A Man



A Backstory to a Billy Collins Video

YouTube Intro

I would call this less of an interview - and more of an encounter with Billy Collins.

I began studying the award-winning poet because of his exposure – of all places – on YouTube. The crowd there loves him. There have been several animated videos made with Collins reciting his poetry as a voice-over.

He’s one of the more popular poets in the world, selling 100’s of thousands of his books. There’s a site where you can listen to him recite many of his works: www.bestcigarette.us

Collins has a very conversational, and yet precise way of writing that I enjoy very much. He doesn’t like wordy poems, nor do I. And, his work has some meat on the bones that is very accessible.

He was riding a motorcycle when I got him on his cell phone. It was a confluence of mixed communication with his voice, my voice, and the wind blowing raucously between us.

Right off, I asked him if he’d support a Poetry Category on YouTube. (I’m at the forefront of this ongoing campaign.)

I was somewhat surprised that he actually tried having a conversation with me. I imagined the 67-year-old poet with one hand on the bike and the other on the phone. One of us suggested we talk later.

So later on, I called Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States (2001 and 2003) and the Literary Lion of the New York Public Library.

We spoke briefly. He asked me more questions than I asked him. He wanted to know who I really was … and why did it matter if YouTube had a Poetry Category?!

“I don’t know if you need a category,” he began. “I’m all for poems being in unexpected places. I’m all for arranging poetry as an ambush … that is to say, poetry in places you don’t expect to find it.”

When Collins was acting Poet Laureate, he said he put poetry on the sides of buses.

“I created a channel on Delta airlines … you know with the earphones you plug in for music? Well I had a poetry channel running.”

As the Vice President of Poetry In Motion - www.mta.info/mta/pim/index.html - a cross-promotion with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority – Collins said he is an advocate of putting poetry in places people least expect it.

“When you stumble across a poem, it’s more exciting than looking for it. I’ve tuned into the radio and unexpectedly found someone reading a poem. The listener doesn’t have time to resist the poem. Most people would not be caught dead in the poetry section of the library; however, they’ll often enjoy it if they hear it.”

I could tell he had a passion not just for writing, but for sharing poetry.

“People may not seek out poetry,” Collins noted, “but poetry will seek them out.”

Collins told me he created “Poetry 180” - a poem a day for American High Schools - www.loc.gov/poetry/180

“Listening to poetry can encourage students and other learners to become members of the circle of readers for whom poetry is a vital source of pleasure. I hope Poetry 180 becomes an important and enriching part of the school day.” – Poetry 180

Robert Bly is included three times among the many poets in the “Poetry 180” list. In my research, I found a recent picture of Bly shaking hands with Collins.

As I ponder now on our brief conversation, I’m still curious as to why Collins took a somewhat adversarial posture with me as I advocated a Poetry Category for YouTube.

“You do your part,” he said, “and I’ll do mine.”

To me, the statement wasn’t mean-spirit, but rather a challenge. I liked it.

“I think you deal with similar themes that my audience of men would find interesting,” I proclaimed into the telephone. “And, I have a viewership of one million people on YouTube.”

He was silent.

“You deal with the motif of death,” I continued, “and I think that’s a necessary part of masculine initiation. It’s essential to accept the reality of death in our mytho-poetic work. And, you do it with a sense of humor, which is very rare.”

He remained silent.

So, I pressed him again on a quote I could use for my YouTube video. He acquiesced.

“I would say that poetry needs to take the onramp onto the Information Highway, and become an active part and presence on the Internet,” Collins stated.

I thought that might be an important piece of advice for MKP. I thought of Gordon Clay and his work with www.menstuff.org

As we concluded, I thanked him for his time, and bid him adieu.

Just as I was hanging up, he stopped me and told me he appreciated the kind words I had said about his writing. I was surprised. I smiled, and hung up.

I loved the encounter with this bright man. I loved crossing swords and ultimately finding common ground with such a man of heart and mind.

© 2008, Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.

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