When he assumes his new post as the U.S. poet laureate in Washington, D.C., next month, Billy Collins is not to be blamed if he recalls the fellow poet to whom he addressed a poem titled "The Rival Poet" more than 20 years ago. At the time, Collins was obscure and in his 30s, finding homes for his work in a few little magazines and without a first collection of his own. His poet friend, meantime, was bringing out book after book. "No matter," Collins says in the poem.

In my revenge daydream I am the one

Poised on the marble staircase

High above the ballroom crowd.

A retainer in livery announces me

And the Contessa Maria Teresa Isabella

Veronica Multalire Ele ganza de Bella Ferrari.

You are the one below

Fidgeting in your rented tux

With some local Cindy hanging all over you.

Collins smiles, looking back now from the perspective of age 60, with a half dozen books under his belt and his new collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (Random House, Sept. 11), just out in a 30,000-copy first printing. He explains that the poem expresses a "timeless sentiment" among poets about friends who are out-writing them. What he especially enjoys about the piece is the Contessa's elaborate name—"it was fun to make that up," he says, seated with PW in a conference room at Random. He describes mornings in his old Westchester farmhouse where he writes the funny, lyrical, conversational poems that have captured him a wide audience , thrust him into an unseemly squabble between two book publishers and prompted a phone call this past June from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington inviting him to become poet laureate, succeeding Stanley Kunitz. As if that were not enough, Collins was also promoted last spring to Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, where he has taught composition for more than 30 years.

"If I believed in the devil, I would think of the events of these past few months as a setup of some kind," says Collins. "As a friend says, I have morphed from being a professor who writes poetry to being a poet who also teaches. I now give about 40 readings a year. I've read in Istanbul, St. Petersburg, even Kathmandu. Who would've thunk?" Indeed, Collins is now "a popular poet—an oxymoron," he says. He gets congratulatory notes from "old students and old girlfriends. You become a public figure—a dignitary in the worst sense. You get invited to luncheons: 'Dear Mr. Collins, grace us with your presence as we open Joyce Kilmer Park.'"

A New York Daily News columnist called Collins "the kind of poet you'd be if you were a poet," meaning, no doubt, a regular tabloid kind of guy, who wears jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, and can kick back with a beer, all of which Collins does. Collins likes Dizzy and Coltrane; he hangs with sportswriters, musicians and painters; and he met his agent at a poker game, he says. He has the winning, street-kid ways of an outer-borough New York City boy, and when he tells me that he grew up just a few blocks from me, in a garden apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens ("The Mesopotamia of America!" he says), our bonding is complete.

An only child, Collins spent his first 12 years in Jackson Heights, attending St. Joan of Arc, a Catholic grammar school, and playing in vacant lots that still dotted the area in the '40s and early '50s. He wanted to be a sea diver, or Joe Louis, or an architect, he says. The closest he came to the latter was marrying his wife, Diane, an architect: "We have a healthy competition. I am trying to write poems that will still be read after all her buildings have fallen down." He began "dabbling" in poetry early on, and in high school in White Plains, where the family had moved, he caused a stir with a poem published in the school newspaper. "It was a Catholic school, and the administration announced over the public address system that anyone seen reading the poem on school grounds would be suspended," he says. "It was a poem of adolescent despair, and it said something like 'We should end life at birth.'"

Ironically, public address systems figure prominently in Collins's own plans to encourage the reading of poetry during his tenure as poet laureate. He calls his project "Poetry 180." "There are about 180 days in the school year," he explains, "and I want to get one contemporary poem read each day in high schools all over the country. They will be read over the PA system, in assemblies, wherever. There will be no discussions or quizzes. I want students to listen to a poem without feeling the need to figure it out. If it sinks in, fine. If not, you've wasted a minute and a half. You have time to waste when you are 17." Collins will select the poems and use the Library of Congress Web site and other means to get the word out, he says.

After continuing his education at Holy Cross College, Collins earned a Ph.D. in Romantic poetry at the University of California at Riverside and in 1969 joined the faculty of Lehman College. In the 1970s, he and two friends brought out a little magazine of fiction and poetry called Mid Atlantic Review, and Collins published two chapbooks. Of course, everyone still thought of him as the Lehman composition professor: "Wallace Stevens used to say you can be a poet in an insurance company, and nobody would ever know it. Well, you can work in an English department and write poetry, and nobody notices." He was in his 30s, living in a rented carriage house in Scarsdale, N.Y., and "wasting time, doing stuff I would never do now. I did a lot of betting on football."

But he kept writing. "My writing has always been semi-monastic—a covert activity," he says. In 1988, in his late 40s, he published his first collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris, with the University of Arkansas Press. Two years later, the poet Edward Hirsch selected his collection Questions About Angels (Morrow) as a winner of the annual National Poetry Series competition. Then came three books from the University of Pittsburgh Press: The Art of Drowning (1995) and Picnic, Lightning (1998) as well as a reprint of Angels. Then came the publishing feud—"On Literary Bridge, Poet Hits a Roadblock," reported a front-page story in the New York Times one morning in late 1999.

