After a year away, Billy Collins returned to the Featherstone Center for the Arts on Tuesday evening to a hero’s welcome.
“This is my favorite night of the year,” Featherstone executive director Ann Smith said as she introduced Mr. Collins. “And I think we’ve already got him locked in for 2017.”
After a short introduction by Arnie Reisman that included a reading of his own poem, As If Souls Were Costumes, Mr. Collins took the stage to thunderous applause.
“Ann mentioned I was so nice to come here, and I was like, what? The middle of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard? I’m going to start paying you to come back. Well, you don’t pay me anything, but I will come back,” Mr. Collins said with a laugh.
Mr. Collins read from his new book, Aimless Love, a collection of both new and old poetry. He started with You Reader, which directly addresses the person reading.
“You have to seduce the reader,” he explained to the crowd, advice he uses to begin all his writing workshops.
Several poems revolved around issues familiar to Vineyard residents, such as heavy summer traffic or a group of “soliloquies for dogs,” which included topics like putting a dog down or how a dog sees its master, all delivered with Mr. Collins’ signature wit.
“I am the dog you put to sleep, as you like to call the needle of oblivion,” Mr. Collins read from one poem. “Come back to tell you this simple thing. I never liked you.”
After reading a sampling of his work, Mr. Collins then took several questions from the audience. Many of the questions addressed his process when creating new poetry.
“What I’m thinking when I’m writing is, how do I get out of this?” he said. “I’m not really thinking of the theme or how to express myself.”
Mr. Collins noted that a poem could essentially be written in one day, but then may be revised for days after that. In terms of his influences, Mr. Collins was a bit cagier, noting the multitude of inspirations that led to his poetry.
“You learn from everybody, you pick up little pieces,” he said of how he first developed a voice. Many in the audience were curious about Mr. Collins’ experience as the nation’s poet laureate.
“You get used to it pretty quickly, but especially if you’ve had the preparation of being an only child,” Mr. Collins said. “Then you’ve got a real appetite for attention.”
Mr. Collins remembered getting the call from the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, and immediately becoming unsure of what exactly the job would entail.
“Is there a special uniform?” he recalled thinking. Ultimately, Mr. Collins explained that he didn’t have to do much beyond give an annual speech and reading to Congress. He also established a legacy with the Poetry 180 program, designed to spread poetry throughout the nation’s schools by sharing one poem a day. The position did come with a few small perks, he said.
“If you are going to a foreign country, they would call the embassy and they’d give a party for you,” he said. “You don’t have to be shy about that stuff.”
At the end of the evening, Mr. Collins thanked everyone for coming and reiterated his appreciation for being hosted on the Vineyard. Several audience members tried to keep the evening going by shouting out requests of poems to read, but Mr. Collins declined.
“I’m not a jukebox,” he said.