Why Billy Collins told me to eff off

Billy Collins reads in Clowes Auditorium at Central Library (not Butler University) in Indianapolis.

Billy Collins reads in Clowes Auditorium at Central Library (not Butler University) in Indianapolis.

Poet Billy Collins looked at me, across the book signing table, and said, “How about: Go fuck yourself?” The former United States poet laureate stared through his round glasses, face stone serious expression. Quite literally, I was asking for it.

Billy Collins read Saturday, Nov. 8, at Central Library as a part of Vonnegut Fest 2014, hosted by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Collins didn’t wait to bring out the humor at Central Library. From the get-go, he quipped in his verse and conversation.

Humor is key to Collins’s work. However, he waited until his thirties before placing funny lines into his work, since he didn’t want to be considered a light verse poet. He knew at an early age that he wanted to be a poet, but thought that meant being serious, dark, all the time. “I knew two things about poetry,” he said. “One, it was very hard to understand, and two, poets were all miserable.”

Collins first read some fresh poems, straight off the printer, I assume, or the sheets would’ve been wrinkled. Two spoke about his cat, Audrey, who is so dark that she’s impossible to photograph. In one poem, Collins said the dark, furry mass walks toward him he sees two yellow circles, but only one circle when she walks away. “I never thought that would make it into a poem,” he commented.

He introduced another poem about a specific poet’s hardship—receiving advice. Although novel writers probably don’t face this problem, he said, every poet in the room would understand. “People who do this are always, always wrong,” he said, then read:

“The Suggestion Box”

It all began fairly early in the day

at the coffee shop as it turned out

when the usual waitress said

I’ll bet you’re going to write a poem about this

after she had knocked a cup of coffee into my lap.

The poem describes other friends and acquaintances telling the speaker what to write about, including a fire drill, a dirigible, and a stranger’s completely tattooed face. It causes the speaker to wonder, “Why is everyone being so helpful?” The poem ends with a pair of ducks, and the female duck, in an Irish brogue, tells the speaker he will probably write a poem about this exchange.

Poet Billy Collins.

Poet Billy Collins said reading aloud helps the poet catch syntactical issues that are hard to read. It’s not so much about gauging audience response.

The ducks drifted into the poem as a device to help him stop. The poet’s task, he said, is to write enough that the reader doesn’t want to read more, and enough that the poet doesn’t want to write more. “How do you get to that point of mutual satisfaction?” he asked.

He read a plethora of poems, including “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl,” “A Dog on His Master,” “The Lanyard,” and “The Death of the Hat.” Collins pointed to these last two as poems that start out frivolous but become serious. This is how modern poets use humor, he said, as a strategy. If he had decided to draft an elegy for his mother and another for his father, it would’ve been too much. Poets need to start with small things let the poems flow into something larger.

“You can’t approach these things frontally—or, I think it’s dangerous,” he said. “You allow these emotional things to come into a poem that was otherwise unaware of them.”

When the reading ended, I waited, the last person in line, for him to sign my copy of Aimless Love. A Vonnegut Library volunteer handed out sticky notes and asked everyone to spell out what they’d like the poet to write in their books. I wrote:

Aimless Love by  Billy Collins.Dear James,

Something obscene.

-Billy Collins

I thought he’d transcribe it verbatim. Then I could say, Billy Collins wrote Something obscene in my book. He took as an open-ended instruction—a blank check, like I’d jotted [Something obscene]—and used the occasion to verbally abuse me. What an honor!

In the end, he jotted out some cartoon swears—exclamation points, furious squiggles—but not before suggesting, “How about: Dear James, Stop fucking following me?”


5 Questions with Lumineers pianist Stelth Ulvang

Image courtesy of Stelth Ulvang.

(Image courtesy of Stelth Ulvang)

When I met Stelth Ulvang, he was standing on the side of the road halfway between Cincinnati and Indianapolis with his thumb up. I told my now-fiancée that we should pick him up, adding comfortingly, “He’s safe: he has a skateboard.”

(Side note: Ever since, my detective aunt won’t cease to remind me not to pick up hitchhikers.)

He looked familiar, somehow, and I later remembered where I remembered seeing him—on the Grammy’s. During the ride, we talked about books and Ben Folds, and he told us he was touring with a band, looking honest as he said we might know of them. “They’re called the Lumineers.”

Honestly, I thought he meant he was the guy who sold T-shirts, not the barefoot multi-instrumentalist who launches into mad piano solos one minute and gently strums a mandolin the next. The guy can play almost anything. “I actively like to play most of the keyed instruments (keys, piano, organ/accordion) and most the fretted strings (banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin), as well as most the woodwinds (flute, saxes, clarinets),” he said.

Stelth will perform Tomorrow, Sept. 17, at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, with guitarist Nick Jaina starting off the evening. Though tickets are sold out, you can still find out more and get a taste of Stelth and his music career below.



