I first met Billy Collins in Charleston in the '90s when I was invited to have dinner ahead with some Poetry Society friends who had planned the reading: Denny Stiles, Susan Meyers, and Linda Ferguson. My good buddy from Savannah, Carolyn Watson, rode over to Charleston with me. That whole evening was such a memorable occasion, for one hysterical incident occurred. Billy was going to read the next day in Montgomery, AL. My son, Stephen, had a best friend, Trip, who was teaching high school history in Montgomery, so I thought it would be wonderful if Trip had a heads up about his visit, and hoped that perhaps Stephen might drive down from Tuscaloosa as well.
Well, I carefully wrote Trip's name down on the back of my card and Billy tucked it into his inside coat pocket. Trouble was, I thought Trip taught at Montgomery Academy where Billy was speaking when indeed he was teaching at St. James. This was pointed out to me (did I hear I note of "Oh , no, mother, you've done it again) in no uncertain terms by Stephen when I called him on the way home to suggest that he might need to drive down to hear Billy as well.
Now, at the time Amazon had a deal going online with a millenium poem. Reminiscent of the pen pal poems where each poet contributes an alternate line, or going even farther back in time, of the Japanese renga which was composed of any number poets alternately. Well-known and well-published poets were being asked to be a part of this group of poets. Billy had just been asked, so when I got home, I immediately went to Amazon to see what this millenium poem looked like.
I'm sorry I can't drag up from my files a hard copy of that poem. Recently I assembled a group of poems which might be occasional verse rather than poetry. The working title is CHALK TALK AND HEN SCRATCH, since it is all about poets and teachers I've encountered. For this project I did dredge up the poem (using the term loosely) I wrote and sent to Billy Collins, regarding the blunder I had made about his seeing Trip in Montgomery.
Close, But No Cigar: What I Would Write If I Were A Billy Collins
I would not write of calendars
or snow or foul winds that blow
away hats and people, not sonnets or haikus
or villaparadelles but this disease I have,
congenital, foot-in-mouth, faux pas’s, very plural—
those I would write over, make funny if I could.
I would have eaten my first short story, its green
pastoral setting as bland as the shepherd’s promises,
instead of sending it out to the New Yorker.
I probably could laugh about that blind date;
I would not say to Jane Smith that he kissed
like a cow at the drive-in. I would check
for a recorder under the seat, all around,
everywhere; I would strain harder to think
of something more glib to say to William Styron
than his quote about the wings of madness.
I could laugh about jotting down a name
for Collins, so sure of myself,
about where Trip taught school, so smug
that I, myself might have been mistaken as the visiting
poet that day rubbing elbows at Zebo’s, secure
that mine was the tangiest balsamic vinaigrette,
one my lesser could only hope to taste.
I might double over
at what Collins must have thought
when he fingered inside the left pocket of his jacket,
you know the one, for my card, proclaiming who I am,
to hear him read from its back, in my eloquent hand,
Trip Franklin at Montgomery Academy,
whom the headmaster had never heard of
but one whom the librarian guessed might teach
at their near-unspeakable rival, Trinity Presbyterian.
(I try to placate myself. Trip was in the same town.)
Given the chance,
I’d rather run, hellbent like some hyena,
relentless bloodhound, streaking
through a pasture of cow piles,
fresh ones, then scrape my soles
onto my pristine carpet, grinding the smell
into its weft and woof—
that to admit—
like stepping on hot coals,
that I have once again tripped,
red-faced, about this Trip
and his whereabouts.
Will it matter at all, though, I muse—
by the time the new millennium poem is finished?
I wish a word were dead when it is said
and what it might purport, for such an epic
as life hardly merits a footnote about fools,
and I wish I were going west in a box
with Joe Priskulnick who probably killed himself
(before Eavan Boland could in the poem)
deeming stupidity of such magnitude,
like mine, truly terminal.
My next encounter with this poetry phenomenon was in Louisville, KY, in the early years of the new millenium. Billy was reading at Bellarmine College and many of us studying for the MFA in Writing at Spalding University went to hear him. I brought a couple of my books for him to sign that I hadn't had earlier. By now he had become Poet Laureate, (2001-03)and all things were different. Instead of the smallish intimate group of listeners in Charleston, I was one among hundreds standing in line to get his signature, and as much as I wanted to remind him of that fun evening in Charleston, his eyes were truly glazed over a bit at the emormity of the crowds facing him, each, like me, hoping for a little personal word, a little spark of the magic, a bonding to a kindred soul. I surmised that by the end of that evening, he would have no recollection of any face he saw there unless he truly is the genius we all think he is.
Billy will be here on February 19. As late as last Thursday, December 3, I used a power point presentation for a group at LAMP high school during a poetry workshop which included his poem "Introduction to Poetry." It turned out that the teacher, Leah Stoudenmier, loved this particular poem. I find that students, too, love the metaphor of tying a poem to chair and beating the meaning out of it. Next to that one I posted "Turtle" by Kay Ryan, our current Poet Laureate of the U.S. She was well known in the low country area before our recent fame, and Billy Collins chose this poem of hers as one of his daily poems for schools.
Who would be a turtle who could help it? asks the poet, Kay Ryan.
I say, who would be a poet who could help it?
Billy will be reading at Hoover Public Library on February 19. I'll be on the front row--or very close. That way I can watch his feet as he reads--for he does have that unique little dance as he performs!
By the way one of my brand new friends, River Jordan, with whom I sat on a panel at the Dahlonega Writers' Festival will be participating on Saturday, February 20, at the same author conference!! River lives just up the road in Nashville.