Photo Credit: Juliet Van Otteren

Last night I was among 300 people who came to listen to Billy (we all just call him “Billy,” it seems) read under a big white tent with failing chandelier light. It was magical, but watching him do his thing is magical no matter what the surroundings. I first saw him read in a school auditorium in London nearly ten years ago. It was magic then as well, but I mean real magic, at least for me. At that time I was just starting to take my poetry writing “seriously” and was trying to find my voice. That’s hard to do under any circumstances, but I was finding it especially difficult given my status as American living in England. Different languages, so much history….but then I discovered Billy’s work and automatically felt as if he had given me permission to just cut the crap and write who and what and how I am. It helped.

I have tried before to explain why I love his poetry so much. His poems start with a wink and a nod and before you know it, you’re in the depths. He seems to have an unfiltered and direct line to his childhood brain…he still sees the absurdity in everything around him, still questions what he sees and tries to draw conclusions by refusing to accept anything as it literally is. He draws masterful, out-of-this-world connections. He’s very funny. He’s very musical. His lifelong love affair with jazz infiltrates his poetry constantly. It’s there in his rhythms, his meters. He starts off with a theme and then goes off on wild tangents that always lead him back to the dominant, but it is now a dominant that has more weight. And when he reads his work in public, you feel as if he’s chatting with you in a coffee shop, or making observations while waiting on line outside some museum. He starts to introduce a poem and a murmur rushes through the crowd. People turn to each other and whisper, “Ooh, I love this one,” as if we were at a Grateful Dead concert.

I wrote a poem after the first time I heard him read. I actually sent it to him, which I find unbelievable even now. Last night, before the magic wore off, I dug it out of my “poems not to be published” file. Here it is (I’m among friends, right?):

Thank You, Billy Collins

So now I know.

I don’t have to discover obscurity
in an orange,
or preciousness in the sound of
scaffolding growing next door.

I can say the words I’m used to,
divulge my private jokes,
treat myself to how funny life can be.
Maybe, even, how funny I can be.

So now I know I can save those furrowed eyebrows,
sincere glances, pathetic gestures
for later,

for conversations with my mother, perhaps,
or lectures to my towering, teenage son.