Former Poet Laureate Bill Collins to discuss himself at MSUM

As an American poet, you can't get much bigger than Billy Collins.

Poet Billy Collins
Poet Billy Collins says he will never again read or reprint his poem "The Names," which was written in memory of the victims of Sept. 11. Collins will read some of his other poems Thursday night at Minnesota State University Moorhead. McClatchy Newspapers

As an American poet, you can't get much bigger than Billy Collins. The former poet laureate of the United States from 2001-03 has won countless awards and honors, read a poem before a special joint session of Congress and became a minor celebrity among public radio listeners via appearances on "A Prairie Home Companion."

But one of the highlights of his career?

"I can almost die a happy man knowing I put a picture of Daffy Duck on the cover of the Wall Street Journal," he said, referring to an article he wrote on the imaginative freedom in poetry and cartoons.

Collins is this year's guest for Minnesota State University Moorhead's Tom McGrath Visiting Writers Series. He'll read from and discuss his work Thursday night at the Gaede Stage in the Roland Dille Center for the Arts.

"Billy Collins lecturing on his favorite topic: Billy Collins," he jokes when asked what he'll talk about. "I'm like an overly chatty disc jockey who talks too much between the records."


Comparing Looney Tunes to literature and himself to a self-absorbed DJ, as well as his straight-forward tone, has earned Collins the descriptive term "accessible." It's not a characterization he's crazy about.

"You're attributing motive or intention to me that I've never really had. I never sat down and said, 'I'm going to write an accessible poem,' " he says. "I was just trying to write good poetry, and for me, there's that connection that I like to be understood."

The 69-year-old writer didn't publish his first collection until he was in his 40s, after two decades of working on his style.

"Referring to poetry as 'accessible' reminds us how much inaccessible poetry there is. Or, to put it in a better way, how deeply people associate poetry with inaccessibility," he says.

"I don't think that's necessarily a negative word," MSUM professor and poet Thom Tammaro says of Collins and the "accessible" label. "His poems sneak up on you."

Part of that sneakiness is how Collins uses humor in his work, "a strategy," he says, to either engage the reader or make fun of the seriousness of poetry. Case in point, his collection "The Trouble with Poetry."

"I thought there was no place for humor in poetry. I thought that to be humorous in poetry that you were silly and abandoned the high seriousness that poetry offered you," he says. "When I realized you could be humorous without being trivial, that was a big door that opened for me."

An even bigger door opened when Garrison Keillor selected Collins' poems to be read on the daily public radio short program "Writer's Almanac."


That led to the poet appearing on Keillor's weekly radio show "A Prairie Home Companion."

Collins says Keillor's support of poets and their works is key in a medium fit for the spoken word.

"He provides poets with an audience of not 20 people sitting in a library somewhere listening to a poet but millions of (listeners)," Collins says. "It can be a career-changing event."

Just as Keillor's endorsement aided Collins, the poet paid it forward as poet laureate, starting Poetry 180. The program selects one poem every school day for high school students.

"He's opened the doors a little wider

for audiences," Tammaro says. "He's attracting a different audience for poetry who may not have an academic connection, not just writers and teachers."

Tammaro, who booked Collins' MSUM appearance, knows that the Gaede may fill up for Collins' free reading and talk as the theater holds about 340 people. Four years ago, about 450 people showed up when Ted Kooser, poet laureate from 2004-06, read next door in the Hansen Auditorium. Tammaro says there will be a video feed outside the theater broadcasting Thursday's reading. Collins will also sign books after the reading.

While Collins will be happy to sign books, he isn't ready to sign off on e-readers like the Kindle. He was surprised to see the stanzas in his poems broken in order to fit on the Kindle's screen. When the lines were shrunk to fit as written, they were too tiny to read.


"Poetry has a sculptural integrity, a look to it," he says, noting that the way words are laid out affects how they read.

One poem he won't read on Thursday, or any time again, is "The Names." That poem was written for a special joint session of Congress to commemorate the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Collins says he will not read the poem again or publish it in his books, though it is available online and in other anthologies.

"To bring it into a regular reading is close to emotional manipulation," he says, adding that topics like Sept. 11 or the Holocaust are dangerous. "Instead of creating an emotion, which good poems should do, they're just stirring up an emotion that already exists.

"I wanted to honor the occasion, and not make it part of my act."

If you go

  • What: Billy Collins poetry reading and book signing
  • When: 8 p.m. Thursday
  • Where: Gaede Stage, Roland Dille Center for the Arts, Minnesota State University Moorhead
  • Info: Both the reading and booking signing are free.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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