Tag Archives: Poet Laureate

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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Feasting on Words: Billy Collins, Southern California Writers Conference, and New Books in the Making

A few odds and ends while feeling very inspired and energized by the past ten days, which have included a wonderful Southern California Writers Conference, starting to put together what will be a smashing Spring 2013 issue of The Hummingbird Review, watching editing clients get one deal and opportunity after another, and Tuesday night’s superb event with Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States…

The Billy Collins program at Point Loma Nazarene University was truly special. Billy has drawn hundreds of thousands of otherwise non-poetry fans into the world of poetry through his easily accessible, humorous, poignant and endearing takes on life’s otherwise ordinary moments. On Tuesday night before a standing room-only crowd of more than 400 at Crill Hall, he read 17 poems spanning his career (10 collections, plus several anthologies), including a couple from his latest, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems 2003-2013, which will be released October 22. He also sat with PLNU journalism faculty member and Writer’s Symposium coordinator Dean Nelson, himself the author of a dozen books, for an excellent hour-long discussion.

One of Billy’s many funny lines? Check out this succinct take on science fiction: “There are only two directions for all of science fiction: We’re going there, or they’re coming here.” Priceless.

Discussing poetry with former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

Discussing poetry with former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

A couple hours earlier, I interviewed Billy at his bayside Shelter Island hotel for The Hummingbird Review. It was fun, lively, full of wisdom and humor – typical of Billy’s take on the world. We had a wonderful discussion about his poetics and vast contributions, a part of which I will share in this blog on Friday. For the rest, you’ll have to pick up The Hummingbird Review.

A really funny moment popped up during the interview. When my sweetheart, A Taste of Eternity author Martha Halda, and I told Billy how Carlsbad High School teacher Tom Robertson turned us onto poetry in our freshman English class, Billy looked at Martha and quipped, “So you were one of those mean girls!” He was referencing the fact that he (like me) was painfully shy in high school, and not on the radar screen of the school’s most beautiful girls. We informed him that Martha was one of the nicest (and best looking, and still is) CHS beauties, to which he replied, “So you were the nice one!” Gotta love this man.

• • •

I’m still pouring through notes from the Southern California Writer’s Conference, so I want to share a few comments that famed science fiction writer David Brin made that are great takeaways for writers and readers alike (with very special thanks to Alicia Bien for emailing her notes as well):

On the bad guys we all love to hate (or maybe root for) in novels: “Give the villain great dialogue so they are tempted. Make your villains so powerful that the U.S. government can’t beat them.”

Bestselling science fiction author David Brin (photo by Gayle Carline)

Bestselling science fiction author David Brin (photo by Gayle Carline)

On the purpose of writing: “Convey your sense of joy on the page. Control your ego, but believe you can write material that people want to read. Remember: writing is the only true form of magic.”

How to write a first page that hooks readers: “The first page must sing. Copy the first page of writers you respect, see how they move the story, and find that within your own voice, your own story.

Four keys to getting published and drawing your readers:

1)   You need an ear

2)   Bring on the criticism because you can be even better – and you know it

3)   Hard work

4)   Luck

• • •

Have been having a blast editing and/or writing proposals for some truly wonderful books that have made their way onto my computer in the past several months. Will rattle off their titles and authors now, so that you will grab them and share the experience when they hit bookstores in the next 12 to 18 months (as I am fully confident they will):

• A Taste of Eternity, a memoir by Martha Halda

• Home Free Adventures, a travel narrative by Lynne Martin

• Island Fever, Mustang Fever and Storm Chasers, an adventure romance trilogy by Stephen B. Gladish

• Who Will Cry for Us? a memoir by Davion Famber

• The Columbian Prophecy, a novel by Gary B. Deason

• Changes in Longitude, a travel narrative/memoir by Larissa and Michael Milne

• Red Hand, a novel by Seamus Beirne

• Forgoing Stress, a prescriptive book by Leo Willcocks

Next week, I will talk more about a couple of books coming from yours truly, including my forthcoming novel, Voices. We’ll also hear from authors Larissa and Michael Milne, Martha Halda and Stephen B. Gladish. Stay tuned.

• • •

Speaking of March, two events are coming up in the next two months that I hope you will participate in, if you are suitably located geographically: the Tucson Festival of Books March 9-10 at the University of Arizona in Tucson; and the L.A. Times Festival of Books April 20-21 on the University of Southern California campus. Between the two, more than 100,000 people will be in attendance. These events are a paradise for readers, a chance to meet and talk with hundreds of authors and publishers in all genres. Check them out.

 

 

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