The JFK Library and Museum runs fabulous and fascinating evening events, and last month I was thrilled to go hear Billy Collins (former US Poet Laureate, a title he enjoys saying, apparently, and who can blame him?) read some of his work and have a conversation about poetry and writing and reading of same.
The introduction featured a fun bit of historical context on JFK’s associations with poetry, including a clip from Kennedy’s Amherst College speech honoring Robert Frost, which I’ve linked below:
NEA recording and transcript of Kennedy’s Amherst College speech regarding Robert Frost
Amherst College web exhibition “President and Poet”
And, of course, the view of the city and harbor out the windows behind the speaker was as stunning as always.
Collins was entertaining from the very start, declaring that it was an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as Robert Frost, as “compared to Frost, my poems are like an unmade bed in a dorm room.”
Other highlights from the discussion–
- On the surreal tone of some of his poems and how not to lose readers: “start in Kansas, but end up in Oz.” Start with an idea, set the tone, start out ordinary and develop into something interesting and strange
- Domesticity is interesting, to start with a common experience and then dive ‘down and in’ to the more subjective point of view
- To be alone with the reader is not the same as being lonely
- When ‘finding the way through’ the poem, Collins looks at it like a map: ‘how does it move’ as opposed to ‘what does it mean.’
- Collins’ writing ‘persona’ is very present in his poems – open, ready to be pleased (though not always succeeding), and with ‘little capacity for misery.’ According to Collins, all poetry needs/involves persona, which is not the same as personal – he denies any explicit autobiography in his writing. (And, indeed, is not fond of overtly familial poems as reading matter, either)
- One doesn’t exactly choose to become a professional poet, it is more like ‘a hobby that swallows you up.’
Want more? Check out Collins’ Biography and large selection of poems on PoetryFoundation.org or one of the poems he read that night which I enjoyed quite a bit: Fishing on the Susquehanna
Want even more than my highlights? Hear it from the man himself: TED Talk by Billy Collins
At the end of the evening, there was a little time for Q&A. I’m not a big fan of getting up to ask questions in front of a microphone (I don’t mind public speaking, but public interrogation is somehow harder!) Since Collins was signing books after, however, I did get to ask him about one of his comments from earlier in the evening. He had stated that the majority of poems (not to mention poetry collections), he doesn’t even read all the way through, so I asked which poets, if any, had writing which he did read all the way to the end.
His answer? Charles Simic.
That’s a name I recognized, though I couldn’t put words to the name, so I did a little research and reading, and now know enough to put him on the list of poets’ names to scan for when I’m in a bookstore.
What of Collins’ statements above ring true to you? Any quibbles? (I have a few, but that’s what makes life and literature interesting, right?)