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Poet Laureate Billy Collins

Our new U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. His new collection of poems is Sailing Alone Around the Room (Random House). His other collections include Picnic, Lightning (Univ of Pittsburgh), The Art of Drowning (Univ of Pittsburgh Press), and Questions about Angels (William Morrow & Co). John Updike says of Collins' poetry, "Billy Collins writes lovely poems... Limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides." Collins' poetry has also appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, Harper's, and The New Yorker. He is professor of English at Lehman College, CUNY.

18:52

Other segments from the episode on September 26, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 26, 2001: Interview with Nicolas de Torrente; Interview with Billy Collins; Commentary on naming military operations.

Transcript

DATE September 26, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Nicolas de Torrente discusses Doctors Without Borders'
withdrawal from Afghanistan
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Nicolas de Torrente, was in Afghanistan in August touring the
medical facilities run by Doctors Without Borders, the international
humanitarian medical group. He was head of their mission in Afghanistan and
several other countries in 1997, and is now the USA executive director of
Doctors Without Borders. The group's mission is to provide medical aid
wherever it is needed, regardless of race, religion, politics or sex. After
the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Doctors Without Borders evacuated
its
70 foreign nationals working in Afghanistan, leaving their clinics in the
hands of their Afghan staff.

How were the people of Doctors Without Borders told that they had to
evacuate
Afghanistan?

Mr. NICOLAS DE TORRENTE (USA Executive Director, Doctors Without Borders):
Well, there was a rising of tensions, and the final--we were very reluctant
to
leave, obviously. We consider that our place is with the civilian
populations, wherever they may be and whoever they may be. And we want to
be
present in war situations because that's where the victims are. So we were
very reluctant to leave. We tried to make arrangements. But in the final
event, what happened is that the Taliban authorities themselves told us that
they could no longer guarantee the safety and security of our staff. And
since we rely everywhere on the consent of the authorities to be able to
operate. And, you know, we rely on the fact that we're independent, that
we are a humanitarian organization. We're not involved in any way in
political issues, in religious issues and so on. And this, you know, is our
guarantee and usually enables us to operate.

But in this case, when it came down to it, we were told that we would have
to
leave. And reluctantly we left and we evacuated our 70 international staff,
who were present throughout the country to neighboring countries, where they
are trying to consume their work. We maintain a small group in the
northeastern part of the country, controlled by the Northern Alliance. And
there we still have medical teams.

GROSS: When the Taliban told Doctors Without Borders that they couldn't
guarantee your group's safety, was that code for saying, `We're not going to
try to protect you anymore. We don't really want you anymore. Get out'?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Well, there are different interpretations. And we don't
really know which one is the correct one at this point. Obviously there
have
been radical elements within the Taliban who have felt very uneasy with the
presence of foreigners inside the country. As I said the presence of
foreigners is important, we feel, to be able to bear witness to the
situation
and to be able to stand up on behalf of the population to some of the
policies, for instance, access to woman to health care, in our case.

There were also, you know, more moderate elements who saw that it was
important to have humanitarian operations present to be able to help the
people. I mean, they also have families. They also have children. They
also
have wives and sisters that need help, for instance. So there was a mix,
you
know, tensions within them as well as to whether we should be allowed to
operate.

We don't know. I mean, the radical groups intend to, you know, in the event
of a military action, take humanitarian groups as hostages, use them as
human
shields, or did they fear that the population might turn against us? I
mean,
at this point we don't know. We were just told that we had to go.

GROSS: Were there certain Taliban regulations that you had to operate under
in Afghanistan, regulating, for instance, the kind of treatment that women
could receive, or what women doctors from Doctors Without Borders were or
were
not allowed to do? Were women doctors allowed to practice at all?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Yes. And, of course, there were regulations and there
were
constraints, and that's the sort of the space that we were trying to
preserve
at all costs, I mean, to make--for us we had a series of sort of bottom-line
conditions to be able to continue to work there and to make sure that we
were
making a positive difference. Those were, for instance, that women patients
could come freely to our clinics, or clinics we were supporting, that Afghan
female staff--medical doctors, nurses, nursing assistants and so on--would
be
allowed to work with us. And at times we really had to fight to make sure
that that would be the case.

