@DodgePoetryFest In honor of the Dodge Poetry Festival: My interview with Billy Collins #DPF14

Billy Collins is one of the best selling poets in the country. In 2001, Collins’ skill was recognized big time when he was named U.S. Poet Laureate. Collins and The Dodge Poetry Festival share a common goal: to bring poetry into the lives of more people. To that end, Collins put together two anthologies of poems that he hoped would catch the ears of high school students: “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry” and “180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day.” I talked with Collins about these books and the thrill he gets from writing.

Myers: Is there a poem of yours that seemed to come to you out of left field, that’s different than most of your work?

Collins: I think a lot of them come out of left field in that you never can see them coming. The inspiration for a poem usually takes me by surprise. When you are asked to trace back your thinking and reverse the process, sometimes it’s very hard to say what got a poem started. Other times it’s very clear, like a quotation or a statue you saw.

Myers: Now that you’ve said statue, I am thinking of your book, “The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems.” [The poem is called “Statues in the Park.”]

Collins: It was a specific conversation I had with someone. We were walking in a park… I forget who the statue was, but it was a man on a horse and the person I was with asked me if I knew about what one hoof up or two hoofs up meant. [According to the poem, a statue of a horse rearing up on its hind legs signifies that the man on its back died in battle. If only one leg is raised, the man died elsewhere from his wounds.] I had never heard that. But I recognized right away [that would make material for a poem], because it had to do with death. It had to do with something common, like statues or parks, and it had a kind of code to it that was interesting… I right away leapt on that as having possibilities for a poem. And I think after you’ve been writing for a while, you get better at recognizing what little thought is worth developing and what one is just worth leaving behind.

Myers: How did you get better at recognizing the makings of a good poem?

Collins: I think just practice, trial and error, and spending too much time on poems that weren’t going anywhere, trying to force poems into being. Through that frustration you realize that you can’t completely force a poem into being. It has to sprout or grow on its own. You just nudge it along.

Myers: With poems that are very specifically laid out, do you plan those in advance or is it all just a ride that you don’t expect?

Collins: It’s kind of a combination. I don’t think too far ahead. I certainly don’t determine the tone. I might have a subject matter, say with that “Statues in the Park,” I knew that the subject of the poem was going to be statues in the park. It might have drifted away from that at some point. But I never know where a turn is going to take place. Turns or shifts are very necessary in my poems because the beginnings of my poems are uninteresting. Sometimes I know, here is the subject, statues in the park. But I never know the resolution. And I would say that 90 percent of the thrill of writing is moving toward an unknown destination which you are actually going to create. The poem is kind of a pathway to its ending. It’s the only way to access its own ending, and that progress through the poem to the ending is the most compelling part of writing for me.

Myers: Why are the beginnings of your poems uninteresting?

Collins: I tend to start simply. I don’t want to assume anything on the reader’s part. So, I start with something that everybody knows or a simple declaration, like I am standing here at the window with a cup of tea. You could look at that two ways: I am luring the reader in by giving the reader something easy to identify with, or I’m expressing a kind of etiquette – I don’t want to get ahead of the reader. I want to keep the reader in my company. If you look at the first three or four lines of many of my poems, they are pretty flat and ordinary. The hope is that having started with something simple and common, that gives the poem potential for improvement (laughs) so that it can get a little more challenging and move into more mysterious areas as it goes along.

Myers: Like the eye chart analogy that you used in the introduction to “180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day?” [Collins said that a poem designed to grant easy access to the reader is set up like an eye doctor's chart with the large "E" at the top standing for more easily discernible lines and concepts that get harder to see as the poem progresses to the bottom.]

Collins: That is exactly it. The first few lines are the big “E” at the top of the chart. I want everyone to see the big letter and then we can proceed. Then at some point we will reach, what in the eye chart would be called illegibility. In the poem, it would be called mysteriousness. This is where the poem has moved into where poetry belongs, which is the area of the ineffable.

Myers: Writing a news story, I would be scared that if I started with a “flat” lead (beginning) the reader wouldn’t go further.

