Billy Collins, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, read and discussed his craft at the finale of the Sanibel Public Library's Author Series.
Every year the library invites a number of famous authors to the island to share their work and answer questions from fans, including this season's guests: Jeopardy contestant Ken Jennings, mystery novelist Alexander McCall Smith, and New York Times-bestselling thriller writer Brad Meltzer.
Collins read many of his fan favorites on March 3, "The Lanyard," "Forgetfulness," and "Cheerios" for instance, pausing between performances to share backstory or a funny anecdote. The audience laughed often and many who came to hear him read were surprised at the humor he exuded.
Poet Billy Collins signs books for fans on Sanibel Island. MCKENZIE CASSIDY.
Although a resident of Somers, N.Y., where he has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, Lehman College, and the City University of New York, Collins recently purchased a home in Winter Park, Fla., and now makes more appearances in the Sunshine State.
He is one of the most popular poets out today because his work is accessible to all different kinds of people. Since publishing his first book in 1977, he has written 10 poetry collections as well as editing a book of contemporary poetry for high school students called Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry.
He said that young children are like unfettered surrealists who passionately enjoy poetry, yet something changes in them when they write poetry as an adolescent.
"Something happens, not only is it all dark, but it has the dead weight of serious feeling in it. They go into this tunnel of adolescence," he said.
Getting adolescents to be excited about poetry is challenging, especially in today's world of video games and the Internet. Teachers should present poetry chronologically backwards, he said, because once you get them hooked on contemporary work, it's easier to bring them into the past.
Fans at the library asked him about his own creative process and how he came up with material, but he wasn't able to give them any answer beyond "it's sort of like making it up."
"It would be like saying 'What's it like to drive a car? What are you thinking about?' You are thinking about a lot of stuff, and also you have learned to do things you aren't thinking of," he said.
His poetry is known for taking the reader from an established reality to a place deep in the imagination, and that is typically accomplished by starting with an everyday item or image.
"It starts with something very ordinary or trivial, or is apparently trivial, but then you develop an interest in it and it becomes an exploration," he said. "It is asserting a kind of curiosity about things that normal people wouldn't think of."
"So if I write a really satisfying poem, and I finish the poem, I have a feeling that the attendant is going to come in at any moment and take me for my afternoon walk on the grounds of this very exclusive sanatorium somewhere in Connecticut."
Collins wasn't able to explain his own subconscious generation of ideas, but he did share that he writes all of his poems in one sitting, wanting to know where it's headed. As a result, finishing a poem may take a few minutes or hours, but he never leaves the poem to do something else in the meantime.
"When you are a poet, all poems are about one thing: how do you get the hell out of here and how do you stop writing it?" he said. "How do I get to a point where I don't want to say anymore and you don't want to hear anymore?"
It took him many years to perfect his own craft by imitating the work of poets who came before him. He said writers are basically just readers who have been moved to emulation.
"The only way you make progress in the creative life is through imitation. Basically, imitation is jealousy. If you want to play the saxophone, you have to be jealous of people who can really play the saxophone," he said.
Besides serving as the U.S. Poet Laureate, Collins was also the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. He earned the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. The New York Public Library also chose him to serve as a "Literary Lion" in 1992.
Elita Barfield, a 21-year-old aspiring poet at Florida Gulf Coast University, said Collins was inspiring.
"I find it inspiring that he can use everyday language and be such a great poet," she said.
She grew up on the island and attended the Sanibel Island Writer's Conference for the first time last year. As one of the younger fans at the reading, she asked Collins to sign a book and his gracious response was to thank her for "bringing down the average age."
Kris Ritts, another Sanibel Island resident, had Collins sign five books. She said some of them were gifts, but she wasn't quite sure yet. When she came to the reading she expected something different.
"I expected the Poet Laureate of the United States, but to find him so personable, humorous, and enthralling was surprising," she said. "What he is conveying is resonances of daily life, some heavy but most are a cherishing of the moment."
For more information about events at the Sanibel Public Library, visit sanlib.org.