There was a big attempt a few years ago to completely segregate, for
instance,
health care, and to have women-only hospitals with, you know, women staff in
them. And the Taliban tried to impose this, too. And we felt that that
would
result in a reduction of access and make it more difficult for women to have
access to health care. So we fought against that and we were able to
maintain
integrated structures where you have men working and female staff working as
well.

This is a continuous struggle, and one where we had doubts and questions and
we were questioning our--defending our actions constantly, as we do in other
countries. But we felt, you know, the bottom line was that we were helping.
We were helping people, that we were helping Afghan medical staff by being
there. We were enabling them to stay in their country. A lot of them have
already left. There's been a huge brain out of Afghanistan. And we were
having a positive impact, even though it was very difficult.

GROSS: When you say that you were questioning your self, do you mean you
were
wondering whether your presence was bolstering the Taliban ideology?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: I mean, I think it's a responsible thing to do, and we
tried to do this in every context, to really assess, you know, how
beneficial
our impact is, because, of course, in one sense you could argue that
humanitarian agencies, not only ourselves but everyone, by being present
was,
you know, enabling the Taliban, for instance, not to deal with the need of
their people and to put resources into fighting the war or it was, you know,
helping them gain legitimacy towards their own population. And given the
type
of regime it is, of course we had these concerns. But as I said,
humanitarian
aid is a very pragmatic endeavor, and it really seeks to help people and to
help them get through a very difficult phase in their lives. And we felt
that
we were able to do that, including for the most vulnerable people in the
country, including for women and children, and that, on balance, was much
more
important.

GROSS: Did the women doctors at Doctors Without Borders have to dress or
behave in a certain way? Did they have to wear, you know, body veils in
order
to work?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: They--as is the case in any Islamic country, they had to
wear a scarf over their head, covering clothing. They had to--yeah, that
was--that's a concession that we make and we make respectfully so to
countries
in which we work everywhere in the Islamic world.

GROSS: On your last trip to Afghanistan you visited camps in Afghanistan
and
across the border in Pakistan. Are--were you seeing more and more refugees
crossing the border into Pakistan?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Yes. We've seen over the past year an increased flow of
refugees coming out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. And there they are
joining
many others--approximately two million others who have been--Afghan refugees
who have been there for a number of years; some over 10 years. And the
Afghan refugees who have been there for a long time are settled in camps
that
resemble villages with mud houses. And they've integrated into the
Pakistani
society and economy, whereas the new incomers have been put into camps that
are very makeshift that are in very severe conditions, very harsh
conditions,
under tents and purposefully kept in that situation because there's a
growing--there's been a growing tension between the Pakistani authorities
and
population of the border areas and the Afghan refugee population and,
therefore, Pakistan is quite uncomfortable with the prospect of having to
have more refugees come into the country. And, therefore, even assistance
to
these new refugees was very difficult.

We had to really, you know, pry the door open and--to get access and to be
able to do the basic medical services that we do in any refugee situation,
such as vaccinating against measles, setting up a health clinic, providing
emergency water. There was a camp called Jalozai Camp, which is the one
that
was a lot in the news. And this camp was--it was very bleak, indeed. And
as
we talk now of a new influx, I think it's important to bear in mind this
underlying reluctance of Pakistan because of this--the growing difficulties
of
hosting Afghan refugees and the large numbers of them already there in, you
know, in welcoming new refugees and how difficult it's going to be to be
able
to provide assistance and to be able to protect these refugees who are often
from different ethnic groups than the ones who are already there inside
Pakistan. And this is a very difficult situation that we're trying to
address
now by scaling up our operations in Pakistan and in Iran.

GROSS: Why don't you describe the conditions in the camp that you just
mentioned?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Well, it's--the camp is a moonlike landscape. Nothing
grows in that area. It's an area where no crops are possible. And on this
very harsh terrain, refugees have set up small, little tents. They're
regrouped very--you know, closely regrouped together. There's a high
population density in that camp. And they are controlled by the Pakistani
authorities, who have been reluctant to give them refugee status, so they
have
difficulties in getting access to the job market and in doing things to fend
for themselves. And so they've been very much dependent on aid that we've
been able to provide from the outside; and that's been water; that's been
medical services, nutritional services. But they're in a very--in a limbo,
really, in a very precarious situation.

