People looking for an entertaining and amusing way to spend an evening rarely give attention to an event called a symposium, especially when its description is sprinkled with words like “ideas,” “issues,” and “stimulating dialogue.”
That’s good news for local fans of Billy Collins, the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001-2003. The author of eight books of poetry and frequent contributor to Prairie Home Companion and National Public Radio’s Fresh Air will give a reading and answer questions in Savannah next week as part of Savannah Country Day School’s series “Creative Minds: A Symposium of Ideas.”
With Collins’ appearance tucked into the list of other prestigious speakers—nationally acclaimed psychologists and environmentalists--who will participate in the series over the next six months, the uninitiated might expect the tone of his reading to be somber and intense.
While much of Collins’ poetry will make you laugh, he is no comic relief filler for this series. For poetry purists who demand serious subject matter in their verse menu, he serves up eternal topics—love, death, time, God, and the beauty of the natural world. Collins’ approach to such matters is usually amusing, but the humor somehow makes the serious subject matter more poignant and more real rather than more frivolous. His honesty and the clarity of his writing are keys to his success as a poet and his unprecedented popularity on the lecture circuit.
In late October, Collins answered a few questions about his upcoming visit to Savannah and his thoughts on poetry--past, present, and future.
Connect Savannah: Your reading in Savannah in November you will be the second guest lecturer in a series called “Creative Minds: A Symposium of Ideas.” The other speakers include a child psychologist, an environmental panel featuring Robert F Kennedy, Jr., and a sports psychologist speaking on “Success is an Attitude.”
Billy Collins: Well, I’m quite the odd man out, aren’t I?
Connect Savannah: According to the promotional material, the speaker series is “designed to stimulate dialogue and spark debate about important issues.” How does your involvement help contribute to that mission?
Billy Collins: I’ve actually never had a real idea. Except, I think that relativity is an idea. I have some notions and I have a knack for writing poetry, and I have some convictions about good ways to live your life. I’m not too interested in issues.
I think that poetry is something that takes place after prose has been exhausted. I would include political thought and psychology and any other discipline or school of thought that would find its expression in prose. When all of those possibilities are exhausted, that is where poetry occurs. It’s trying to express things that cannot be expressed in prose.
I tell my writing students, “if you can say what you are trying to say in a letter to the editor, or in an opinion piece, or in a letter to your girlfriend, they all mean ‘Stop writing poetry.’ ” I would place poetry in a separate category from the other thinkers in the speaker series.
Connect Savannah: Do you have anything in particular planned for your Savannah appearance?
Billy Collins: Not specific to this occasion, it’s a little too early. I can only share what I have. I can talk about my experience in poetry, and I can encourage people to read poetry and to maybe reengineer their opinions about poetry.
I like to make my presentations a little spontaneous. I’m pretty good at judging the audience, even to include distinguishing among kinds of silence. There are good silences and bad. I tend to vary the poems I’m reading and adjust to that accordingly.
Connect Savannah: In the fall issue of Book Forum you have a back page essay on slang, reviewing a newly published slang dictionary. In the essay you talk about keeping this slang dictionary on your reference shelf. What other items are on your reference shelf, and what among them are your favorites?
Billy Collins: That was a fun piece to write. As for other items on my shelf, one of my favorites is the Oxford Companion to Death, which is writings on the subject of mortality.
I think there are two phases to one’s life. In the first phase you acquire things and in the second phase you get rid of things. I’m in the second phase now, I tend to jettison things, including books that I’ll never read again.
I tend to give away to the local library most of my books. The last things to go are the reference books. They haven’t gone yet, over my dead body. The reference shelves tend to be the Dictionary of American Biography, books on geography, the Oxford Guide to Classical Music. I like looking things up.
If I had to go down in the ship I would take a one volume encyclopedia and the Oxford English Dictionary, and you can pretty much reconstruct the world with those two tomes.
Connect Savannah: So of course I have to ask, would you take the multi volume Oxford Dictionary or the two volume small print?
Billy Collins: Oh yes, the short version--with the magnifying glass.
Connect Savannah: As poet laureate you have a lot of public appearances and are also encouraged to work on a special poetry project of some kind. Was there a public poetry project that you developed during your tenure, one that has your stamp on it?
Billy Collins: The Poetry 180 Project is my program. You can read about it in detail on the Poetry 180 website. The idea—oh wait, I don’t have ideas! The notion was to pick 180 poems and put them on a website. The number 180 is for the 180 days of the school year, plus there is the implication of turning around 180 degrees to poetry.
I found 180 good clear contemporary poems by mostly new authors, with one by me—the first one, which kind of announced the credo of the program. I encouraged high school teachers to read a poem every day, typically at assembly or over the speaker where as many could hear it as possible.
That caught on. Many high schools have admitted their participation. My publisher, Random House, thought it was such a good idea they asked me to do an anthology. Now there are two anthologies plus the website.
