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A Permission Slip to Be Funny in Poems

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If you’re put off by poetry readings, don’t be -- at least for this one. This weekend, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library brings a perfectly engaging ambassador to the world of public verse, Billy Collins, to town for VonnegutFest 2014. Collins is conversational, warm and very funny. Think Bob Newhart: largely unsmiling and serious looking, but popping off dry, quirky one-liners and self-deprecating comments with a general underlying aura of competence and good humor.

Collins served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003. He’s appeared on The Colbert Report and Prairie Home Companion (billed as the Pied Piper of Poetry) and done two TED Talks. His work has been published widely -- from Poetry Magazine to Smithsonian Magazine. He’s also published 15 books, most recently a children’s book called Voyage, with illustrations by Karen Romagna.

Sky Blue Window: Was Voyage conceived as a kids’ book or did someone read it and say “This would make a good kids’ book?”

Billy Collins: The short answer would be #2. I wrote that poem around the time when I was poet laureate, for John Coles, the head of the Center for the Book, which is a national program for reading. They were having a celebration for him at the Library of Congress, and I was asked if I could write a little poem about reading for him, and that’s the poem I wrote. It’s more of an illustrated poem than a children’s book. I like the fact that [the character’s] alone. He’s a very capable boy, he’s very confident. He goes sailing by himself, and he gets absorbed into the story. It’s really about privacy, the solitude of children; how solitude activates the imagination. I didn’t think of all this when I wrote it, of course.

Billy Collins will be at the Clowes Auditorium at Central Library from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 8. - FOLGER
  • Folger
  • Billy Collins will be at the Clowes Auditorium at Central Library from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 8.

SBW: I’ve seen you speak about your persona a lot -- this idea that the speaker in your poems isn’t exactly you and is a sort of literary device. So does your persona know that he’s a poet?

BC: Oh yeah, he knows that he’s a poet. He doesn’t know much else. He’s shorn of any kind of autobiographical past. He never talks about his past. You know that he had parents, that’s basically it. Part of his life seems to have been erased at some point, and so he’s a figure of the present moment. In most of the poems, he is there thinking about something, noticing something out the window and then following a chain of speculation.

The persona is a refinement of me. He has a highly delicate sensibility. Unlike me, he wouldn’t tell a crude joke or drink too much. He doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t seem to have any social responsibilities. He’s really a literary figure -- an extension of a figure you find in English Romantic poetry and that figure is often in Wordsworth. He wanders through the countryside, he stops and looks at a cloud, he’ll sit on a wayside bench and fall into a reverie.

SBW: You’re coming here for VonnegutFest. Do you have any connection with Kurt Vonnegut?

BC: Well, I knew Kurt Vonnegut, somewhat. I’ve been to his house for dinner, I knew his widow quite well, Jill Krementz, who photographed me. He and I would run into each other at literary occasions. I wouldn’t say we were friends, but I was an avid reader. Cat’s Cradle is one of those novels a little like Trout Fishing in America or Catch 22 -- novels that you realized you’d never read anything like that before, you know. In terms of the genre of the novel, he was a groundbreaker.

SBW: You’ve mentioned that people have what you call an “anti-poetry deflector shield.” You make poetry fun. Is that something you do consciously?

BC: I follow a certain kind of literary courtesy toward the reader. The poems are very easy to step into, and I think I express an awareness that there is a reader there. And there’s obviously humor in a lot of the poems. I think they’re reader-friendly, but at the same time, I don’t feel like I’m talking down to a reader, I feel like if you look at the endings of the poems, they get into some pretty weird spots, I go down some pretty crazy rabbit holes, in terms of moving into imaginary areas or areas of speculation where the reader at the end of the poem doesn’t quite know where we are.

So I think my poems have a kind of ride from the familiar to something more wiggy and challenging.

SBW: You bring up Philip Larkin a lot, who, in his conversational tone, I recognize a parallel with you, but other than that, I can’t imagine anyone more different. How does he influence you?

BC: The connections are certainly the conversational tone and, for me, also the humor. His humor is much darker and more sardonic, but at the same time, I relate to that gloominess and negativity. Certainly, the color of my poems is a little more pastel than his grays and blacks. His persona is a sour guy, but he’s also an isolated cat, like my guy. He’s very much by himself and cut off from a lot of things. When you’re influenced by someone as I was by Larkin, it’s not that I want to become another Phillip Larkin, it’s just that I learned from him how to be funny without being stupid. I took from him the conversational tone that you mentioned and a kind of permission slip to be funny in poems.


Billy Collins will be at the Clowes Auditorium at Central Library from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 8. Tickets are free, but you do need to reserve them, which you can do online. Find out more about the VonnegutFest lineup at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library website.

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