GROSS: From what I've heard and read, it certainly sounds like the refugee
camps in Pakistan during the war between Afghanistan and the Soviets were
very
radicalizing places.

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I mean, my understanding is that a lot of the Taliban came out of
the
refugee camps in Pakistan, where they learned a very radical form of Islam.
And I'm wondering if you think that the refugee camps still are radicalizing
places?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Well, the refugee camps were--at the time, were, in
effect,
sanctuaries for Afghan civilians, but not only for Afghan civilians, but
also
for the Mujahadeen fighting groups that were then being supplied there,
supported there and then were fighting inside the country. This was during
the time of the resistance to the Soviet invasion. And that is what carried
over into the '90s, even as the Soviets withdrew in the late '80s.

Currently, the situation's a bit different for these new arrivals. These
are
really, mainly, civilians. They're really, mainly, people fleeing violence,
persecution inside Afghanistan and fleeing the effects of the drought. And,
as I said, they live in such difficult conditions that it's hard to see the
kind of organization, the kind of structure, the kind of takeover by
militant
groups that we have seen among the older and more established camps, you
know,
in the past.

GROSS: My guest is Nicolas De Torrente, USA executive director of Doctors
Without Borders. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Nicolas De Torrente of Doctors Without Borders. Last
month he toured the group's medical facilities in Afghanistan.

Have the doctors at Doctors Without Borders had a difficult time working
with
Afghan women under the Taliban? And by that I mean have Afghan women become
so fearful and self-conscious under the Taliban that they're afraid to
openly
discuss their medical problems or afraid to have a doctor examine their
bodies?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: What we've seen, in fact--and it's quite interesting--is
to
see how health structures have become places--some of the only places in
Afghan under the Taliban where women were allowed to go, where it became
kind
of a social--it was a social aspect to the health centers. Women were
allowed
to go there. They cold remove their buraas, their veil. They could talk to
each other. They could talk to outsiders. This is some of the only places
where Afghan women could talk to people from abroad--you know, international
medical staff women, women doctors, women nurses. And so it came--it became
a
place for exchange and for social communication where they could talk about
their much broader grievances and their problems of everyday life and they
could exchange and support each other. So there was a social function to
the
health centers, as well, not only a medical one. And that's why we felt it
was so important to have these health structures continue and to have women
doctors from abroad and women nurses from abroad be in contact with Afghan
women, because they're the only ones who could do that.

GROSS: Were there Taliban guards at the Doctors Without Borders clinics to
make sure that the Taliban code was being enforced at all times?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: There was, yes. There were certainly attempts by the--by
certain groups of Taliban, in particular the religious police, to come in.
And it was not a constant thing, but they would come in at times and just
check to make sure that nothing that they considered to be inappropriate was
going on within the structures; to make sure that there were no--that no
Afghan male medical staff would not be talking to Afghan female patients and
so on and, you know--or that male staff and female staff were not talking to
each other and interacting. And so they would do that. It was not--it was
harsher in certain areas, such as Kabul. It was--we had--it was better in
others, such as Masar-i-Sharif. It depended a little bit--it depended on
the
way the religious police, the local commander or--how he was feeling about
it.
And it depended on the time period. It was not a constant thing, but, yes,
there were--there was a policing. There was a policing enforced by the
Taliban on these aspects.

GROSS: Humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan were reporting this week that
the Taliban seized about 1,400 tons of food. What have you heard about
that?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Well, we know that there is increasing pressure on, you
know, the existing--the remaining humanitarian programs that are run by
Afghan national staff inside Afghanistan now that the international staff
has
withdrawn. And this is not surprising. The presence of international staff
is really the guarantee or at least the attempt to guarantee that aid is
going to the right people and is used in the right way. We're not surprised
that this type of developments are happening.

We don't--we have a very--we have a hard time communicating with our staff
inside Afghanistan, so we don't really know to what extent our own programs
are affected, but we've had requests by the Taliban to hand over medical
supplies and, you know, our staff has not had much of a choice in that
matter,
you know, under the current circumstances. So I think it's not surprising
that there is--that there are increasing attempts by the Taliban to take
over
what is remaining of the humanitarian programs and infrastructure there.
And
that's why it's so important that we're able to resume operations with
international, foreign, you know, volunteers and staff so that they can see
what's going on and they can, you know, stand up to the authorities.