Collins: I think that readers of poetry are often delighted to encounter a poem that begins without mystifying them. So many poems challenge the reader in the first few lines. If a poem begins in difficulty, I don’t see how it can change its coloration. I suppose all of my poems have the same pattern—that you begin with something rather flat. But the attempt is to put the reader in a multidimensional area in the end.


We all know why the caged bird sings

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” my recording of iconic poet Maya Angelou reading that famous poem was on a Buckshot LaFonque album. For those who don’t know what that is (and I am betting most) that was Branford Marsalis’ 90s hip-hop experiment. But it was the poem that stood out for me and made the recording special. And it was the first thing I thought of when Angelou died earlier this year.

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.

There was something empowering about the poem. It’s about a little bird that is locked inside a cage, he is bruised and sore. How is identifying with the bird empowering? That was always the sense that I got from the poem, and from hearing Angelou read it.

Mirroring the bird song within the poem, the poem itself is a song, not a happy song, not a loud song, but a song that is aimed upward. And like the birdsong, the poem has an upward drifting through which we can connect.

What is it about the poem that makes me want to look up into the panorama of stars that surrounds us? The caged bird has been through tough times. Its life is marked by a series of trials documented by bruises.

There are billions of people on this overcrowded planet and yet we connect most readily through our loneliness. That is how the poem is able to tug on our heart strings.

We are social animals and while feelings of loneliness and isolation scare us on a deep level, a poem like this simultaneously reminds us that we are not alone. Even while in a cage we make songs because there’s still hope that they will be heard. This is how identifying with the bird in the poem is empowering.


The book I forgot I wrote (a column on self-publishing)

Out of nowhere, my wife handed me a check for $41.82.

“Looks like people are buying your book,” she said.

I should take a step back. Years ago Haiku North America cofounder Michael Dylan Welch invited me to his poetry conference.

A few days before the conference he suggested I put a book of my poems together to have on hand, so I did. That night I made copies at the local FedEx store. This is the book that people have started buying from Amazon.

The book I uploaded to Amazon was a certain kind of book, called a chapbook. These days, only the most dedicated of poetry lovers know what chapbooks are. But initially chapbooks were the books of the common man.

In the Middle Ages. Peddlers went from village to village with these small books made of rag paper. Chapbooks were almanacs, they recorded history, told myths and stories. Even folk songs were preserved in chapbooks.

Because they were small and crudely made the common man could afford them. In an era when paper was expensive, chapbooks were sold for a penny or ha'penny.

"If you want to buy, I'm your chap," the chapmen would yell as they went from door to door.
Now think of the Kindle and self-publishing platforms like Scribd, Blurb and Amazon. Oddball poets who toil in obscurity (including yours truly) can now be spread from computer to computer.

Of course all of this puts small presses in a bad spot and I’d be remiss if I didn’t insert a caveat here about Amazon’s undercutting publishing costs so it could become a ubiquitous giant that sells anything and everything (soon to be delivered by drones).

But when poet extraordinaire Jane Hirshfield wanted to share her thoughts on poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) she turned to Amazon. And it was a hot seller (for a poetry book). So I decided to give it a whirl and I put my book there as well. Then I forgot about it.

Fast forward a few years and we are back to me standing there dumbfounded by a check for $41.82. At a price of $.99 and only getting 35 percent of that, that meant about 120 people recently bought my chapbook, which by the way, is called “Night with Too Many Stars.”

It was an encouraging moment, a moment that has lit a fire under my butt. Once again I am culling new poems out of hundreds of pages of notes.

Imagine if I had done some publicity for it on Facebook, Twitter or on this blog!? 


‘Seeing’ from a different perspective

TV shows, movies, books, newspapers, songs, gossip: We use narratives to make sense of our surroundings, to understand our place in the world and the roles we play to the people in our lives. We also get caught up in our stories. We overlay them onto everyone and everything.

Mark Twain’s "The Mysterious Stranger" is one of my favorite short stories. In it, an angel Twain sarcastically named Satan (this is not THE Satan but his nephew – also named Satan – who  has not fallen from grace) comes to earth and spends time trying to teach the ways of the universe to a boy.

In an effort to give the boy a sense of man's importance from an angel's perspective Satan offers an analogy of a red spider and an elephant.

