A chat with the well-versed Billy Collins

The former National Poet Laureate checks in before headlining the Jaeb Theater on Wednesday evening.

click to enlarge A chat with the well-versed Billy Collins - Suzannah Gillman
Suzannah Gillman
A chat with the well-versed Billy Collins

He has made it his life's work to disarm the anti-poetry "deflector shields" that most people acquire in high school, has had his poems featured on Delta Airlines' in-flight listening selection and has cited Bugs Bunny as his muse.

The congenial, funny and accessible two-time poet laureate is coming to the Straz Center's Jaeb Theater this Wednesday to promote his new book of poetry, Aimless Love, which combines more than 50 new poems with selections from four previous books: Nine Horses, The Trouble with Poetry, Ballistics and Horoscopes for the Dead.

CL caught up with the disarming poet for an e-mail Q&A that further validates Collins' un-stuffy approach to poetry.

CL: What is the strangest event you’ve headlined?

Collins: Well, they're all a little strange if things are going right, but I would have to place high on the list a reading I gave in San Francisco to a convention of heart attack specialists, about 900 of them, mostly cardiologists whose focus was on the attack itself. The heart does play a role in poetry, I pointed out, and went from there. In my poem "Aimless Love," I describe my heart as being always up on its tripod in a field, ready for the next arrow. Not that any doctor would recommend that.

Live poetry in Tampa Bay often comes to us in two ways: a spoken word/open mic night or poetry reading. A host of a local open mic complained to me once that people in the academic poetry enclaves won’t come to her event, which features spoken word artists. When I brought this up to a professor friend, I was told that the lack of interest had more to do with spoken word being a separate genre unto its own — it was “a different scene.” I agree that the tone and tenor of an open mic night is different from a poetry reading, but do you think there might be away to get the best of both — to bridge gaps when communities around poetry become segregated?

I agree with your "professor friend" (a nice oxymoron there). Spoken word and more traditional poetry (unspoken word?) are radically separate verbal activities — different in tone, intention, audience etc. — that come under the broad heading of "Poetry." In fact, if you consider all the voices huddled under the word poetry, the word becomes virtually meaningless. How about Ogden Nash and Tupac? Longfellow and Ashbery? Strange bedfellows indeed! Trying to bridge the two kinds of "poetry" would be like trying to bridge badminton and ice hockey because they are both "Sports."

I recently became acquainted with the Wayne White (prolific puppeteer and artist who has worked on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and a famous Smashing Pumpkins video). He’s the subject of the 2012 documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing. I mention him because he says that humor is undervalued in art, and I realized that he delights in life’s odd convergences in the same playful spirit that you do. Does the same go for poetry?

PeeWee's Playhouse? Now there's poetry I can relate to. Humor does appeal to the submerged child in us, and we laugh out of the relief from our largely put-on seriousness, the social need for us to go around acting like adults, when in fact we know we are actually very silly. And there is something authentic about humor. Anyone can pretend to be serious. That's more or less what I'm doing right now as I answer your question. If you have ever had a job or sat in a classroom, you know how easy it is to pretend to be serious. But you cannot just pretend to be funny. You're either funny or you’re not. The English Romantic poets drove humor (and sex) out of poetry, and it took a long time for it to recover its rightful place. But it's back with a vengeance now.

Your poetry is very accessible online. Do you grant permission for sites to publish your poems? If so, have you noticed if making your verse more accessible online has offered desired outcomes?

I believe in giving things away. Bread upon the water. If you hold tightly onto anything you will kill it. What kills me is people who write to Washington to have their poems copyrighted. A sure sign that nobody has the slightest interest in stealing their work. And even if I wanted to protect my poems from distribution beyond my control, how would I do that? Doesn't pretty much everything end up on the Internet about 2 minutes after it has happened thanks to Facebook and company?

You’re very fortunate to have been raised by a mom who brought verse into your life at a young age. How profound was her influence on you?

Profound as profound can be. The first lines of poetry I ever heard came from her lips, poems she had memorized as a schoolgirl in rural Ontario.

I'm sure being on The Colbert Report show was one of your most amusing appearances. Who was the most memorable celeb you’ve worked/headlined/guested with?

Paul Simon and I have now appeared on stage together four times. I basically interview him, but our discussion draws wide circles around the subjects of poetry and song lyrics. He illustrates some of his points on an acoustic guitar. At one of his concerts, he even let me come on stage and sing "Mystery Train." Between choruses I was thinking, "So this is why I started writing poems in high school!"

Here's Collins' recent appearance on The Colbert Report:

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