GROSS: Is there anything that you could tell us that might help explain
some
of what we've been witnessing? Because you've been in Afghanistan, because
you've been in Pakistan, you've been a witness to a lot of events there; a
witness to how a lot of people are feeling. Any thoughts you want to leave
us
with that might help us understand some of the motivation behind the attack?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: I can't really speak to that. I think the--what I bring
back from Afghanistan is the sense that people there, as anywhere in the
world and as here in the United States, as well, are looking for a decent
life for their families. They're struggling to have--to be safe. They're
struggling to be able to feed their children and to provide for their
education. I think there's this--the basic humanity in--that you see when
you go to Afghanistan and the immense pressures this population has been
under from forces that are really outside of most of their--of the control
of
most of them. I bring back the sense that we should not forget that and we
should see--continue to see the human aspect and the human face in people,
even though they're very far away; even though the situation is very
complex; even though it's somehow difficult to understand what is going on
there, especially as we are reeling here under the shock of what has
happened
and struggling to find answers, but I would really urge us to continue to
build bridges with what is the same there as is here, the human element.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and I wish you
good luck in your travels around the world.

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Thank you very much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Nicolas De Torrente is Doctors Without Borders' USA executive
director. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the tricky business of
naming military operations like the newly named Operation Enduring Freedom.

Also, our new poet laureate, Billy Collins, returns to read from his new
book.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Billy Collins discusses the September 11th terrorist
attacks and reads selected works of poetry
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Billy Collins, is taking on his new position as US poet laureate
in
the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. We invited him back to FRESH AIR to
read some new and old poems. He has a new book called "Sailing Alone Around
the Room: New and Selected Poems." Collins is a distinguished professor of
English at Lehman College of the City University of New York and a visiting
writer at Sarah Lawrence College.

I asked him if the terrorist attacks are affecting how he sees his role as
poet laureate.

Professor BILL COLLINS (US Poet Laureate): Well, it's interesting. In the
days following the attack, there was a kind of surge of poetry activity.
And
it seemed that there was a kind of need for poetry and people turning to me
as
the laureate for reactions to this. I found it--stepping back from it, I
found it interesting that in a time of national crisis, that we don't turn
to
the novel. You know, we don't turn--we don't say, `Well, we should all go
out
and see a movie. You know, that would kind of make us feel better.' We
turn
to poetry. And it's interesting to put that next to the reputation of
poetry
as being the sort of poor little match girl of literature, you know, the
neglected genre that had a tiny body.

And it seems that in times like these, poetry stands up very well. I find
that following the events of September 11th, clearly, there was and
continues
to be a torrent of language on the part of--coming from the (technical
difficulties). And it's as if this language is trying to fill a hole
somewhere that was left in America. I think that (technical difficulties)
hole. I think poetry stands apart in its own space with its own integrity,
that poetry is--clearly, one of its (technical difficulties) functions has
been to--as a place for grief to go, a place to (technical difficulties)
make
it possible to express in a coherent way feelings that seem to resist
expression. And Denise Levertov has a (technical difficulties) line about
that. She says, `Grief is a hole that you walk around in the daytime and at
night, you fall into it.'

GROSS: Mm. I've been reading, you know, a lot of artists and journalists
writing about how the impact of September 11th and this war on terrorism is
affecting what artists wanted to say in their work and what film-goers and
music listeners and readers want. And I'm wondering if it's--I'm wondering
if
you've thought about this a lot, like, how our inner lives and how--what we
want from art is changed at a time like this.

Prof. COLLINS: I think we want the same things that we always wanted. I
don't think, as I've heard, irony is now passe. I think it's a--I feel
irony
is very much a part of our--basic to our freedom of expression, you know.
And
I think also that occasions like this can create deadeningly false kinds of
sincerity if we forget irony and humor and also forget the everyday. I
think
that's the most important. In a catastrophe like this, I think the event
certainly is too big and too stupendous for a single poem or a painting or
whatever to get its arms around. And because I think poetry particularly is
private. It does announce personal feeling and it does create a chapel, if
you will, for the importance of everyday experience. And I think poetry
should continue to do that. I think all poems stand against the wholesale
murders that took place on September 11th. And I think that's more
important
than a poem that would be about that event, that would respond to that event
in a mistakenly direct way. After all, you don't want to read a poem that,
you know, delivers the news or makes the announcement that wholesale murder
is
morally bad.