“Here is a red spider, not so big as a pin’s head. Can you imagine an elephant being interested in him – caring whether he is happy or isn’t, or whether he is wealthy or poor, or whether his sweetheart returns his love or not, or whether his mother is sick or well, or whether he is looked up to in society or not, or whether his enemies will smite him or his friends desert him, or whether his hopes will suffer blight or his political ambitions fail, or whether he shall die in the bosom of his family or neglected and despised in a foreign land? These things can never be important to the elephant; they are nothing to him; he cannot shrink his sympathies to the microscopic size of them. Man is to me as the red spider is to the elephant.”

The stories we tell may help us navigate through life, but sometimes a head full of expectations can get in the way and prevent us from seeing what's actually there. To illustrate this point I offer the following thought experiment. Try to forget about the specifics that grab your attention every day.

Forget about things like your favorite foods or your favorite songs. Instead, focus on broad strokes like movement, sound or texture. How might life be experienced this way? Forgetting about specifics and reorganizing the world through more general senses might offer a peek into the different kinds of experiences that make up the many little universes around us.

Even with all of their creepy eyes, spiders can't see much more than changes in light and changes in motion. Elephants navigate using smell and hearing more than sight, and did you know that they listen with their feet? In recent years researchers have come to believe that elephants use their feet like built-in seismic detectors to decode distant noise and vocalizations.

What if we could forget, or push aside just for a bit, the words and stories that rule our days and house our expectations? What if, instead, we could just feel the waves as we move through the water or experience the heat of the sun on our shoulders without putting it into words for a moment? Would life seem different?


Robin Williams' most beautiful speech (taken from 'Dead Poets Society')

"Taken from 'Dead Poets Society', this speech by Robin Williams perfectly sums up the need for creativity and passion..."  


‘The Way It Is,’ a candid talk with Bruce Hornsby

Many know pianist songwriter Bruce Hornsby for his ‘80s hits "The Way It Is" and "Mandolin Rain." Many may not know that he co-wrote one of Don Henley's biggest hits, "The End of the Innocence."

Hornsby’s career has taken him from rock star to side man (as keyboardist for the Grateful Dead) and from pop to jazz to bluegrass.

He calls his path a natural progression. While there have been mistakes along the way, Hornsby has gotten to live his dream.

His openness and grounded nature made him one of my favorite interviews. The following are highlights from a conversation we had a few years back. 

Gene: You’ve said being a pop artist didn't seem to be a viable way to go for you because few pop artists have longevity.

Bruce: I had to make a choice. Our first record came out and broke in England on BBC Radio 1 with the song "The Way It Is." Then it broke in Holland and then throughout Europe and then throughout the rest of the world and then in the United States and then all of a sudden we sold about 100,000 records just on the old rock radio...We were doing just fine at that point. But all of a sudden this thrust us into this Top 40 world. Then we kept on having hits. Two on that record and two on the next record and another one on the next record. We became sort of typecast as that.

Gene: Did you try to dismantle that typecast or did you ignore it?

Bruce: I didn't react or dismantle it. I just went about my own merry musical way working with artists who wanted to work with me and then calling people up to have them work on my record. I was a musician—not just in the rock world. I started moving into other areas, most notably, of course, the jazz and the country worlds. So, I started making bluegrass records.

Gene: When you were young whom did you look to and say, "I want to do that!"?

Bruce: If you came into my room in high school when I started getting into the piano, which was late, junior year of high school, the posters you would see on my wall would have been Leon Russell, Elton John, The Band, Grateful Dead, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea. Those would've been the people you would've seen in it. So what's so beautiful about it all these years later is, I ended up, as my younger brother said, I ended up sort of painting myself into the mural that I was looking at as a kid. Because all of these people—with the exception of Bill Evans who died in 1980—I ended up either being friends with or working with.

Gene: So how did you wind up working with the Grateful Dead in the 90s?

Bruce: We got a call out of the blue from our booking agent saying, "The Grateful Dead wants you to open for them at two shows in Monterey, California at Laguna Seca Racetrack. May of 1987, if you went to the concert, the Dead show, you heard Ry Cooder, my band and the Dead. That was two days in ‘87, and then the next year they asked us to open some more shows. But then they asked me to sit in with them after we'd open. Then the next year, ‘89, they got us to open some more shows and I'd sit in with them a little more. Then I started sitting in with them when I wasn't opening for them. We just became friends with just a growing relationship.

