From Billy Collins's MasterClass

Writing Process

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

Topics include: Make a Mess · Writing “Grand Central”


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

Topics include: Make a Mess · Writing “Grand Central”

Billy Collins

Teaches 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.

I liked the lessons which are about finding the nuances and quirks in the stories inside the poem, and the resonances in modern life.

This class is thoughtful, informative, and supportive of poetry, of writing practice, and of poets.

Reinforced that I stay true to myself in writing in my own unique style and voice. And to get with it, read more, and write more!

I will continue to re-read & re-listen to this class...just now scouring the used book stores for Billy's Books....Thanks for this Master Class


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.

Kasy L.

I loved this lesson. It was great to see how the finished poem came from Billy's original notes: his "mess." Thanks for showing that to us!


I love to see how the finished poem emerges from Billy Collins' notes. And how he turns place into a reflection on something more expansive, i.e., time.

John S.

This lesson was not as strong as others, I thought, because it repeated what was said before, for the most part. However, I did think Collins' remark about "isometric lines" was both new and worthwhile.

A fellow student

A brief visual tour of Grand Central Station would enhance this lesson -- perhaps showing visuals while Collins' presents the poem as a voice-over. I'd like to know more about his decision to capture such a vast space in four couplets. I liked the discussion about the difficulty of writing a commissioned poem vs. the absence of pressure when writing from one's own topics. When I ask students to write poetry I am essentially commissioning poems from them, so I need to keep this in mind.

Ann P.

Loved this... so good to hear his process and to see his notebooks. Such great insights have to keep going back to different bits. Taking notes too!

Michele H.

I write prose on the computer, but I really have to start writing a poem longhand, like Mr Collins, otherwise it feels false or disconnected. Prose does not engender the same response, I assume because I am plotting -a higher level function- at the same time so it doesn't bother me to type. In fact, I think it helps. Odd.

Ada R.

Did you see the movie Patterson? There is a beautiful note book, such Billy describes. Spoilers ‘ alert....the bulldog ends up eating the notebook! What then.......