About the Staff
Learn more about the people who help make The Writer's Almanac possible.
Billy Collins, Guest Host
Billy Collins is an American phenomenon. No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal. His work has appeared in a variety of periodicals including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The American Scholar. He is a Guggenheim fellow and a New York Public Library "Literary Lion." His last three collections of poems have broken sales records for poetry. His readings are usually standing room only, and his audience includes people of all backgrounds and age groups. The poems themselves best explain this phenomenon. The typical Collins poem opens on a clear and hospitable note but soon takes an unexpected turn; poems that begin in irony may end in a moment of lyric surprise. No wonder Collins sees his poetry as "a form of travel writing" and considers humor "a door into the serious." It is a door that many thousands of readers have opened with amazement and delight.
Billy has published ten collections of poetry, including Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, Picnic, Lightning, Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes, Sailing Alone Around the Room: New & Selected Poems, Nine Horses, The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems, Ballistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead. A collection of his haiku, titled She Was Just Seventeen, was published by Modern Haiku Press in fall 2006. He edited two anthologies of contemporary poetry: Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday, and was the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2006. He is also the editor of Bright Wings: Poems about Birds, illustrated by David Sibley and published by Columbia University Press. His latest collection, published this year, is Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (2003-2013)
Included among the honors Collins has received are fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has also been awarded the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize, and the Levinson Prize — all awarded by Poetry magazine. In October 2004, Collins was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Poetry Foundation's Mark Twain Award for Humor in Poetry. This year he will travel to Russia as a cultural emissary of the State Department.
Collins was appointed United States Poet Laureate 2001-2003. He served as New York State Poet 2004-06. He is a currently Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York as well as The Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College.
Betsy Allister, Researcher
Betsy Allister grew up listening to Garrison Keillor make fun of English majors, but she couldn't help herself and majored in English anyway. These days she is a writer and farmer in her hometown of Northfield, Minnesota. When she is not researching writers, she is probably weeding carrots, moving sheep, feeding pigs, harvesting kohlrabi, or engaging in some other activity that involves dirt and manure. In the winters you might find her baking bread, making sausages, and reading as many books as possible. Favorite writers include Wendell Berry, E.B. White, Louise Erdrich, Anthony Doerr, Arundhati Roy, and Virginia Woolf. She is also a fan of children's books, Buddhist teachings, and cookbooks.
One of the things she enjoys most about writing for The Writer's Almanac is learning how writers approach the day-to-day business of writing — who writes in pajamas in a darkened room (Zadie Smith), who sticks to a perfect schedule that depends on physical training (Haruki Murakami), and who writes in the bedroom while throwing wild parties in the living room (Zora Neale Hurston). She also likes uncovering unexpected, funny, or moving stories of how writers find their way to publishing their first books.
Holly Vanderhaar, Researcher
Holly Vanderhaar was born in Austin, MN (Spamtown, USA!) but grew up in Phoenix, where she attended Arizona State, earning a B.A. in film studies and a Master of Liberal Studies. She lived in New York City for a while — long enough to fall in love with it, but not long enough to get sick of it — and ended up in St. Paul, where she moved in 2007 to get her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota.
She's worked as an office manager, a personal assistant, an intern for a film producer, a teacher, and a psychology lab assistant handling rats and pigeons. She's thrilled to be a working writer now, since she's much less likely to be bitten (that was really only a problem with those last three jobs).
Her favorite authors include Dorothy Parker, Michael Ondaatje, Charles Simic, Joan Didion, George Orwell, and David Foster Wallace. Her secret fantasy is to be part of a 21st-century Algonquin Round Table. She finds it tremendously heartening to learn how other writers overcome their dysfunctions, insecurities, and struggles with their own work, and that's her favorite part about working on The Writer's Almanac.
She's a single mom to 8-year-old twin daughters, and if she had any spare time, she'd be working on an essay collection about her ancestor, one of the Salem witches.