abandoned. And then here's a quote from a Sam Cook song. "Here's a man in evening clothes, how he got here I don't know." A poem called the "Card Players" based on a Cezanne painting. There are doodles. I like to draw dogs and landscapes and little things. And then there's a journal of a trip to Canada we took last summer to visit my mother's hometown in Ontario. Some of the poems are false starts. There's a poem ab...

Let imagination lead the way

Known for his wit and wisdom, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is one of America’s most beloved contemporary poets. In his MasterClass, Billy teaches you to appreciate the emotional pull of poetry. Learn his approach to exploring subjects, incorporating humor, and finding your voice. Discover the profound in the everyday, and let poetry lead you to the unexpected.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

It gave me permission to write from my heart and imagination without being perfectionistic and allowed me to be exposed to different poetic structures and inspired me to be a better poet. It gave me hope, inspiration, and valuable information.

Like the comments about knowing when a poem is about to wind itself up.

I am going to go through each lesson taking notes of ways I need to try and improve my poems. I may need to go through the lessons yet again as I absorb all the tiny bits and pieces Billy gave us in these classes.

Good overview of the process without getting bogged down in the weeds


Daniel H.

'Grand Central' is a wonderful poem. When I think about Grand Central Station, there are likely eight million things that can be said about it. However, eight lines capture it all very well. In this case, less is so much more.

Victoria H.

The poem I wrote yesterday and tweaking today, I am choosing the line length according to the title and subject. I agree about about writing on the computer. It doesn't let you are your process, and so then you don't know how your mind worked on that particular poem, because the proof got lost in the act of using the delete key. I like now to use my favorite pens for my opening lines and lines for new stanzas, and make notes of what emotions, I am working with for that stanza. I like this video to, it got me wanting to stay with writing only in my journals

Kaerla F.

I love how he says "There's a lot of staring involved." I find that to be deeply truthful. ::twinkle::

Simon C.

Dressing the poem for a specific occasion. He's elegantly addressing at form in a way so practical that it would be worth mentioning in any dispute about the usefulness of form and meter. The writing process is pretty much the pleasure of poetry itself for some people, even just looking back to all the drafts and corrections, and if they're not published sometimes I print my poems on some papers to feel them physically, how do they look like on a page? What is it like to see their definitive version on there?

Tauna S.

I love his humor and showing his maelstrom of twisted strokes of the pencil on the page, like turning mud pies into castles.

A fellow student

I really liked how Billy really allows for play in creativity, to allow for distractions, and to surprise ourselves and the reader. I am calling all poets! If you are interested in starting an online critique group where we give each other constructive feedback on poems in progress, please email me at zoraidapastor77@gmail.com Check out my blog www.floridapoet.wordpress.com Can't wait to hear from you.

Raymond V.

My take away from this lesson is to continue giving myself permission, to make a mess, explore playfully, observe the moment actively, and allow all of that to create a poem. The insights that Billy Collins graciously provides are tools for cohesive creative expression.

Graeme R.

Billy Collins's gentle, matter-of-fact exposition is so full of the humor and warmth that characterizes all his work.

Laura K.

"This is what poets are paid for: to look at clouds, watch chipmunks. Someone has to keep an eye on these things, and if not the poets, who else has the time for it?" That seems like a life well spent.

Warren D.

It is good to hear and see how Billy Collins writes, weaving the thoughts, words to the page, changes, and final decisions that make the final poem. The sight structure gives another dimension to the finished process. Excellent review of his way of putting poems together.