GROSS: Right. You didn't need the poem to tell you that.

Prof. COLLINS: You didn't need the poem to tell you that, no.

GROSS: Maybe the terrorists did, but...

Prof. COLLINS: That's true. Well, the terrorists have gone--I mean,
they've
done (technical difficulties) moved beyond language, you know, they've
gone...

GROSS: Yeah. I'll agree on that.

Prof. COLLINS: And I think there's a (technical difficulties). I mean, we
use metaphor to handle--if anything, metaphor is in jeopardy because we use
metaphor to handle and explain experience. We try to compare something
that's
hard to understand to something that we know a little better.

But I remember someone compared the collapse, that sickening,
heart-wrenching,
architecturally spectacular collapse of the World Trade Center as looking
like
a cigarette burning down at high speed. But, of course, you have to realize
that there are thousands of people inside that cigarette, so at that point,
the metaphor seems absurd, inadequate, even offensive.

GROSS: No, it just seems like a bad metaphor because...

Prof. COLLINS: Yeah, the...

GROSS: ...the cigarette turns to smoke. It doesn't collapse into tons and
tons of rubble. I mean, even--that's just an awful metaphor in every way.

Prof. COLLINS: I'm reminded of a scene in that movie--I think it's called
"Going Home" or "Coming Home" about--it was a Vietnam War movie and the
character is on leave, and he joins up with his wife, I think, in Japan, for
some R&R. And when they finally have a moment alone, she turns to him.
He's
just come back from Vietnam, taking a break from Vietnam, and she says,
`Well?
What's it like?' And he looks at her in a kind of shocked way and says,
`It's
not like anything.' And that's also another moment where comparison falls
down and where--there's no file for it. We have no file to put this. And
that's why I think it's still in the air and will continue to be in the air
and will probably cast a shadow over the page of many writers.

GROSS: My guest is our new poet laureate, Billy Collins. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Billy Collins is my guest, the United States' new poet laureate. He
also has a new book of poems. It's called "Sailing Alone Around the Room:
New and Selected Poems."

Billy, you were talking about the importance of still having poems that
speak
to everyday life. Is there a poem like that of yours you'd like to read?

Prof. COLLINS: Well, this is a poem called "Morning." `Why do we bother
with the rest of the day, the swale of the afternoon, the sudden dip into
evening, then night with his notorious perfumes, his many pointed stars?
This
is the best, throwing off the light covers, feet on the cold floor and
buzzing
around the house on espresso, maybe a splash of water on the face, a palm
full
of vitamins, but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso, dictionary and
atlas open on the rug, the typewriter waiting for the key of the head, the
cello on the radio and, if necessary, the windows, trees, 50, a hundred
years
old out there, heavy clouds on the way and the lawn steaming like a horse in
the early morning.'

GROSS: Billy, have you gone through a period of feeling both almost, you
know, like, relieved to be alive and guilty about feeling quite that way,
that
you should be feeling sad and not feeling that sense of relief?

Prof. COLLINS: No. I feel--I mean, I try to feel--this is something only a
saint could sustain, but I try to maintain the feeling of gratitude. I
think
gratitude is--the gratitude for existence, for daily experience, for being
alive is at the core of so much poetry and that poetry--so much of it, lyric
poetry, really reiterates the simple joy or the simple blunt fact of
actually
existing. That's my feeling about all haiku just about. I mean, every
haiku,
I think, is essentially saying the same thing. It might be about, you know,
a
cherry tree or a frog jumping into a pond, but these incidental and
seemingly
peripheral observations are at their very heart our declaration that, `I was
here to see this. I existed. I saw this frog, period.' And that
sufficiency
is, I think, part of the prayer of gratitude that a lot of poems offer.

GROSS: You've also written some poems that are about death, but are also
about life. I'm going to ask you to read one of them, and this is a poem
called "No Time." It was written pretty recently, I think too recently to
be
included in your new collection, "Sailing Alone Around the Room," but I
first
read this poem a few months ago and quite like. I'm going to ask you read
it
for us.

