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 . . .


Th. said...


If it makes you feel better, I was similarly slackjawed upon meeting John Cleese and Scott Adams.

eliana said...

I'm a bit envious of your night! Billy is a rock star.

jenlinmin said...

I feel like I am turning a very lovely shade of emerald right now... 1) You got to spend an evening with my favorite poet, and 2) You got to spend it with a kindred spirit... How I love a deep-seeded friendship!

Clark Draney said...

I met Billy Collins and all I could say was (to the guy butting in line ahead of me), "Hey. Wait your turn." Billy Collins looked up at me in surprise and then glanced, in what seemed to me to be an embarrassed way, at the LONG line of people behind me and the queue jumper.


Then, when it was my turn, I said some lame thing about how he should spell my name.

Double sign.

Hoontah said...

It was wonderful to see you too Darlene!

Billy's reading was wonderful and though we did have unlimited access it did feel like we were meeting a rock star. I've met a lot of authors and that was the first time I didn't really know what to say either. I guess I felt like I didn't need to rush a conversation because we had all the time in the world. Lesson learned.

Ah well, there's always next time? And there will be a next time.

I'm very grateful for you too! Thank you.

Billy's #9 Fan said...

I wasn't there, but I know Billy rather well and have heard his answers more times than anyone except Billy himself. Here are the answers I know are right.

He doesn't think being a poet can be taught. He thinks certain aspects of writing poetry can be taught.

PL-- he enjoyed the attention but didn't like that the busy-ness of it kept him from writing as much as he'd have liked. He says he once thought naming a person PL was a gov't plot to keep that person silent for a while. He traveled then, as he does now, giving readings and teaching workshops, but he also did a LOT of interviews. He has said that what a poet laureate does is go around telling people what a poet laureate does. He started the Poetry 180 program while PL. Here's a link to the Library of Congress website on him (the Librarian of Congress appoints the PL), where you'll find a link to his Poetry 180 website. There are also two Poetry 180 anthologies published by Random House.

He doesn't like being called accessible and prefers the term "hospitable" instead. He welcomes his readers into a poem, beginning simply and then getting more complex as the poem progresses. He doesn't wish his poems were more dense. If he did, he'd write them that way. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was his main influence in writing poems where the reader is acknowledged and a conversational tone is used. He specifically cites Coleridge's Conversation Poems. "This Limetree Bower My Prison" is one of his favorites.

"I have no work ethic," he has said on many occasions. While he doesn't set aside a specific time to write each day, he tends to be at his desk in the mornings, though not necessarily "committing an act of literature," as he puts it. And he doesn't set a goal of how often he will write. Once he sits down, however, he stays there until he has gotten to the end of that poem. "All of my poems are written in one sitting," is what he says, and that's what it means. His goal as a writer is "to write one good line at a time."

If you go to the Library of Congress link above, you'll find the answer to probably any question you could ever think of asking Billy.

Sorry I wasn't Billy, but I'm sure he would have been happy to answer your questions. At least now you know some of the quick answers. = )

Oh-- and about you and your friend worrying too much about endings. I have heard Billy speak many times on literary influence and voice. He says that when you have your own voice or style, it will be informed by many other poets. Following one poet usually doesn't work. When you've read and read and read, at the end the influences are so well-integrated into your voice/style as to make them invisible to the reader. So maybe not worrying about the ending will work for you, your friend, or both of you-- or neither of you. Billy has said there is no one right way to approach writing a poem. I think he's right.

Darlene Young said...

Hey, #9, thanks for all those great answers. That's nice of you to take the time to tell me more about one of my favorites.

Billy's #9 Fan (there are already enough #1 fans of Billy's in the world) said...

Oh, silly me. You're Cless's daughter then, aren't you?! I wondered whether I should comment. You really did have a private audience with "the rock star." (I think he's a rock star, too.) Sorry I didn't get to go this trip. Utah is beautiful, and so are the people.

Anonymous said...

I'm getting less shy as I age, but I think I'd have been star struck, too. But the questions you asked after the fact are great--as are #9 Fan's answers. Not that I had aspired to be a Poet Laureate, but now I actively don't want to be one, having heard what the job entails. :)

Darlene Young said...

Ah, #9, that's a good guess, but no, I'm not Cless's daughter. (I believe her last name is Young, too, though, so no one could blame you for assuming.)

I don't imagine many people aspire to be PL, Zina, but it's so hard to get any recognition at all as a poet. It's something to know that someone, somewhere, is reading your words. Think about it--even just being a reader puts anyone in a huge minority in this world. And then to be a reader of poetry . . . (and then there's being a reader of MY poetry!)

In fact, speaking of shameful minorites, here's my confession. Despite being a reader, even a reader of poetry, even a WRITER of poetry, I've only recently (past few years--probably began with Billy's reign) discovered that we even HAVE a poet laureate. Shame on me, but there you have it.