Gene: Did it feel surreal to you?

Bruce: Well I think it probably did a little bit. I started with them winging it at Madison Square Garden with no rehearsal, just came in off the street and started playing with them. They were buying me out of gigs so I would play with them. Garcia and I were good friends. I think if you saw us play, saw me play with the Dead, you could see that it was a real palpable connection—easily seen between the two of us. It was surreal. I think it was more surreal to the people who had followed our old Grateful Dead cover band, the Octane Kids. It was probably more surreal for them to see me now 16 years later playing in that group at the Garden. I think that was certainly surreal for them.

Gene: Was there something that you learned from that or took away from that experience?

Bruce: I learned so much from them. I learned so much from Garcia. He was a walking encyclopedia of folk music. I learned a lot about that whole area of music that I hadn't been so knowledgeable in. I've always loved their songs. I think they're underrated as songwriters, because I was influenced as a songwriter by their songwriting, also their approach to playing songs, which made it possible for the songs to become new and grow and evolve. Those two elements were the most influential elements on my music.

Gene: All these different roles that you've had, whether it be in a jam band or as a songwriter or as a solo artist—is there one role that you feel more comfortable in than another?

Bruce: Comfortable, no. They are such different pursuits. Songwriting is the most difficult—to try to write a song just out of the air that you think really resonates and really moves people, that's really hard. Also, the recording process, I've never been good at it. I don't consider myself to be a good record maker. I try hard, but it's always been difficult for me. So I think probably the area that comes most naturally for me is playing live. I think that's what I consider myself to be the best at.

Gene: If you could go back and give yourself advice at any point in your career what would you tell yourself?

Bruce: Oh, I have lots of regrets, lots of records that I've made that I think could have been better. It's hard to have a perspective on your music when you're writing, in the middle of it. I guess I would tell myself to try to work harder at having that perspective. I've always been a pretty tough self critic and I think that's the way to go, frankly.


Millard Fillmore's noodle roller

One day you were feeling that life wasn't good enough and then the music swelled and the tour bus doors opened. A nondescript house sat behind its historic sign and that sign added a little gold to the bleak surroundings. You step out further, the music continues to swell.

The black-and-white photos dusted and the microphone plugged in, the voiceover begins to paint in broad strokes. Luckily, whenever people are doing things others want to be measuring and keeping track. This is Millard Fillmore's teacup. It was touched 411 times by Millard Fillmore's lips. This is Millard Fillmore's noodle roller. This is the table that he built, this is the DNA we got from his teacup.

“This is the floor he built for his Abby,” says his volunteer tour guide 140 years beyond Millard Fillmore’s time. She isn’t the only one in town to jump on the Millard Fillmore bandwagon.  There’s the Millard Fillmore Festival and the graveyard tours that end at the gravestone that bears his name.

This is where students snicker at his silly name and where they snicker at the professor with BO fruitlessly trying to make a point. The sound of our names is how we all live on. Then there are the daily things, the things that we think are silly. We never try to attach ourselves to them until someone points to someone else living modestly.

A maple sap trough, the gun below the mantel, they encourage you to try and conjure the sound of a sack of potatoes hitting the floor. And yes, there is an end. He was a loving husband, good with his hands. Still, there is a lowering of expectations, like the postage stamp designed in Millard Fillmore’s likeness that few really cared about.

Years later the whole town turns out for the Millard Fillmore birthday bash. They take their pictures smiling and waving next to his cardboard cutout. They say his silly name a lot and wear silly wigs. Pride swells to somewhere below the Buffalo wings while you’re grabbing for the milk.

“Aren’t you glad you stepped off the bus?” one of them says.

Sensing the gravitational potential they have wheeled out anything not too elegant. Each cold winter will be superimposed on the homestead. But the only pauses that will be injected will be those of future commentators. This is how we make American life.

It’s not true that we only use 3 percent of our brains. Now is a time filled with the urge to get away. The stream will be in front of you when you step back on the bus wondering who the gravedigger is having lunch with.