Prof. COLLINS: "No Time." `In a rush this weekday morning, I tap the horn
as
I speed past the cemetery where my parents are buried, side by side, under a
smooth slab of granite. Then all day long, I think of him rising up to give
me that look of knowing disapproval while my mother calmly tells him to lay
back down.'

GROSS: When did you write that? Or maybe you could tell us a little bit
about the writing of the poem.

Prof. COLLINS: I think I wrote that in the car. That's one of these poems
that just came out. I think I might have changed a word or two just for
sound, but there is a road that goes by a cemetery where my parents are
buried. And it's a road I travel sometimes and often feel compelled to stop
and make a visit. But I did actually tap the horn. And I just could feel
that my father would feel that that was a rather inadequate acknowledgement
of
his passing and that my mother, as usual, would step in to reassure him that
the boy is OK. So I--it's--I don't know, it's a little poem. I'm fond of
it
because I think it mixes two things I mix in a lot of poems, maybe not as
successfully, which is (technical difficulties) sorrowful, the fact that my
parents are buried there is a heavy bit of the poem, but the way I turn it
into a kind of (technical difficulties) marriage with the disapproving
husband
and the reassuring mother tries to leaven it with some lightness there,
humor.

GROSS: Reading that poem both before and after September 11th, I had
slightly
different reactions. I mean, after September 11th, I started thinking about
how the people who died before missed such a fundamental change in American
life. I mean, I know several people who died this year, and that they--to
think that they left right before--that they'll never know. They'll never
know...

Prof. COLLINS: I felt...

GROSS: ...how everything changed.

Prof. COLLINS: I felt the same way. I felt it pretty immediately. I
felt--especially my parents. I felt that they were spared, that they did
not
have to see that and that almost they--I think the people who died prior to
September 11th, to me, insofar as (technical difficulties) them felt like
children that had been--that I was happy that they had been protected and
spared that experience.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to choose a poem here.

Prof. COLLINS: Well, I have a poem called "The Parade," which is about
simply
death as a natural process, "The Parade." `How exhilarating it was to march
along the great boulevards in the sunflash of trumpets and under all the
(technical difficulties) flags, the flag of desire, the flag of ambition, so
many of us streaming along, all of humanity, really, moving in perfect sync
(technical difficulties) lost in the room of a private dream. How
stimulating
the scenery of the world, the rows of the roadside trees, the huge blue
sheet
of the sky. How endless it seemed until we veered off the broad turnpike
into
a pasture of high grass heading toward the dizzying cliffs of mortality.
Generation after generation, we have shouldered forward under the gliding
clouds until we high-step off the sharp lip into space. So I should not
have
to remind you that little time is given here to rest on a wayside bench, to
stop and bend to the wildflowers or to study a bird on a branch, not when
the
young keep shoving us from behind, not when the old are tugging us forward,
pulling on our arms with all their feeble strength.'

GROSS: Tell us about when you wrote that.

Prof. COLLINS: I think I came up--I mean, often, I'm--a poem is just--well,
for me, maybe it's the limits of my imagination that I take one metaphor and
just kind of extend it as far as I can. So it just occurred to me to use a
parade as kind of the parade of life without exactly falling into that
cliche.
And I think there's (technical difficulties) of that, you know, there is a
natural progression, right? Your parents die before you do. They're
supposed
to. And your children die after you. And that logic, to get back to
September 11th, which keeps intruding on any conversation anyone is having
these days, that people went grotesquely out of order, the order. The
natural
progression of the parade toward the grave was grotesquely violated.

GROSS: Billy Collins is my guest. He's the new US poet laureate. He also
has a new collection of poems called "Sailing Alone Around the Room: New
and
Selected Poems."

You listen to a lot of jazz, and the recordings that you listen to,
musicians
who you like most, show up in a lot of your poems. I'm going to ask you to
read one of those poems. It's called "Night Club." Tell us something
about it before you read it.

Prof. COLLINS: I actually--jazz is usually on in the house, and I write
about jazz only because it tends to kind of leak into the writing as I'm
going
along. I usually don't sit down and say, `I'm going to write about jazz.'
And it was one afternoon. Johnny Hartman was playing in the background, and
I
kept hearing--I was writing something else, but I kept hearing words like
`beautiful' and `fool in love' and `love' and `beauty' and `foolishness.'
And
they just seemed to be kind of revolving words almost, as you would have in
a
sestina, although I didn't have the patience to write one of those. And
that's the way the poem got started. It's called "Night Club."

