Preview of ‘America Remembers 9/11′: Reading by Poets Billy Collins, Nancy Mercado

BY Jeffrey Brown  September 8, 2011 at 1:52 PM EST

All this week, the NewsHour is looking back on 10 years after 9/11. We have coverage online and every evening on the show leading up to a special program, “America Remembers 9/11,” which will air on Sunday evening (check your local listings for times).

For our “America Remembers 9/11” special program, we invited two poets — Billy Collins and Nancy Mercado — to each read a poem to mark the anniversary. We’ve posted the poems below, as well as conversations with the poets that will not air on Sunday’s special.

You can read Collins’ “The Names” here.

You can read Mercado’s “Going to Work” here. It was included in ‘Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets.’

Transcripts are after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about the making of the names. How did it come about?

BILLY COLLINS: It came about in a different way than most of my poems come about because I received a phone call from Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a little different. That doesn’t happen to you everyday?

BILLY COLLINS: That’s not the usual source of inspiration. I was made poet laureate about three months before September 11th so that really brought the office into a kind of new light. I got a phone call from Congress — a public affairs part of Congress — and they told me that a joint session of Congress would be convened in New York City on the first anniversary of 9/11 and would I write a poem for the occasion and say it to Congress. And I was nonplussed. I finally said, I don’t think I can do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Writing on demand.

BILLY COLLINS: Not just on demand but on something so big. You know some of my poems. My poems are about little things. They’re about whether the salt and pepper shakers get along, you know, and that kind of stuff, walking the dog. They’re not about geopolitical trauma, and I said I’ll certainly show up. You can’t just say I’m busy to Congress, but I thought at the time I would find something to read by another poet. In the back of my mind I thought probably Whitman. Anyway, a few weeks went by and one morning I woke up at 5 in the morning, early for me, and I just thought, you should give this try, you’re copping out here, get off the bench. And so two things passed through my mind: One was that I could write an elegy, a poem for the dead. So I had the genre of the elegy.

JEFFREY BROWN: With Whitman again in mind, right, and others.

BILLY COLLINS: Right, Whitman and Milton and all the great elegiasts. And the other thing was I thought I could use the alphabet and kind of go through the names of the victims, of the dead. And so I had two restrictive things: the box of the eulogy and then the handholds of the alphabet. And I got up and I wrote the poem in a couple of hours.

JEFFREY BROWN: Couple of hours?

BILLY COLLINS: Yeah, because I was —

JEFFREY BROWN: Once you had a frame.

BILLY COLLINS: Yeah, and there is that kind of paradox of the fact of rules liberating you, and I had a kind of a double frame. It didn’t take long to write at that point.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had the names in front of you?

BILLY COLLINS: No, I guessed. I made up names, and it turned out when I found online, I did find the actual names of the victims, I had about seven of them right. Some of them were very common names. There was no name that began with X, and in the poem I say, let X stand if it can for those not found. But otherwise every letter was sadly represented.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you’re writing the poems about the salt and pepper shakers, that’s different? In terms of process, what motivates that and how long does that take?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, I’m always seeking form. Other poets have said this, but if you’re writing in free verse, you’re not really constricted by regular rhyme and meter, one is usually looking for some invented principle to guide the poem. But it’s just that if you’re writing about how the pepper thinks about the salt, the pressure is off in some ways, and also if you are writing a poem about that, you are not going to read it in front of Congress because that was an entirely other experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, so tell me about that one?

BILLY COLLINS: Well that was nerve wracking. Congress met in New York in a joint session, and so they’re all gathered there and there were many speeches that preceded my poem. What I noticed basically was when I got up to read the poem, and I’m not saying something good about the poem for better or worse, but the language of poetry is different from the language of politics. And the poem starts with the image of rain glazing the windows, and people looked up like, what’s that? That sounds odd. And then I think there was a realization that, oh it’s a poem. And then I could see Congress dividing itself in two groups. One was, it’s a poem, now we can just shuffle our papers around or something and wait for it to be over. And the other group was, it’s a poem, we should listen. I kept scanning the room and I kept going back to Patrick Moynihan, who was really on the edge of his chair. It was beautiful to see his, that level of attention. It said something not about my poem but about poetry, the tone, the language is very different, in fact, the opposite of political rhetoric.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, the whole notion of the occasional poem, there is a long tradition of it, particularly in Britain, putting it in these formal occasions set against the normal discourse, the political discourse, but not so much here.

BILLY COLLINS: You know, the laureateship began in England, and one of the reasons it began, maybe the main reason, was exactly that, so that the poet would write a poem about a national occasion, something like a coronation or a beheading or some viscount falling of his horse or something, because there was no recording devices then, obviously, so it was a way of storing in the national memory important events, because there was no television, radio, any recording devices, and that was the very practical pragmatic function that poetry had and that still is the case. I think the British laureate is expected to write these occasional poems on certain events. I had a meeting with Andrew Motion, who was the past laureate, and we were talking about these different sets of obligations that guided our offices, and I concluded that the poet laureate has to write, in England, has to write occasional poems and the American poet laureate has to write occasionally.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re happy to have the latter right? I want to ask you, because you told me that you’ve only read this, ‘The Names,’ once in public since reading before Congress until today. It’s not in public, but it’s on camera and the public will see it. You didn’t put it in any of your books. You didn’t publish it. Why not? You’ve kept it separate.

