Billy Collins was born March 22, 1941, in New York, New York. He received his BA degree from College of the Holy Cross (1963) and a PhD from University of California, Riverside (1971). He began writing when he was very young, and was influenced by the Beat poets in his youth. By college, he was inspired by Wallace Stevens. Collins’ second collection was the first of his to receive critical attention, The Apple That Astonished Paris, in 1988. In 1990, he won the National Poetry Series competition with his work from Questions About Angels: Poems. He published The Art of Drowning and Picnic, Lightning, in 1995 and 1998, respectively, and as a result of his success, the poet received a six-figure deal from Random House for his next three books, a feat uncharacteristic of most poets. His Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems was published in 2001, and shortly thereafter, he was named U. S. Poet Laureate. He served two terms (2001–2003), and subsequently, became the Poet Laureate of New York state (2004–2006). He published several more collections, including Nine Horses (2002), The Trouble with Poetry (2005), She Was Just Seventeen (2006), and Ballistics (2008). He also released a reading of his poems, The Best Cigarette, in 1997.
Collins is one of America’s bestselling poets in a society where poetry is rarely a commercial success, even for Pulitzer Prize winners. His popularity is far-reaching, not only among readers, but critics alike, another feat uncharacteristic of most poets. Part of his success is his accessibility. He writes with wit, humor, irony, and a simplicity that can be deceptive. Another key to his popularity is his love of performance poetry, often reading to sold-out crowds and allowing him to reach a wider audience.
In addition to Collin’s awards and accolades, he has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Lehman College, University College of New York, and he currently lives in Somers, New York.