Sunday, October 6, 2013

Backstage with Billy Collins

The other night I had the privilege of awarding the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. Hall is an old friend. He and Kenyon, his wife, moved to Wilmot, N.H., shortly before I came north in 1978 to run the Concord Monitor newsroom. I liked poetry and decided to write about Hall, Kenyon and other poets in the Monitor circulation area. After Kenyon’s untimely death of leukemia in 1995, her friends and readers gave money to a fund in her memory, and eventually the Hall-Kenyon-Prize was established to honor the two of them.

Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan and Jane Hirshfield were the first three winners of the award, so it has brought great poetry to Concord each fall. This year’s winner was Billy Collins, former U.S. poet laureate and perhaps the best-known poet in the United States. When he was chosen, Hall remarked of him: “Billy Collins writes moving and beautiful poems, which are often funny as hell.”

On Thursday, I was to present the prize, and Collins was to read his poems. The event was at the City Auditorium, a Concord gem known affectionately as “The Audi.” Early in the day the house manager and I set up the stage: a lectern in the center under the lights, two chairs, flowers to come later.

Collins, Hall and a few others gathered for a quick meal shortly before the presentation. The two poets ate omelets and fries. I left the restaurant an hour before the show to check on details at the theater. It turned out Collins wanted to check the venue, too, and he showed up ten minutes later.

From the moment he arrived, I learned from the master. At his direction, he and I played stagehands together, moving the chairs into the wings, rolling the lectern back three feet and lifting the potted mums back into place. He checked the sound, and the technicians adjusted it. He asked his fiancée, Susanna Gilman, and me to go out into the theater and assess the light level and positioning. He wanted less light in his eyes and clear but not glaring light on his face. He did not want the lights to shine off his bald head.

Collins had removed the chairs because he wanted to emerge from the wings to accept the prize and he didn’t want me to have to sit on stage “pretending to be interested and enthusiastic” during his reading. I would not have had to pretend, of course, but I was glad later to be sitting in the front row for his reading. Sometimes it’s hard to hear onstage.

When we thought we had the stage in order, he and I retreated to the wings to wait for the crowd to file in. Advance ticket sales had been brisk, and I thought we had a chance to fill the 800-seat hall. “It’s NPR, you know,” Collins said. commenting on the turnout. He has reached a large new audience by subbing for Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion. His implication was that his celebrity, not his poetry, accounted for the size of the Concord crowd.

As we sat talking, Susanna Gilman came up onstage more than once to rearrange the flowers in front of the lectern. Collins took a picture of her sitting on the stage moving the pots around. She was still there when the auditorium began to fill.

Collins was as professional in his reading as he was in his stage preparation. He is not a dramatic reader, but his timing is perfect, his modulation practiced. He keeps the poems moving. The house lights were down, so he could not see the crowd, but he bantered with his listeners throughout.

Hannah Hughes, Anna Leclere, Alden Leed and Katlyn
Hanson with Donald Hall and Billy Collins.
At one point, he winced at their reaction to a dog poem, telling them their “Aw-w-w-w!” meant that perhaps the poem had slipped into sentimentality, a no-no for a poet. To counter this slip, he read a poem in which a euthanized dog in heaven tells his master what he really thinks of him – and it isn’t sentimental.

The best part of the night for me was that so many teenagers and young people came to the reading. I arranged for members of a class from Coe-Brown Academy in Northwood to meet with Collins briefly afterward and show them the video they had made of “My Hero,” one of his poems (you can see the video here). Their teacher, Amy Usinger, snapped a picture of the four of them with the two poets.

When I was in high school, my English teacher brought in a poet to speak with us. To me, until then, the idea of a living poet other than Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost seemed foreign. Nearly all of the ones we read were dead, and I figured any living ones were holed up in some remote location. Seeing a poet in the flesh changed my whole attitude toward poetry.

I hope a few young people had their eyes opened in a similar way at the Hall-Kenyon event in Concord the other night. 

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