BILLY COLLINS: I just thought it was a very special poem for me. I have a feeling I did kind of rise to the occasion, as we’re calling it. I just didn’t want to make part of my usual repertoire. I didn’t want to start reading it as part of a regular reading. I just think it’s so intimately tied to that event, the event of September 11th and then the second event of actually it being kind of uttered before Congress. So I’ve kept it kind of quiet and I haven’t — who knows. I could put it in a later book, but so far it’s a very special event for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you feel about it 10 years later after the event? Nine years after writing it?

BILLY COLLINS: I think it holds up ok because of its structure. I don’t want to be too coldheartedly formalistic about it, but I think when I read the poem now, it seems like it has the same kind of cohesiveness that I thought it had in the beginning. And the victims are still dead and the towers are still gone, so in that way our memory and reminisces and memorializations are still relevant.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Billy Collins, thanks so much.

BILLY COLLINS: You are very welcome. Thanks.

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JEFFREY BROWN: This poem begins, on their daily trips commuters shed tears. Tell me about this poem, “Going to Work.” What did you want to do?

NANCY MERCADO: Actually, I was lucky because I used to have to take the subway everyday to go to work and go through the World Trade Center. That first day, 9/11, I was not there because I had just gotten into a graduate program so I was Upstate.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were out of town.

NANCY MERCADO: I was out of town and it was my first day of school. That’s what I thought about, was going through there everyday. I used to come every Sunday when I lived in New Jersey, used to commute on the PATH train to come through the World Trade Center and take my bike and ride it around there every Sunday. That was like a religious thing for me. There was something about those towers that I really loved. I used to stand right underneath them and look straight up and used to get dizzy. They looked like they were moving. They were like alive, I think. I do, obviously, think of the people who perished there, but I also think of the destruction of the towers themselves and I consider them to have been architectural artwork that was destroyed. I was very sad about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you write this soon after, several years after? How did that work?

NANCY MERCADO: No, it was pretty soon after. I also felt that I needed to get back into New York somehow. Spiritually, I needed to be in the city, to give my person to New York. I thought if I have to pay taxes, I’ll pay them to New York City. I hurried up my studies and finished in a couple of years and went right back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you write this out of some compulsion, were you compelled to write? You wrote several other 9/11 poems, at least three others that I’ve seen. Did you feel compelled to do that?

NANCY MERCADO: I did. I felt compelled because I felt somehow that I owed it to the city of New York, whatever little bit I could do, and so it was like a compelling, it was a feeling that I had that to get it out and put it on paper and express what I felt.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is that different from your normal writing? What usually gets you going that makes you feel you have to write?

NANCY MERCADO: A big thing for me is injustice of any kind. I don’t like injustice of any kind. So that is something that compels me to write. I do write sometimes when I’m not necessarily compelled in that way and then those poems take a lot longer and they go through a lengthier editing process. But when I’m compelled to write, when I get angered by something that I believe is unjust or violence or anything of that sort.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned thinking about the people in those towers. One of the other poems that you wrote was for the ironworkers, thinking about the people who built those towers and then the ones who came and helped tear down the remnants.

NANCY MERCADO: That was also a poem that I was compelled to write because I was going to Staten Island to do a reading with another great poet who since has passed. We had to go shortly after the 9/11 incident so there was no traffic downtown. The taxi left us at a certain point, we had to walk from there to the ferry and it was night time and we walked right by what they used to call ‘the pit.’ It was like a nightmare. It was night, there were glaring lights on the pit and there was smoke still rising from there, and you could smell the burnt metal, steel, and then you saw almost like the shadows of the ironworkers and you heard them taking apart that steel and bring the rest of that down and cleaning it up.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you finally, because you do live in Manhattan, where do you see things 10 years later? Did 9/11 have an impact in ways that you still see and feel?

NANCY MERCADO: I’ve always had a great love for the city of New York, so I still have that lingering feeling this far out from 9/11. I think it has had a certain impact in the sense that people in New York are maybe a little bit different and the atmosphere sort of feels a little bit different in New York itself. In terms of the country, I hope that it has had an impact for the better. Unfortunately I see so many things that are not really too good in terms of the politics of the country. Not so much with the administration that’s in now, not at all that, but with the Tea Party and these other factions that have come up. I see that as very divisive and unfortunate because, of course, I’m an artist, I guess, a poet, a writer, so I believe we should all get along and there should be peace in the world, and so that’s an unfortunate thing in that sense. It’s weird, it’s sort of going both ways. Nationally it’s going one way, and locally it’s going another, I believe. That’s what I get.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Nancy Mercado, thanks for reading and thanks for talking to us.

NANCY MERCADO: Thank you.