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Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins wants poetry to be accessible to the masses

Billy Collins sighed as possible answers positioned in his mind.

The former U.S. poet laureate was taking a break from reading and teaching at the Key West Literary Seminar. After three days in Florida, he felt like a lectore from the area's old cigar factory days. "It's been crazy down here," he said. "A lot of readings, a lot of people interested in poetry and writing. ... Oh yes, Tucson. Any city that has a main boulevard named Speedway is a place I want to be."

With typical wit, the 64-year-old, New York-based poet and professor kicked into gear. Talking about poetry with Collins is like discussing babies with a mother of 10: He takes an inaccessible or unappealing subject for those who don't practice it and makes you eager to take the plunge. His books, appearances on National Public Radio's Fresh Air and Prairie Home Companion, and school-based initiatives like Poetry 180 have made him a beloved wordsmith. After all, how many poets have sold out 2,700-seat halls?

"I think of the pleasure I get out of writing a poem, and how it moves me into some unknown territory," he said. "I like to think it offers a parallel pleasure for the reader to go along on the journey, then be in for a surprise at the ending."

Collins is the major keynoter for Wrangling With Writing, sponsored by the Society of Southwestern Authors. The keynote will culminate two days of workshops and presentations by more than 30 authors, journalists, agents and editors. Now in its 33rd year, Wrangling With Writing is considered one of the top values among writing conferences in the nation.

Collins' poetry matches his personality: Quick-witted, deep yet simple, able to connect two unrelated subjects with ease. He writes about middle-class, everyday items: touring an art museum, houseplants, nursery rhyme characters, the first dream, a fascination with Emily Dickinson, music. With virtually every poem, a reader can say, "That's me. That's what I do." Then he roars around the bend with one delicious, surprise ending after another.

When younger, Collins believed that poetry was about being mystical: the harder to understand, the better the poet. Then he realized he was one answer to the genre's most painful question: Why do less than one half of 1 percent of all Americans read or write poetry? "I wrote really obscure, mystifying poetry, but I really didn't know what I was doing," he said. "Just by changing influences, it got me to a more direct style. I also learned how to use wit and humor. Humor is entertaining, so once I had the skill to bring my sense of humor into poetry, it opened up a whole new understanding for me.

"Younger poets are essentially hiding inside their poetry, concealing more than revealing. During the maturation process, you become more revealed, not hiding so much; now you're using the poems to convey yourself."

When Collins' poetry delved into everyday life, he found his readers. What followed was a 30-year stream of award-winning books, including Sailing Alone Around the Room; Nine Horses; The Trouble With Poetry; Picnic, Lightning; The Art of Drowning; and The Best Cigarette (an audiobook).

Perhaps his biggest achievement is aiding notoriously oblivious high school students. When Collins was named U.S. poet laureate in 2001, "It gave me an opportunity to launch national initiatives. I wanted to do more than blow smoke rings in the office I had in Washington D.C.," he chuckled. Thus, he launched the Poetry 180 initiative. "I wanted to make poetry a part of everyday life for high school students, and I wanted to bring them up to date with poems written in the last 10 years, so they could learn what poetry looks and sounds like right now, today."

In 2003, Collins edited and Random House published the Poetry 180 anthology. An associated Web site keeps teachers, students and parents regularly updated. "When I went to high school, most of the poets I was exposed to were dead, white, male, bearded and had three names," Collins said. "I was lucky to get hold of Poetry magazine, where I saw the works of very contemporary poets who spoke to me and kept me up to date. I want to make it easier than that for kids."

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