What if a deceased dog could talk? What if hippos went on holiday?
Those are some of the questions asked and answered by the former U.S. poet laureate and Island favorite Billy Collins in a reading of new and selected poems at Featherstone Center for the Arts last Friday evening. Among other disparate themes, he explored parenting, animal-human relationships, endearing soap bars and the experience of a traveler who arrives in a foreign place and is immediately told he has arrived too late in the year to witness the peak of the natural beauty.
The term for this, according to Mr. Collins via the late American poet Howard Nemerov, is azaleation. One can both azaleate, lamenting the loss of an authentic experience specific to that place, or be azaleated, in which case, as the unknowing traveler, one feigns the disappointment of missing an experience impossible to recreate.
Mr. Collins read poems and spoke for nearly an hour to a packed tent in a performance that showcased his unconventional perspective on everyday life and childlike wonder, even at age 72. There was hardly one line of his poetry that did not draw raucous laughter from the audience, so that each smile had barely softened before the next broke out. The shortest poem, To a Turtle, may have elicited the loudest chortles. “Hey, thumb head,” it read in its entirety. His introductions were almost as poetic and humorous as the poems themselves.
After they had claimed their seats, far in advance of the show, the audience members poked their noses into two books of poetry sold at the front of the tent — Sailing Around the Room (2001) and Horoscopes for the Dead (2012). But the reading, akin to a musical performance or a comedy show, brought the poems to life.
“First of all, I think it’s so important to hear the poem being read by the poet himself,” said arts philanthropist Claudia Miller who owns the former Point Way Inn. “This way, we get to hear his thoughts and his sense of humor, which help us to understand him so much better. It would not be the same just read his poems on a page.”
Lilly Deng, visiting from Boston, is a major fan of Mr. Collins. “When Billy reads, the experience is transformational,” she said. While great poetry begins in one place, and ends in another, Mr. Collins “takes it to an even further place,” she said.
Her fiance, Jason Cincotta, described himself as a poetry reading “neophyte,” but he found Mr. Collins’s stuff to be accessible and humorous.
Though his poems are not autobiographical, Mr. Collins’s use of first and second person lends an intimacy to the experience of listening to them. In his attempts to turn perception on its head, he empowers animals with speech and sheds new light on the conventions of American culture. Many of his poems require the context of the title to understand the poem; others benefited from an introduction, many of which lasted longer than the poem itself.
Often he riffed off the jokes embedded in his own poems, extending the thread further into the space between poem recitations. He said much of writing a poem is about finding an ending, whether it’s the moment when a duck speaks to you, or a particularly vivid image appears, when “a flame appear[s] at the end of [his] pencil,” he said. “Most poems are really how you end it. I don’t want to say anymore if you don’t want to hear anymore.” Mr. Collins made a note of the audience’s reactions his poems, including the laughter, oohs, ahs, and awws. As he finished reading a poem about a dog, the audience cooed in unison.“You made a little sound there, which tells me I drifted into sentimental waters,” the poet said.
He read a poem that poked fun at the repetition of nouns to qualify authenticity, such as using the term “drink drink” to imply the presence of alcohol. “That was not a real poem poem, it was just a poem,” he said when he was done. Many of the poems will be published in Mr. Collins’ next book, Aimless Love, set for release this October. The book will contain 50 new poems, as well as a selection of others previously published.
When he comes to the Island, Mr. Collins stays at the former Point Way Inn, which has been reinvented as the Noepe Center for Literary Arts. His appearances are made possible by a collaboration between the new Noepe Center of Edgartown, the Pathways Festival of Poetry and Featherstone.
Perhaps next year, Mr. Collins, you will come earlier in the summer, when our hydrangeas are like nothing you have ever seen.