Connect Savannah: Who was the target audience for the project?
Billy Collins: At first on the website the poems were aimed at high school students. The others are for everyone, but particularly for people who feel like they have lost contact with poetry, either from negative interpretations in school, or other bad experiences. It’s a way to get caught up with poetry since you last read it.
Connect Savannah: Did you work on any special writing project of your own while you were poet laureate?
Billy Collins: I didn’t have time. The job of the poet laureate, you can stay in your cave if you want to but you have a lot of social demands on you to be a fairly public person. For a while there I thought that the position of poet laureate was a government plot to silence a poet who is productive, by saddling them with other duties so that they wouldn’t have time to write.
Connect Savannah: You have a new book of poetry out, She Was Just Seventeen, a book of haiku, which is a poetry form that’s quite different from most of the other poems you’ve written.
Billy Collins: I would always write them kind of on the side. Haiku is fun to write as an exercise, you have a little restriction. Because of that, as with any form, if the form has any requirements it starts to tell you what you can and cannot do, you want to express something but the form says “okay but you didn’t do what it says. You feel a pushing back, but it’s also encouraging. There’s something timeless about the form but there is something perishable about what you want to say. These things want to cooperate with us. By insinuation or know how we have to figure out how to make them cooperate with us.
Connect Savannah: Savannah’s two most prominent literary heroes are Flannery O’Connor and another poet laureate, Conrad Aiken, who was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1950. What is your familiarity with Aiken, if any? Do you have any thoughts on him?
Billy Collins: I am familiar with Aiken but I’m more familiar with O’Connor. When I was in Savannah before, I went to her grave [in Milledgeville]. I went at night, it’s the best time to go, but unfortunately her grave was under a streetlight, it was not as atmospheric as one would hope.
I only know two things about Aiken—that he had this trauma when he was a pre-teen [the murder-suicide of his parents] and I know one poem of his. A love poem. “The music I know is more than music…” It’s a lovely poem. I have to be honest with you, I don’t pick him up and read him very much. I think he edited a book on Emily Dickinson.
Connect Savannah: As a past poet laureate are you in touch with or participate in activities with other former poet laureates?
Billy Collins: I’m afraid I can’t say anything about that. I could but it might be dangerous for you. It’s a secret society, like the Skull and Bones.
One of the unusual things about my career, I’m guessing, is that I’m the only poet laureate who, when appointed, I had never met another poet laureate. I was outside the big poetry loop. I was a very dark horse in all of this. I was basically a college professor teaching in an inner city college in the Bronx, teaching literature and composition. I didn’t get my first book published until I was over 40. They might hang around with each other but I’m not invited to those serious cabals.
Connect Savannah: You are pretty much the closest thing that there is to being “the rock star of poetry.” Any comments?
Billy Collins: If I’m the rock star of poetry…I don’t know about that. Although I am about the same age as Keith Richards right now, hopefully I’m in a little better shape than he is.
That is certainly not something I set out to do. If someone sets out to be well known it’s a dead end. I just write my poems. I’m not sure why they’re so popular.
I will express my gratitude to two people: Terry Gross and Garrison Keillor. After Picnic, Lightening was published, their attention to that book made all the difference. It shows you the power of public radio. There is the well known, overly-discussed power of Oprah but in a more subtle way, and in maybe a more consistent way, there’s public radio. There you have an audience of two to four million people, most are readers. Not too many poets get to read their poems to two million people.
Connect Savannah: What do you see as the future of poetry?
Billy Collins: Something is bound to change in poetry because art can’t stand still. Art that does stand still becomes petrified and is only paid attention to by those who are behind the times.
Who knows, it’s hard to predict what will be written 25 or 50 years from now. I think poetry in the last 40 years has inched its way into the center of culture. I think it was marginalized, largely due to the esoteric work of people like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot because it was so difficult to understand. I think seriousness identified it with difficulty. I think that linkage has been broken. Poetry doesn’t have to be so difficult, it doesn’t have to be so serious either.
Poetry is returning to its function as, and this is a dirty word, as entertainment. Poets of high function would not like that but that’s what it was initially. I think poets are less embarrassed by the fact that poetry can amuse and stimulate and talk directly to people.
Connect Savannah: What do you mean by the word “amuse?”
Billy Collins: I’m referring to the fact that humor acquired a bad reputation in poetry because it interfered with the seriousness of it. But there’s a way to be humorous about the dark aspects of poetry. The dark and light aspects are being mixed better and that bodes well for the future. ç
Billy Collins will give a poetry reading and Q & A session, Tuesday, November 14, 6:30 p.m. in Savannah Country Day School’s Jelks Hall, 824 Stillwood Drive. Tickets are $7 in advance, $10 door, call (912) 961-8868 for more information and for ticket availability or check www.savcds.org
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