It’s not often that Columbia hosts a national poet laureate. And even less frequently can we listen to a poet laureate whose publishing contract ran to six figures with Random House. Turns out, that’s not an oxymoron. It’s a Billy Collins.
On April 24, at the Blackbird Poetry Festival, HoCoPoLitSo brought to Columbia a writer who passes for a rock star in the poetry world. Collins, “the most popular poet in America,” according to the New York Times, drew groupies from as far away as Philadelphia and western Maryland. Collins read in the afternoon with students, and at an evening reading, thanks to a partnership with Howard Community College’s student life office, and humanities and English divisions.
As co-president of the HoCoPoLitSo board Tara Hart said in her introduction, Collins has brought poetry to the people, “down from the shelves and out of the shadows.”
But Collins says he doesn’t sit down at his desk and decide, hmm, today, I think I’m going to write a poem that will bring poetry out of the shadows. Instead, he says, “I’m just trying to write a good poem.”
He’s always thinking about the reader, he says, and alternating his attention between the reader and the poet. To that end, he opened his reading with “You, Reader.” His voice, particularly well-suited to his dry wit, is without affect, so it also worked with his poems that were more reflective, even sad, like the canine soliloquy, “The Dog on his Master.”
Collins read poems that drew huge laughs, including “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl,” “More Than a Woman,” and “Oh My God,” as well as “Cheerios,” (“that dude’s older than Cheerios,” he says he imagines people marveling, as, in his poem, his protagonist sits drinking his orange juice and reading in the paper about his birth year being the same as the breakfast cereal’s).
He explained that he doesn’t talk about exotic things, just normal life that leads to revelation, as in his poem “The Lanyard,” that starts out contemplating the plastic necklaces made by bored campers and ends up cogitating the meaning of maternal love.
“I explore a little curiosity that some people with normal work hours don’t have time to explore,” he said.
Collins talked about his haiku and how he’s fond of the seventeen-syllable rules.
“The haiku doesn’t care about my self-expression. It looks back at you with, ‘what’s the matter with you? That’s six syllables.’ ”
He read haiku about the moon in the window, about raindrops, and then this one, “an emotionally poignant one,” he said.
Alone at the sushi bar
Just me and this eel.
Fans laughed at his work, and nodded during his poems about dogs and splitting wood.
The questions after the reading went on for twenty minutes.
Q: “What is your writing regimen?”
A: “I have no discipline,” Collins admitted. “I write on the fly. I never sit down and say I’m going to commit an act of literature before lunch.”
Q: “What is the favorite poem you’ve written?”
A: “I really have no interest in them. I’ve written them; I’m out.”
Collins also discussed how he grounds his poetry in the domestic, with the scene as a “launching pad.”
“I start with something simple,” Collins said. “I like poems to start in Kansas and then go to Oz.”
His advice to Linda Joy Burke, a poet and teacher, on how to teach kids to not take themselves too seriously, was to give them models. William Carlos Williams and Coleridge are good ones, he said, and they should write a poem following that poet’s rules.
“It keeps them from the gushers, the geysers of feeling,” Collins said. “We’re all born with 200 bad poems in us at birth. Most people are nice enough to never let them out.”
After the reading, the audience burst into the lobby clamoring for places in line. They chatted and compared Collins’ stories on the long book-signing line (those waiting were well fueled with chocolates passed out by volunteers).
Those fans brought their piles of books – some were collectors’ items — and phones for selfies and cameras for more formal portraits. Collins stayed an hour and a half after the reading finished to sign all the books and talk with his fans.
One young college student – the one from Philadelphia who brought her mom from Belair – gushed that he signed every one of her books. Then she confided that she and her mother are both creative writing majors because of his work.
A poet couldn’t ask for more. Except maybe another book contract.
Susan Thornton Hobby
recording secretary of HoCoPoLitSo