1. When did you start playing music and what instrument did you start with?

 I started playing clarinet in middle school for the sole purpose of eventually playing sax. Sax was ultimately the coolest instrument a 6th grader could play.
I played sax all through high school and eventually started teaching myself piano—I got obsessed with Ben Folds and made out to learn every song of his—and now stick mainly to piano.

2. In the beginning, you weren’t a Lumineer; how did you meet and what’s the experience been like?

 I am now officially a Lumineer! Met them upon their move to Denver and used to play shows with them in my old band Dovekins. Eventually (Dovekins) broke up, and I made the move in to the Lumineers. 
Experience is amazing. I’d love to do everything, and it sure is helping knock some places and things off my list.

3. What do you miss most about your home state, Colorado, when you’re on the road?

Colorado is greatly missed now by our band, which is primarily Denverites. I miss the sun, and even when it’s cold, it’s nice out.
I miss the tight community, great music scene there.

4. When you go to a new place, and actually have free time, is there anything you do or look for right away?

I use this app ‘wikihood.’ It uses your coordinates and gives wikipedia articles based on historic events or nearby things on wikipedia—so I get settled, turn that on, and sometimes there will be some ‘historical house’ next door, or the hotel has some history in wikipedia. I recommend it.
But I do love some museums, ideally natural history and science museums. I like public parks—and sneaking into universities to find pianos to practice on.

5. Since you’re a big Vonnegut fan, what’s your favorite work of his? And why?

Favorite Vonnegut is probably Mother Night—really fascinating, short novel. I read it in an afternoon in Houston, Texas, and am obsessed with the ‘You are who you pretend to be, so be careful of who you pretend to be’ idea behind it.
I feel sometimes, as a musician, I have to be careful of how I come across, and that I am staying as true as possible to myself.

Nikki Giovanni on Kurt Vonnegut and Antarctica

If I say something stupid, which does happen, I prefer to be in the company of friends. Not famous people. But when I met Nikki Giovanni, I said something pretty stupid.

Nikki was speaking for a diversity lecture at UIndy, and she kept bringing up Kurt Vonnegut, a personal hero of mine. So I recommended: “If you’re staying a few days, in town you should check out the Kurt Vonnegut museum.”

Nikki Giovanni spoke about everything from diversity, the Civil Rights movement and Emmet Till to Kurt Vonnegut, alcohol and Antarctica on Feb. 5 at UIndy. (Photo credit goes to Ayla Wilder)

Nikki Giovanni spoke about everything from diversity, the Civil Rights movement and Emmet Till to Kurt Vonnegut, alcohol and Antarctica on Feb. 5 at UIndy. (Photo credit goes to Ayla Wilder)

She smiled (coyly) and said, “Oh, dear.” And she proceeded to tell me how she and Kurt were close friends, how he would take her son to the circus. He loved the circus, she said, but since his kids were grown, he would always ask to take her son whenever the big top was in town. He would babysit for her, too. I was instantly jealous of her son’s childhood.

But the reason I brought Vonnegut up in the first place was she deeply wanted him to go on her next trip—to Antarctica. Apparently she and her nonagenarian aunt went there a few years back, and ever since, she has wanted to take a group of writers. And writers from Indiana would be great, according to her, because they would know how to describe a flat, empty landscape.

Although I wrote an article about her reading for The Reflector, there were other things that I didn’t write. At least, not until now. So here’s her pitch for a writers booze cruise—I mean, research trip—to Antarctica:

It would just be wonderful to put 10 of you all on a boat, with a couple of cases of wine, beer, you know? Because you’re going to come up with something different.

When you think about it, well I always think about it when I think about Indiana, cause my first thought is Kurt Vonnegut. He was one of the best and most imaginative writers, you know? And Kurt’s gone, so we don’t get to take Kurt to Antarctica. But you can see that there’s, I don’t mean a Kurt, but that kind of mentality. Can’t you see Kurt Vonnegut, and beer, and Antarctica?

So that’s what I’m saying, and so I just keep talking about things because somebody’s got to do it. NASA’s not listening to me right now. They haven’t said a firm no, but they’re always asking for more information and more information. And of course they’re going to push it, and I’m going to say, ‘Fuck you.’ And that’ll be unhappy for everybody. Because, well, what the hell? I mean, they have the beds, right? You can only go in December, because otherwise you’re stuck down there. And they have the beds. It’s just that.

I mean, we’re writers: how much food do we eat? And a couple of cases of wine, you know, if we come through Chile—that’s it. And we’d just get to talk and imagine. I think that we can’t always look at things as what their worth is.

I’m still waiting for an invitation. Nikki had talked more about Kurt, Antarctica and beer earlier in the evening. The best way to sum it all up is with this Vonnegut-ism:

And so on.