When & Where: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Thomas Lux, a poetry professor and poet from Georgia Tech introduced the former U.S. Poet Laureate Collins as “original and accessible.”
Attendance: ~200 people. It was kind of couples night. I will explain later.
Why I Went. My longtime partner Denise is a big Billy Collins fan and after I heard him as the keynote speaker at the Decatur Book Festival a few years ago, I also appreciate his poems and the way he performs them. He does read them, but his delivery and timing are impeccable, which gives the impression that I am experiencing a performance. (Collins admits that as a poet he has a “personal charming” personae that is not exactly himself.) Add the quirky element of humor in much of his poems, it's no surprise that Collins delighted the audience at the Carter Center, except maybe me*.
What He Read. Though he read from his new book of poems Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, the collection does contain poems from earlier books. Some of the poems that he read included: “A Dog on His Master” and “Hippos” on Holiday, (from Ballistics, 2008), everyone's timeless favorite, “The Lanyard,” from The Trouble with Poetry, (2005), along with many new ones, such as “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl,” “Cheerios” and “The Sandbill Cranes of Nebraska” to name but a few. He read for almost an hour. Again, I heard him trip over only one word. That's near perfection.
What He Talked About When He Wasn't Reading Poems. Many things actually. A few of his observations that I can decipher from my scribbled notes and memory, was that good poetry requires more than imagination and choosing the right word, (the right word being defined as “sounds better, means more”). But according to Collins, poetry writing requires a study of the masters of poetry as well. Collins knows how the masters have influenced his own work. He also encourages others to read poetry. He says that learning to read poetry is like learning to do crossword puzzles (or Word Jumbles in my case). The more you do it; the easier it becomes.
Q & A: Collins answered questions from the crowd about whether hip hop lyrics are poetry (yes, but..), and his pinch hitting for Garrison Keillor as the reader on Writer's Almanac last summer. Collins said that he did make the final selection of poems that he read on the air.
Did I Buy A Book? Not necessary. The admission for the event, included the price of the book. One of the price savings is that couples who attend together can share one book. (Blog sponsor, A Cappella sold books at the event). As mentioned earlier, many people seem to have brought their best friends with them and Denise brought me.
* Allow me to explain. As a listener, what I find a little disconcerting is that hearing Collins read before a live audience, puts me at the mercy of the audience who collectively chuckles at the appropriate time-- especially during poems like “The Lanyard.” Like a laugh track, you feel a slight pull to smile along even if you're thinking, “Well, it's not that funny.” Collins is very aware of his audiences and like a great comedian, he knows how to pause for the laughter, and then clip it short with his next line. I am not saying that I didn't enjoy myself during the evening, but one of the pleasures of poetry, is that like good novels, the establishment of a one on one relationship between writer and reader is paramount. That relationship seems comprised in those settings. Maybe I just wanted Billy Collins and all his words for myself.