A standing room only crowd filled the Francine Kelly Gallery Sunday to listen to the former U.S. Poet Laureate.

Billy Collins has visited the Island every other year going back over a decade to read at Featherstone Center for the Arts. In 2017 he was the first speaker in the new gallery, executive director Ann Smith told the crowd.

Despite the accolades, Mr. Collins opened his reading with characteristic humility.

“Thank you all for coming, willingly or unwillingly,” he said. “At a poetry reading there are always a few people who are dragged along. They’re pretty easy to spot. If you are one of those though, I can pretty much guarantee it won’t be as bad as you thought. Well, maybe at moments I’ll confirm your worst suspicions. But generally speaking, no.”

It was a standing room only crowd. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Mr. Collins held the audience rapt for an hour as he read from his bestselling books and sheets of printed notes with tightly penned revisions visible in the margins. After the reading he answered questions from the audience.

When asked how he became such a great live performer, Mr. Collins conceded that while he doesn’t write for the microphone, finding his voice (both written and spoken) has been a long process.

“I didn’t get a book published until I was in my 40s because I hadn’t developed the voice you hear now,” he said. “I’m reading poems I wrote 25 years ago, but even the one I wrote this morning which is in this yellow notebook, I mean the voice is about the same.”

Discovering his voice, one that no one else could create, is something that spurred him forward during his poetry career, he said.

“Seamus Heaney, and forgive the comparison, said with Irish modesty that when he read the first poem in his first collection back after he’d written it, he realized that no one else could have written the poem but him. That is an amazing moment in the poet’s life. And sometimes it doesn’t really occur.”

But for Mr. Collins, it did.

“When you realize that you are doing something that is at least a little bit different than what everyone else is doing, that sort of started me. And then I stuck with the same persona, but we seem to be getting along okay.”

After the reading, Mr. Collins spent a few moments speaking with the Gazette, discussing the speaker of his poems, or “my persona” as Mr. Collins calls him.

“I’m guilty of trying to make him a likable, ironic, entertaining guy,” he said. “We have a lot of common in that way. He’s a projection. I am not an autobiographical poet. I am not writing about my personal misery, or my personal joys really. I am an experiential poet. I am a here and now poet.”

Mr. Collins was first introduced to the Vineyard by fellow poet and close friend Fan Ogilvie. Before that he said he saw Long Island as the essential city escape.

“Growing up in New York, Martha’s Vineyard was off the map for me,” he said. “But now I am completely entranced by it. As everyone says, it’s the open land here, the woods, the pastures. This, this you don’t see in the Hamptons. I wish we’d spend more time here.”

He earned his PhD as a scholar of romantic poetry, and cites Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison as his favorite poem.

“Coleridge and Wordsworth are influential in that they present this image of the stroller, dawdler, a man wandering through landscape. The great romantic lyric. He sits down on a wayside bench and he has an experience, there’s a broadening. That idea of placing a speaker in a landscape and seeing what transpires is very important to me.”

On Monday, Mr. Collins taught a poetry workshop at Featherstone. For the rest of the week you can find him sitting on wayside benches, dawdling his way through a Vineyard vacation.