As Collins tells it, when his 1998 collection Picnic, Lightning was in manuscript, his agent, Chris Calhoun of Sterling Lord Literistic, shopped it around. Several trade houses turned it down, and Collins went with his existing publisher, Pittsburgh. "It was okay—I was always happy there," says Collins. Subsequently, after giving a blurb for a Random House poetry collection, Collins had a phone call from Dan Menaker, senior editor at Random. "He thanked me for the blurb and asked if I would like to be associated with Random House."

Thus began the brouhaha: Having signed Collins to a six-figure three-book contract, Random House went about preparing the first volume—the just-now-published Sailing Alone Around the Room—when the University of Pittsburgh Press refused to grant permission to reprint more than 60 poems for the new book. As the Times reported, Pittsburgh said it stood to lose significant sales of its own Collins titles if Random did a big collection; Random, expressing amazement at the "obstinate" university press, was forced to put the book on hold. In time, the contretemps was quietly resolved, Random geared up to promote Sailing, and then Collins was named poet laureate—making everybody quite happy. Not only has Pittsburgh not seen a decline in the sales of its Collins titles, but director Cynthia Miller tells PW that net sales of all three of his books have jumped to more than 105,000. "The poet laureate announcement changes everything!" she says.

Those coming to Collins for the first time will find his fans range from John Updike to Annie Proulx to the pop singer Mary Chapin Carpenter, who recently told a New York Times reporter she was reading a poem a day from Collins's Questions About Angels. "What Collins does best is turn an apparently simple phrase into a numinous moment," said a New Yorker critic. Most often, Collins's work is called accessible. Says Cynthia Miller, "He is a master poet who also writes poems that anyone and everyone can enjoy." Menaker says he "writes in plain speech with clear insight, bright humor and emotional directness."

Whatever the precise source of his appeal, Collins beckons readers with irresistible titles—"Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House," "I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of 'Three Blind Mice'"—and unexpected stories about such small moments as smoking a last cigarette, watching a movie, reading a Victoria's Secret catalogue or recalling childhood summers in Canada. Careful readers will find much that is autobiographical in Sailing, including poems about his parents, both recently deceased, to whom the book is dedicated. In "The Death of the Hat," he recalls a time when all men wore hats, including his father. The poem concludes:

And now my father, after a life of work,

wears a hat of earth,

and on top of that,

a lighter one of cloud and sky—a hat of wind.

In fact, Collins's father, William, a onetime electrician, changed careers shortly after the poet was born, became a successful Wall Street insurance executive and wore a different fedora to the office each day. Collins kept a few of the hats after his father's death in 1994. "My father was a great practical joker," he says. "There was a man in his office he did not like—a loudmouth, he called him. One day, the man bought a new hat. My father took it to an Adams hat shop and bought two others that were exactly the same but different sizes—one was a quarter inch smaller, and the other a quarter inch bigger. He had the guy's initials branded in gold in the inside band. Then he kept switching hats on the guy. It was so diabolical."

Collins admits to the same penchant for troublemaking. When his poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" appeared in Harper's a few years ago, there was a flurry of reader correspondence expressing outrage and calling Collins sexist, among other things. In the poem, he writes:

You will want to know

that she was standing

by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,

motionless, a little wide-eyed,

looking out at the orchard below,

the white dress puddled at her feet

on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

"It's a dangerous poem, and it shows there's a freedom in poetry," says Collins. "The poem walks a thin line. It's fun to write about something dangerous." Last year, Picador made the poem the title of his first collection published in England. "You can go back and take off any poet's clothes in poetry. One of the letter writers in Harper's sent in a poem called 'Taking Off Billy Collins' Clothes.' It wasn't bad for what it was attempting to do."

Similarly, Collins enjoyed being mischievous when releasing an audio CD based on his reading at the Modern Poetry Association's Poetry Day in Chicago in 1993. With the anti-smoking movement at its zenith, he deliberately chose "The Best Cigarette," his elegy to smoking, as the CD's title. As the lines on the poet's face attest, he was a heavy smoker from adolescence. He quit in his late 40s.

Now, sans cigarette, he sits in the book-lined study of his home most mornings and writes. He roughs out a poem in a day. "I crash through to the end in a sitting," he says. "Then there are weeks or months of revising. My poems tend to have a beginning, middle and end. The poem for me is a search for the ending. I couldn't call off the search and resume the next day. The shell of the whole thing is done, and then I do a lot of tinkering with cadence, notes, commas and so on. I'm like Bulldog Drummond. I have to get to the end."