`"You are so beautiful," and "I am a fool to be in love with you" is a theme
that keeps coming up in songs and poems. There seems to be no room for
variation. I have never heard anyone saying, "I am so beautiful, and you
are
a fool to be in love with me," even though this notion has surely crossed
the
minds of women and men alike. "You are so beautiful. Too bad you are a
fool," is another one you don't hear. Or "You are a fool to consider me
beautiful." That one you will never hear, guaranteed. For no particular
reason this afternoon, I am listening to Johnny Hartman, whose dark voice
can
curl around the concepts of love, beauty and foolishness like no one else's
can.

`It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette someone left burning on a
baby grand piano around 3:00 in the morning, smoke that billows up into the
bright lights, while out there in the darkness, some of the beautiful fools
have gathered around little tables to listen, (technical difficulties) with
their eyes closed, others leaning forward into the music as if it were
holding
them up or just twirling the loose ice in a glass, slipping by degrees into
a
rhythmic dream.

`Yes, there is all this foolish beauty, born beyond midnight, that has no
desire to go home, especially now when everyone in the room is watching the
large man with the tenor sax that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He
moves forward to the edge of the stage and hands the instrument down to me
and
nods that I should play. So I put the mouthpiece to my lips and blow into
it
with all my living breath. We are all so foolish, my long be-bop solo
begins
by saying. So damn foolish, we have become beautiful without even knowing
it.'

GROSS: You were telling me you usually end your readings with that poem.
Why
do you choose that poem to end with?

Prof. COLLINS: I think at the--I think it says something almost sentimental
at the end, but I think I really mean what I said there at the end and
perhaps
the whole poem is a sort of elaborate setup that allows me to say that we
are
beautiful. It could be that corny.

GROSS: Billy Collins, thank you so much for talking with us and for reading
for us.

Prof. COLLINS: It's been all my pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Billy Collins is the new poet laureate of the United States. His
new
book is called "Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems."

Coming up, Geoff Nunberg on the tricky business of naming military
operations.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Naming military operations
TERRY GROSS, host:

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld acknowledged last week that the Pentagon had
blundered in giving the military campaign against terrorism the name
Operation
Infinite Justice, a phrase that a number of Muslims found blasphemous, since
it seemed to promise what only Allah could deliver. Today, the Pentagon
announced that the new name would be called Operation Enduring Freedom.

As our linguist, Geoff Nunberg reports, the naming of operations has been a
tricky business for the military since they started the practice in World
War
II.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

The most famous World War II operation was called Overlord, the name
personally selected by Winston Churchill for the Normandy Invasion. That
name
may have had a sense of majesty and patriarchal vengeance, as the historian
David Kahn put it, but it wasn't very informative about the mission, nor
were
other Allied operation names like Avalanche, Husky and Mulberry. In fact,
Churchill himself ordered that the names of operations shouldn't suggest
their
character, particularly after British intelligence intercepted references to
a
German operation called Sea Lion and guessed that it was a plan to invade
Britain.

The Allies kept their operation names strictly secret, to the point where
even
an inadvertent mention could trigger an alarm. A few weeks before D-Day,
the
names Utah, Omaha and Overlord showed up as answers in The London Daily
Telegraph's crossword puzzle. Officers from MI-5 (technical difficulties)
to
interview the (technical difficulties) who had composed the puzzles, but the
whole business turned out to be a bizarre coincidence.

It wasn't until after the war that names like Overlord and Avalanche became
household words. At that point, the War Department realized that there
could
be a public relations advantage in creating a new category of unclassified
operation nicknames. Even so, most of the post-war names were no more
descriptive than the secret code names of World War II. President
Eisenhower
sent the Marines to Lebanon in 1957 under the name Operation Blue Bat and
the
military operations in Vietnam tended to have names like End Sweep, Pocket
Money and Abeline.

