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The Man Who Made Poetry Cool Again: A Few Words with Billy Collins

How many of us remember learning poetry in high school? Quick: name one poem that you studied.

Now that I have stumped most everyone, I confess: I was lucky to have two teachers who loved the lyrical word. One (Tom Robertson), freed a bunch of freshmen from their cluelessness by bringing in rock music lyrics and records, and going over them for a month, before returning us to our regularly scheduled program: the dead poets collecting dust in our literature textbooks. It worked. The other (Dr. Bev Bosak), gave me the job of co-editing the Carlsbad High School literary journal, Spindrift. I’ve been writing poetry since, along with newspaper, magazine and web journalism, fiction and non-fiction books, along with a lot of editing and ghostwriting.

Former Poet Laureate of the US and bestselling poet Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

Former Poet Laureate of the US and bestselling poet Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

Most of us weren’t so lucky. We caught up on sleep or gossip, got our weekend party schedule together, or played folded paper football or, as the century turned, with our cellphones while our teachers tried to analyze and interpret the poems of long-dead poets who, as Billy Collins says, “lived on a different verbal planet.”

Then Collins, the nation’s most popular and one of its most beloved poets, came along to make poetry cool. Cool for who? Us? Our parents? Librarians? The neighborhood bookworms?

No: for high school students nationwide. Seriously. When he was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003, Collins developed the Poetry 180 program, which changed the face of how teachers taught poetry and students learned it. All of a sudden, kids not only read works from poets who were still alive – but, in some cases, just a little bit older than themselves.

“After becoming Poet Laureate, I immediately thought of what an awful time I had in high school,” Collins recalled during an exclusive interview for The Hummingbird Review I conducted earlier in the week, while he was in San Diego for a reading at Point Loma Nazarene University. “If you wanted to get beaten up in the parking lot, announcing you’re a poet would be a shortcut to that. Also in high school, the poems that were taught were hundreds of years old. I wanted to present poetry that would be cool, because being cool is the objective of high school – and it continues to this day.”

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Experience it they did. The Poetry 180 program was the biggest thing to happen to contemporary poetry entering American schools since the Beat Generation. Featuring very contemporary poets of all ages  like Jane Kenyon (“The Blue Bowl”), Ron Koertge (“Do You Have Any Advice For Those Of Us Just Starting Out”), Laurel Blossom (“Radio”), Geraldine Connolly (“The Summer I Was Sixteen”), and Daisy Fried (“She Didn’t Mean To Do It”), the two print anthologies have sold a quarter-million copies. The website that started it all (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/) has received millions of visits. Not only did reading poetry become cool for students, but so did writing it. Last time I visited my Twitter feed, I was following more than 1,000 literary and poetry journals, most started in the last five years, and most run by young adults. I would bet nearly all of them have benefitted from Poetry 180.

“It actually works, much to my surprise,” Collins said. “All these teachers said, ‘It changed how I teach. It changed my students’ whole idea of what poetry was. They like it.’ They ask, ‘Where’s the poem for the day?’ They remind the teacher, ‘Give us one of those poems.’”

Collections such as Picnic, Lightning, Sailing Around the Room, The Trouble With Poetry and Ballistics make Collins the most-read poet today. He’s transcended the niche of hard-core poetry readers, in largecollins2 part thanks to three events: appearances on NPR and A Prairie Home Companion, followed by his appointment as the Poet Laureate of the United States.

“That was kind of a booster rocket on this whole thing,” he says.” All these things oddly fell into place. Believe me, world poetry domination was not my objective here!”

Collins’ humorous take on the world – including himself – has added to the persona of Poetry 180. Not only does he give poetry a sense of present-day coolness, but he’s also one of those very cool people you love to hang around with as they pass through their 70s, dispensing wisdom and great humor, often in the same sentence. His poems convey the same feeling, finding extraordinary perceptions in ordinary moments, yet coming across with a simplicity that draws people in for what has become an enduring relationship with his words.

Which is exactly why he created Poetry 180 – to keep kids coming back for more, for the rest of their lives.

(You can read a full-length interview and profile on Billy Collins in The Hummingbird Review, which will be on sale in April.)

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Value of A Thousand Words …

… Scott Simon, Joy Harjo, Luis Urrea and other highlights of the Tucson Festival of Books Author’s Table Dinner

Sometimes, the dinner ticket that drops in your lap feels like manna from heaven. Especially if it’s a ticket to the Author’s Table Dinner at the Tucson Festival of Books, and you’re an author who happens to be in town.

My friend and client Lesley Lupo (author of the wonderful, forthcoming children’s book Surf ‘N Seeds), hosted four workshops I facilitated the past two weeks in Arizona’s finest city, where I’ve visited and taught for the past 10 years. She offered me a ticket to what is already shooting around the literary world as a very big function: the Author’s Table Dinner for a book festival that, in its second year, drew 400 authors and more than 50,000 people.

What an event. A different featured author sits at each table. We were honored with New York Times bestselling author Elisabeth Hyde, who has written In The Heart of the Canyon and The Abortionist’s Daughter, among others. I commiserated with several others, among them Luis Alberto Urrea, the bestselling author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Nobody’s Son (a GREAT memoir), and the creative inspiration and a guiding light of The Hummingbird Review, the literary journal I now edit, and which is published by my friend, the author-poet Charlie Redner (Down But Never Out). (Did I mention that the Tucson Festival of Books’ logo this year was a hummingbird – isn’t serendipity awesome?)

Luis’ book tour Tweets are nearing legendary status among the countless thousands who have read them; how he packs his ebullient personality into 144 characters or less, I’ll never know. He also draws crowds. They had to turn away people from his event at the festival. I’m sure the University of Arizona’s fire marshal was freaking out, but the massive turnout knew what it wanted.

I also met and briefly chatted with one of my all-time favorite poet-authors, Joy Harjo, the author of How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (among others). Joy is not only one of contemporary literature’s wisest and most eloquent writers, but also one of the world’s most beautiful souls. Her “Eagle Poem” is epic – check out the musical version on YouTube and see why. While speaking with Joy, I kept mentally merging two of my favorite opening poetic lines: Joy’s “To pray you open your whole self…” and Indian yoga master Paramhansa Yogananda’s “Make me thine eagle of soul progress…”

If the Muse herself donned a human form …. well, she has. Joy is the living song, dance and verse of what is beautiful about each and every one of us, if we would only accept that.

Then there was the featured speaker at the 1,000-person (at least) dinner, Scott Simon. In an evening of personal favorites, let’s add Scott: he’s been my favorite National Public Radio correspondent since his riveting on-site reports from the besieged Sarajevo in the early 1990s. The host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” he’s also a best-selling author.

Scott gave a wonderful half-hour talk on storytelling, but it was his close that will forever live with me – and which closes today’s blog post. He shared a story of how his father, a Chicago bookstore owner, once told him that a picture is worth a thousand words. Scott respectfully differs (what writer wouldn’t?). In so doing, he demonstrated just how meaningful a thousand words can be. He said that, when you stitch together the Lord’s Prayer, Twenty-Third Psalm, Gettysburg Address, first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, climactic paragraph in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the final entry in Anne Frank’s Diary, you have a thousand words.

Enjoy a day of writing and/or reading, a thousand purposeful words at a time.

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