A Longtime Friend

The UA Poetry Center celebrates 50 years with help from former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins

On Nov. 17, 1960, Robert Frost, then America's most beloved living poet, stood on the stage at the UA's Centennial Hall and read his poems.

This Sunday, Nov. 7—almost 50 years later to the day—poet Billy Collins will repeat that Frost feat.

At an event called "An Afternoon With Billy Collins and Friends: A Benefit for the Poetry Center," the New York City poet will read "his favorite poems—probably the poems that influenced him—and will read some of his own works," says Gail Browne, director of the UA Poetry Center.

Frost, of course, has long since made it into poetry anthologies, schoolbooks and the American consciousness, beloved for deceptively simple poems of New England, such as "The Road Not Taken."

Collins is not at Frost's level of fame, but he's one of the best-known contemporary American poets. The U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, he has appeared regularly on radio's A Prairie Home Companion and has released CDs of his spoken poetry. TV interviewer Charlie Rose, among others, has called Collins the "most popular American poet since Robert Frost."

That's one reason the Poetry Center tapped Collins to headline its 50th anniversary celebration. Frost's long-ago reading marked the birth of the Poetry Center, and Browne thought that having Collins celebrate the center's golden anniversary would make an elegant symmetry.

"Frost was well-known, as Billy is," Browne says. "And Billy has been a longtime friend of the Poetry Center."

The author of some eight volumes of poetry, Collins has read twice in the center's reading series. On his third visit to the UA, for the 2009 Tucson Festival of Books, "700 people came to listen to him in the Student Union ballroom. He was wonderful."

Collins will be the "centerpiece" of Sunday's event, but four others will also introduce their favorite poems. New York poet Howard Altmann (In This House) is on the program, and so are two Arizona Daily Star staffers, cartoonist/columnist David Fitzsimmons and columnist/editor Ernesto Portillo Jr.

Also host of KXCI FM 91.3's Latin music program Onda Suave, Portillo will read a recent winning corrido from the Poetry Center's annual contest. Tucson's Jennifer Lee Carrell, a Shakespearean scholar turned author of literary thrillers (Interred With Their Bones), will also take a turn at the microphone.

The event will also include a short film detailing the history of the Poetry Center. Endowed by Ruth Walgreen Stephan back in 1960, the center's original home was a small cottage; today, it occupies a state-of-the-art modernist building. In these tough economic times, it needs to raise money to keep its free programming in place.

"All arts organizations are having a struggle," Browne notes, but she's hopeful Tucsonans will help the center out. "For 50 years, the Poetry Center has presented Tucson with such rich opportunities."

The benefit program will last an hour and a half, and Collins gets the last half-hour. Onstage, "He's an engaging, funny guy," says Ellen Foos, a poet and publisher. "He has Irish charm."

His work is routinely called accessible, a trait that wins him both praise and criticism.

"I keep running into people who like poetry because of Billy Collins," says Tucson poet Charles Alexander, publisher of Chax Press. "He has hit some commonality in the American mind. But I prefer poets who are more difficult and demanding of our intelligence."

Browne concurs that Collins' work "is easy to apprehend. It's also true that it's deeper and more resonant than people see on first reading."

Foos' Ragged Sky Press anthologized Collins' poem "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" in the 2009 volume Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems.

The poem begins with a sensuous description of clothes dropping to the floor: "First her tippet made of tulle, / easily lifted off her shoulders ... ./ And her bonnet / the bow undone with a light forward pull. / Then the long white dress ..."

"Our collection is weighted toward women," Foos notes, and Collins was one of a handful of male poets who made it in. "The things he writes about are often home and family."

One of his most-often-quoted poems, she says, is "The Lanyard," a 2005 poem about a necklace he wove for his mother as a child. As an adult, he recalls the gift in anguish. It reads in part:

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,

and I gave her a lanyard ...

Here are thousands of meals, she said

and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied ...

Another thing Collins' mother, Katherine, gave him was poetry. In a 2008 interview with the student newspaper at the City University of New York's Lehman College, where he teaches English, he recounted, "My mother had memorized hundreds of lines of poetry when she was a schoolgirl in rural Canada, so as a child, I would hear poetry in the house. It seemed like it was a part of everyday experience, and not something exotic."

The influence of his father, William, was more academic. He used to bring home Poetry magazine, and young Billy loved reading its contemporary poets, "especially compared to the diet of poetry that was being fed to me in the classroom—mostly written by dead white males with beards and three names."

Collins often takes on some of those dead poets in his work, saying he dislikes poetry that's difficult for the sake of being difficult.

"More often than not in poetry, I find difficulty to be gratuitous and show-offy and camouflaging, experimental to a kind of insane degree," he told an interviewer for Guernica magazine in 2006.

He occasionally spoofs some of the poetic eminences who came before him: In his 2008 book Ballistics, he ribs Robert Frost. But he also acknowledges his debt to his predecessors.

His poems typically start "with something simple and mov(e) into something more demanding," following a timeworn poetry structure. "The Lanyard," for instance, begins with a craft project and ends with overwhelming emotion over the enormity of a late mother's love.

Likewise, in "The Road Not Taken" by Frost, "We start by coming across a divided road in the woods," Collins told Guernica, "and we're talking a couple of lines later about decision-making and the road of life and the rest of it—I think I'm just following what is a common pattern of lyric poetry ... you start kind of soft, and you go out bigger."