True, generals occasionally picked operation names that had more martial
connotations, but that could backfire. When General Ridgeway named one
Korea
operation Killer, the State Department complained that he had soured the
ongoing negotiations with the Chinese. In Vietnam 15 years later, General
Westmoreland (technical difficulties) rename Operation Masher when President
Johnson objected that it didn't reflect the administration's pacification
emphasis. And the press came down on the Reagan administration when it
dubbed
the invasion of Grenada Operation Urgent Fury, which seemed excessively
bellicose for a mission to rescue some medical students on a Caribbean
island.

That unhappy experience with the name Urgent Fury was one of the things that
led the Bush administration in the late '80s to start choosing operation
names
that were calculated to shape political perceptions. The first of these was
Operation Just Cause, the 1989 invasion of Panama. That name irked some
critics who had reservations about the legitimacy of the invasion. The New
York Times ran an editorial on the name entitled Operation High Hocome(ph).
But a number of news anchors picked up on the phrase Just Cause, which
encouraged the Bush and Clinton administrations to keep using those
tendentious names. Just Cause was followed by the operations called Desert
Shield and Desert Storm, as the word operation swelled to apply to a
full-blown war. And after that came Restore Hope in Somalia, Uphold
Democracy
in Haiti and operations in the Balkans that went by names like Shining Hope,
Determined Force and Provide Promise.

All of this has turned the naming of operations into a delicate art. In an
article not long ago in the Quarterly of the US Army War College, Lieutenant
Colonel Gregory Saminski(ph) offered several naming guidelines. First, he
says, make the name meaningful. Don't waste a public relations opportunity.
Remember that the operation name is the first bullet in the war of images.
Second, identify and target the critical (technical difficulties) decide
what
name is intended to fire up the (technical difficulties), win domestic
support, allay the concerns of other (technical difficulties) or intimidate
the enemy. And finally, he says, make it concise and memorable. Find a
name
that vividly evokes the characteristics of the operation that you want
people
to focus on.

Actually, those guidelines are good advice, whether you're naming a military
operation or a new SUV. It's all a matter of branding. And it's no
accident
that the new-style names like Just Cause were introduced at around the same
time the cable news shows started to label their coverage of major stories
with catchy names and logos. That practice actually began in 1979 when ABC
packaged its special coverage of the Iran (technical difficulties) crisis
(technical difficulties) night program called (technical difficulties),
which
later developed into "Nightline." But it was left to CNN and then the other
cable news networks to start routinely bannering every major story, high or
low. War in the Gulf, Death of a Princess, Flashpoint: Kosovo, Boy in the
Middle--Remember that one?--Investigating the President, A Nation Waits, The
Search for Chandra Levy.

Like the Pentagon's operation names, the networks' banners suggest a master
narrative for a stream of disconnected news and comment. It's a convenient
device for packaging stories like Elian Gonzalez or even the Florida
election
results, which do have the feel of real-life miniseries. But the events
that
began to unroll on September 11th are too far-reaching and open-ended to be
summed up in a single phrase. You could see the networks struggling to find
a
unifying theme for their coverage, as they went from one banner to another:
Assault on America, America Unites, America Rising, America on Alert,
America
Fights Back. But no banner was elastic enough to stretch over all the
stories
that were coming in from New York and Washington, Vero Beach and Los
Angeles,
Cairo and Islamabad.

And the banners are likely to sound even more simplistic as the story runs
its
unpredictable course. I keeping thinking of some lines from a poem by
Robinson Jeffers, `History falls like rocks in the dark. All will be worse
confounded soon.' But at least the networks can keep reframing their
narratives from one day to the next. The military have had an even bigger
problem, coming up with a name for an operation which is going to be waged
over many years, in many different theaters and whose outcome is still
pretty
murky.

The efforts to date have been pretty hapless. Operation Infinite Justice
was
a public relations disaster in the Muslim world, and the new name, Operation
Enduring Freedom, has problems of its own. For one thing, I'm not sure if
the
Pentagon people stopped to think that the phrase is ambiguous and that some
people may choose to interpret it to mean that freedom is something you have
to bear, rather than something that abides. But even if they'd named it
Lasting Freedom, I suspect that it would have made Churchill uneasy. He was
partial to naming operations after Roman gods, war heroes or famous race
horses, words with a non-specific meaning and a vaguely heroic sound. And
he
warned against picking what he called words which imply an overconfident
sentiment. He knew better than most how history delights in creating
unforeseen ironies.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox
Palo
Alto Research Center.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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