Thursday, September 15, 2011
Meeting Billy Collins
So I got to meet Billy Collins this week. As in FACE TO FACE. As in, NOT across a book-signing desk, but in a room where I could have asked him anything, spoken to him for five or ten minutes all by myself. And here’s what I asked him:
I couldn’t think of a single thing to say to him. Later, after his reading when he opened up the room to comments, I thought of all sorts of things I would have liked to ask him. In particular, I would have liked to ask him whether he thinks the art of being a poet can be taught. I’m not talking about revision, or skills of craft. I’m talking about being able to see a poem in a scene or detail and knowing how to get it down in a shape that is appreciable by others. I would have liked to ask him how it felt to be Poet Laureate, and what he did while he held that office. I would have liked to ask him (and I never would have dared) whether, being as familiar as he is with the more complex work of other poets, he enjoys being labeled as “the accessible poet”—does he feel people looking down on him for that? Does he wish his poetry were more dense? I want to ask him how he judges other people’s poetry whose styles are so different from his own. What does he look for when he judges poetry contests, for example? What has he learned about craft, over the course of his career? What kind of goals does he set for himself, in terms of actual work time—does he, for example, have a goal of spending two hours a day working on poetry?
Sigh. I lost a huge opportunity. It was just plain old shyness on my part. I sat there thinking, “This guy has absolutely no interest in talking to me—why should he?—so I will exit this conversation quickly so he can talk to more important people.” And this assumption on my part had absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Collins’s own response to me. He was kind and attentive and would have answered me with warmth.
PBBBBTTHTTHTH!!! to me and my stupid self-consciousness.
However, on the bright side, I was immensely nourished by the whole OCCASION of my meeting him. I got to spend a really pleasant evening with one of my favorite people (no, not Billy, but my good friend Kristi, whose family is sweet, whose home is so perfectly HER [and beautiful], and whose genuineness and love of truth always make me enjoy her company). And I got my book signed. And I had a really nice drive to and from Ephraim. Coming back, I took the long-way-round through Mona and Goshen while the sun was rising above the hills. It was a nice, nice experience, even without Words of Wisdom from Billy Collins.
And I enjoyed the thoughts he did share after his reading. Particularly, Kristi and I were affected by his comment about the process of writing a poem: “I never start with an end in mind. If I take away the surprise for myself, why would I even bother to write it? That takes away all the enjoyment.” She and I both have been too worried about ends. We resolved to be braver about seeing each work as a journey.
I’m so blessed to have people like Kristi in my life. Lately, I’ve been feeling grateful about so many things—the interesting people I get to know, the great books I’ve met in my life, my fun family (immediate and extended), football, bright fall sunshine, Dove peanut-butter chocolate, water with lemon. It’s a good life. And now I’ll end before this sounds even more like a testimony meeting . . .