Sunday, April 01, 2007

Billy Collins -- A National Poetry Month Post

Last night, I saw one of my living heroes, Billy Collins, read poetry at Rutgers University - Camden campus.

A question: What's better than seeing one of my favorite living poets read? (Select all that apply):

a. Seeing him read for FREE.
b. Sitting in the second row
c. Meeting him in person and shaking hands
d. Having him sign five books ("to Kelly -- first names makes it sound like we're much closer," he said)
e. Getting photos taken with Billy
f. Free wine and food afterwards
g. All of the above

You are, of course, free to pick and choose the ones you like best, but as they're all true, you're equally correct if you just skipped to letter G.

Miscellaneous scene-setting details

We arrived at around 6:30 for an event that was scheduled to start at 7. About 10 people were already there, in a large space full of empty chairs in rows. Mike and I picked two in the second row -- I didn't want to seem to eager as to sit in the first row, a choice I somewhat regretted when the guy who sat in the first row decided to sit semi-sideways in his chair and lean to his right, causing me to have to do the same AND tilt my head sideways. Then again, initially I'd have had the aisle seat and would have avoided that issue, but I invited one of my local poetry friends to join us and gave him the aisle seat.

I'd say that about half the people there were poets, and here's what I base that on: When I got there, I knew nobody, but the two ladies who had grabbed the aisle seats in the third row (before I got there) were both poets. And then I saw my friend Bruce, a poet, who was with at least 5 of his poet friends. And then Dan came along, and he knows practically everyone in the local poetry community (seriously), and I was able to meet a number of other poets that way. There were probably 200-300 people there.

The actual reading

Billy Collins is an assured public speaker, as you might expect. He's wry and clever and quick-minded, and all that comes out not only in his poems, but in his "patter" between some of the poems. I cannot state with authority which poem he read first, or what order they were in, but I can tell you that the very last poem he read was "On Turning Ten", originally published in The Art of Drowning, and included in Sailing Alone Around the Room. It is a poem that started out as satire on all those dreadful aging poems of doom, usually revolving around numbers like 40, 50, or 60, but ends up as a poem of actual loss (in my opinion, although Mike didn't see it that way). It was received with applause and murmurs of appreciation.

He read for about an hour. Selections included "Litany" and "No Time" from Nine Horses, "Dharma" and "Sonnet" from Sailing Alone Around the Room, "The Lanyard", "The Revenant" ("it means ghost, or visiting spirit," he said, very casually, before reading it, in such a way that nobody would feel stupid for not knowing it), "Monday", and "The Trouble with Poetry" from The Trouble With Poetry, "Forgetfulness" from The Apple That Astonished Paris and Sailing, and "The History Teacher" from Questions About Angels and Sailing.

He read from She Was Just Seventeen, a chapbook of haiku by Billy Collins put out by Modern Haiku Press. It goes for $45 a copy on Amazon. Being haiku, most are untitled. But at least two (which were jokes, actually), had titles: "Haiku Truck" and one with a reference to a New England winter, actually just the first 16 words of Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening". Collins praised the idea of writing in a locked form because it is fixed, and therefore makes the poet work to suit it. He likes the haiku because it is just seventeen syllables, and because the form sits there, fixed, and tells you what you must do. Two less syllables, please, or one more, to make the line flow. That said, some of his haiku follow a 5-5-7 format instead of the traditional 5-7-5. I couldn't quite tell that from the hearing, but it's obvious from this book review of She Was Just Seventeen at Modern Haiku.

In addition to published poems, he read a number of poems from typed sheets of paper. I hope to see some of them in a new book someday.

There was one, a spoof of bad fiction that relies on use of the word "suddenly" to create tension, introduced by a story of one of the worst uses of it -- "I pointed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger. Suddenly, a shot rang out." In it, everyday events are described as happening "suddenly", until he lies down and takes a nap. The poem, called "Tension," ends in the Andes mountains, where people wear distinctive hats with "suddenly colorful tassles." Billy Collins used this poem to explain a bit about his process. Usually, he doesn't know where a poem is going when he starts it. He'd had no idea that this poem would end up in the Andes, and yet, when he "saw" the Andes, he knew it was the proper ending, and it felt like the poem had been heading there all along. He said the same thing about "The Trouble With Poetry," which ends with a reference to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He didn't know how it would end, but when he got that image, he saw the ending there, and knew it was right.

Another, called "Divorce" is one that needs the title in order to be properly understood. It opens with a line about two spoons in bed, then shifts to two forks, tines pointed at one another across the table, with hired knives. It got lots of appreciative murmurs from the poets in the crowd, I can assure you. There was a sonnet about Petrarch and his girlfriend, Laura, and a poem called "Adage," composed of various clichés. You can hear Billy Collins read "Adage", "Tension", "The Golden Years","Revenant", and "The Trouble with Poetry" over at A Prairie Home Companion, if you're interested.

And now, since tomorrow will be Monday, I leave you with a bit of Collins's poem by the same name, from his most recent collection, The Trouble With Poetry:

The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.

They are at their windows
in every section of the tangerine of earth--
the Chinese poets looking up at the moon,
the American poets gazing out
at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.

The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down in their mines,
and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.

I will see you all for another (and probably shorter) National Poetry Month post tomorrow.


Robert said...

Glad you enjoyed the reading so much.

Kelly Fineman said...

It's always wonderful to hear people read their work, and better still when it's a poet whose work I like so very much.

Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

What's better is having all of the above plus having an hour and a half of sweetness and light over lunch and having the esteemed Mr. Collins exclaim that it is "forbidden" for you to pick up the tab.
--a fellow admirer of the esteemed gentleman.

Kelly Fineman said...

Wowza - that would indeed be spectacular!