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Arts & Entertainment

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.

Billy Collins is a wonderful teacher! I love his poetry and his thoughtful, meaningful guidance. I am a middle school/high school English Language Arts teacher and I love to teach poetry, read poetry, write poetry. I love Billy Collins' Poetry 180 book and philosophy. Thank you!

Deepened my knowledge and appreciation of poetry

Amazing! It has really helped me understand the process and, more importantly, it has been an inspiration. The writing tips, exercises, student discussions were wonderful! Thank you!

Billy Collins was so enlightening. He speaks straightforwardly but always with tremendous insight. Would absolutely recommend his masterclass to all!


John N.

I have enjoyed seeing Mr. Collins's authenticity and transparency. There is such a pure simplicity about his approach to poetry that has greatly helped demystify poetry as a whole for me. Where I used to believe that poetry needed to be wrestled with to make 'just right' I now see that it simply needs to be 'discovered' or 'set free' even from its hiding place in plain sight.

Douglas S.

I always appreciate having an opportunity to explore someone else's mess. I follow basically the same pattern of always writing with pencil and paper first and making multiple corrections and elisions on the fly and eventually transcribing a draft onto a computer, printing and then revising in pencil. I always find it quite fascinating how a proverbial mess of words, strike-outs, erasures, mistakes, corrections etc. looks on the printed page when it is complete and says exactly what you wanted it to say,

Laura E.

This is inspiring -- he makes me want to practice and play with words and lines. His way of explaining things is so accessible. He said "no one is a good line machine." Whew. Good to know. I thought he might be one because of the way he talks and because of the intricate beauty of his poems.

Pam L.

I love listening to Billy Collins talk and I have long admired his skill in making poetry available to so many, but I am having more trouble than I had hoped for pulling "the lessons" out of his talks.

Tricia J.

Dressed for some occasion, skinny, fat, I love that—that really speaks to me. I was always fascinated with a poem’s shape, to the point that it is sometimes what draws me in if the title does not do that first.

Carol G.

It was really helpful to see Billy's notebooks. To be given permission to make a mess, not get it right and to be imaginative and play, without thinking that in every moment you have to have it right. I really agree with an earlier comment that it is applicable to many art forms and creative processes. Thank you


I really enjoy how Collins' humor and humility shine through to make this as accessible as possible - he's taking away the intimidation factor and making me cry laughing tears at the same time!


I find it fascinating how everything Billy explains here can be applied to many and very different art forms. In my case, I'm applying this to Photography

Corinne M.

I am enjoying seeing Billy’s process & connecting with poetry humor...that which only we get...

Fred G.

It was helpful to see Billy's notebook. It's similar to how I have been writing but the permission to get more messy and play more with the editing in the notebook was good for me. I also am learning to pay more attention to the physical look of the poem.