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?”

That time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house

When I was an intern at Metonymy Media, I wrote a lot of blogs. Some were about cars or travel, and some were about other things that I had more or less interest in. But one of my favorite blogs was one I wrote about a trip that I took to the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Mass. I started this blog about five times, because I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to say—not that I didn’t have anything to say.

The Emily Dickinson house is located in Amherst, Mass., where the poet spent almost all of her life.

The Emily Dickinson house is located in Amherst, Mass., where the poet spent almost all of her life.

The problem with writing what you’re passionate about is there is too much to say. I have been reading Emily Dickinson since middle school. I have been extremely interested in her work and her life. And after a 90-minute tour of her house and her brother Austin’s house—called The Evergreens, which sits right next door—I had even more to say.

I thought that I wouldn’t be able to say anything for a while, but I took some solace in these words from who else but Emily Dickinson:

Life is but life, and death but death!

Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!

And if, indeed, I fail,

At least to know the worst is sweet.

Defeat means nothing but defeat,

No drearier can prevail.

I think it turned out all right, but you can read it here and decide for yourself.

Paris.

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Here I am at the official-looking podium, wearing official-looking flannel.

 

I am lecturing at UIndy about my trip to Europe in 2011!

Not really. But I am reading my poem “Paris” (the 3rd prize winner of the university’s poetry contest).

I wrote this poem about one day that my girlfriend and I were walking around the city. We had visited the catacombs, La Tour Eiffel, the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay during the previous days. The day that inspired this poem was a loosely planned stride around la ville d’amour, including a long walk along the river.

That day we ate at a panini shop off some side street near the Seine. I have no idea where it was exactly. If I went back and tried to find it, I would probably feel like I was in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. At this restaurant, though, Stephanie and I had the best vegetarian food after leaving England a week prior. France is big on food, so long as you eat meat.

So I hope you enjoy this poem as much as I enjoyed that sandwich:

 

striding along the Seine, I have to laugh out,

resist the yell —Vous êtes le plus Français!—

at a man with striped sweater and baguette.

 

snow globe eyes wide, rotate every way—

like boules à neige that tourists are buying,

paying in camera clicks on les Champs-Elysées.

 

the Seine’s banks, maybe in waiting,

once were stones chiseled into statue

who forsook their humble beginning,

 

rose to the Louvre (small move, grand adieu),

after which Paris hired a new shore—

whose sidewalk splendor burns soul and shoe.

 

but a set of gray stairs climbs to a door

like a bear cave—ours brun ou noir ou gris?

we climb up, car il n’y a pas d’ascenseur.

 

dark crags hidden where everyone can see

is this an entrance possibly to the catacombs

where National Geographic says people party?

 

door opens and people emerge from the tomb

rushing-pushed-passed, down the staircase.

door being open, I peer cautious into the room

 

and some sign informs: St. Michel/Notre-Dame.

I reply: Stephanie, it’s another Métro entryway

but not iconographic for photographs, like some

 

in pictures for sale along Monets and Manets

cheap postcards, flags, each 3 euros per pop

outside former train station, Musée d’Orsay.

 

we pick a side-street, some petit panini shop

that offers more food (pour nous végétariens)

better service and cost, Orangina in a tab top.

 

we don’t choose a fancy restaurant, not again,

where waiter stereotypes straight from film

want to yell—Vous êtes le plus Américain!

 

 

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There was some spotlight in the sky that night. Below the Seine is lit up by boats. The people riding in said boats must have been blind, or ended up that way afterwards.

 

 

I opted out of ending the poem with a melodramatic Fin. 

Although I do not have a photo of the situation that the poem describes, I do have a picture of the Seine from the top of La Tour Eiffel. It was freezing up there. But I could have warmed up with a glass of champagne for a mere 30 euros. I was a cheapskate and opted out of that as well. However, the forty couples that got engaged up there sprung for drinks. Hey, if you already spent a fortune on a ring and a trip to Paris and sweated out the stress up to that instant, you probably deserve (and definitely need) a drink. Am I right?

Fin.