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Welcoming Billy Collins


by Barry Spacks

 “The Beats blew out of the water all those ‘school’ poets like William Cullen Bryant and John Greenleaf  Whittier. Before the Beats, I thought I would never be  a poet because I didn’t have a strange middle name.”

 — Billy Collins

A plenitude of poets and poetic happenings come to town in the weeks ahead. The Santa Barbara Poetry Series at the Contemporary Arts Forum opens its 2007 season on Saturday, January 27 from 7 to 9 p.m., with readings by much-admired California poets Mary Brown and Ellen A. Kelley, both of whom are experts at bringing to light contemplations of everyday life for the inspiration of reader and listener. Next, I’m looking forward to Pulitzer Prize-winner Mary Oliver’s UCSB appearance in April as a highlight of National Poetry Month. In preparation for her visit, Santa Barbara City College has set up an event — on Friday, February 9 at 7 p.m., in SBCC’s Atkinson Art Gallery — that is designed for all ages, with teachers and students especially encouraged to attend, and centers on an opportunity for the audience to compose impromptu poems in an Oliver theme.

Two days later, on Sunday, February 11 at 4 p.m., UCSB’s Campbell Hall welcomes the ever-engaging Billy Collins. On Monday, February 26 at 10 a.m., in UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, famed poet/ editor/translator Clayton Eshleman presents a program about César Vallejo, the Peruvian poet whose works Eshleman has spent 30 years translating; Eshleman’s work on this subject will be published by the University of California Press.

Looking toward his February visit, I checked in with Billy Collins, former U.S. poet laureate and top-selling practitioner of the art. I chatted with him about his writing life since his most recent collection, The Trouble with Poetry. That trouble, by the way, the characteristically wry title poem informs us, is that “it encourages the writing of more poetry.”

What’s new these days with your writing? Nothing, really. I am just hoping to be able to keep coming up with notions around which poems can wrap themselves. I can’t proceed unless there is some kind of conceit involved.

Here’s a classic question: What about revision? Do you do a little? A lot? I find I do less and less. “Yes, and it shows!” I can hear a guy shouting from the back. I tend to write poems in one sitting, moving from beginning to middle to end so the conceptual “run” of the poem unfolds naturally. Point-to-point navigation. The second and third looks tend to focus on matters of lineation, rhythm, and sound.

Are you interested in the “Po-wars” as they focus these days on so-called availability versus word-salad? It’s sad that this seems to be poetry’s only “issue.” It bores me terrifically. Some readers like looking at mud, but the majority prefer clear water. I am interested as a writer and reader in “transitive poetry,” wherein the subject is the writer, the verb the poem, and the object the reader. The transference of energy or action thus resembles that of the sentence in English, and so far no one has come up with a better unit of communication.

In your view, how does poetry function in a postmodern world? Poetry seems to provide, more than ever, an alternative to the din of public language (advertising, politics, etc.) and a more admirable set of values than we find in consumer-mad society. I read recently about a poetry competition held in Barcelona every year. The third-place poet receives a silver rose, the second-place winner receives a golden rose, and the first-place poet — for having written the very best poem — receives a real rose. So take that, all you fans of bling.

4•1•1 Billy Collins comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, February 11 at 4 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.

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