Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Billy Collins at Iolani

Billy Collins was in town tonight, giving a reading at Iolani School, where he has been "in residence" this week. He read his poems with his characteristic deadpan humor, offering comments in between. It was a very pleasant, listener-friendly evening. Here, by way of illustration, are a few of the poems with his introductory comments:

...I'm referring to the outcropping of gated communities and condo developments that are occurring all over America. And apart from just the ecological despoliation involved, I'm always, as someone who's conscious of language, really taken with the names of them, and typically the names are things like "Deer Hollow" and "Badger Meadows" and so forth, and it always strikes me that these are actually the epitaphs for the creatures who have been driven off in order to create these condos. So I wrote this poem on the subject, and I was saying to the students that usually I don't like to know where I'm going in a poem, I find it more interesting to just follow the drift of a certain thought and see where it goes, but in this case I pretty much knew what I wanted to say about this, I had an opinion, which I usually don't write out of opinions, and that's why I wrote it as a sonnet, because I kind of knew what it was and I could fit it into a box. I called it "The Golden Years" because my sense of the speaker is that he is a fellow of retirement age.

The Golden Years

All I do these drawn-out days
is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge
where there are no pheasants to be seen
and last time I looked, no ridge.

Sure, I could drive over to Quail Falls
and spend the day there playing bridge,
but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail
would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge.

I know a widow at Fox Run
and another with a condo at Smokey Ledge.
One of them smokes, and neither can run,
so I'll stick to the pledge I made to Midge.

Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge?
I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.

I was reading, I don't know why it must have been a low point in my life, but I was reading a book on how to write fiction (laughter)—contemplating a career change—and I came across a page of dos and don'ts, a very basic book, and one of the don'ts I had heard of before, I think, and it kind of popped out of the book, and I used it as an epigraph for this poem, and the "Don't" was "Never use the word suddenly just to create tension." And the example that was given was "I pointed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger. Suddenly, shots rang out." (Laughter) So it's a cheap way to keep the reader on edge. So I thought, well, that's fiction, but I don't write fiction, so poetry doesn't have to adhere to these dos and don'ts, so the result was the poem, which is called "Tension."


“Never use the word suddenly just to
create tension.”
—Writing Fiction

Suddenly, you were planting some yellow petunias
outside in the garden,
and suddenly I was in the study
looking up the word oligarchy for the thirty-seventh time.

When suddenly, without warning,
you planted the last petunia in the flat,
and I suddenly closed the dictionary
now that I was reminded of that vile form of governance.

A moment later, we found ourselves
standing suddenly in the kitchen
where you suddenly opened a can of cat food
and I just as suddenly watched you doing that.

I observed a window of leafy activity
and, beyond that, a bird perched on the edge
of the stone birdbath
when suddenly you announced you were leaving

to pick up a few things at the market
and I stunned you by impulsively
pointing out that we were getting low on butter
and another case of wine would not be a bad idea.

Who could tell what the next moment would hold?
Another drip from the faucet?
Another little spasm of the second hand?
Would the painting of a bowl of pears continue

to hang on the wall from that nail?
Would the heavy anthologies remain on their shelves?
Would the stove hold its position?
Suddenly, it was anyone’s guess.

The sun rose ever higher.
The state capitals remained motionless on the wall map
when suddenly I found myself lying on a couch
where I closed my eyes and without any warning

began to picture the Andes, of all places,
and a path that led over the mountain to another country
with strange customs and eye-catching hats
suddenly fringed with little colorful, dangling balls.

We were talking again in class, or I was running out of my mouth about how, the bigger the subject you take on in a poem, the smaller the approach, that often you need a tiny thing, an aperture, a keyhole, that you can look into this bigger room instead of just bursting through the door. And this is an example, I think, of that, it's a poem that's about something that American children do in the summertime, and it's called "The Lanyard."

The Lanyard

Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

I went to a pretty ordinary camp. I had friends who went to fancier camps, and there was a wider variety of things to be made at their camp. For me, it was potholder, lanyard. I chose the lanyard, "and that has made all the difference." (Laughter). But friends of mine would come back from camp, and they had kilns—I didn't know what a kiln was, but they would make these ceramic things—oh, the third thing you could make was an ashtray of tin, which just meant you took a piece of tin and hammered on it for two weeks, and gave to your father and explained to him that it was an ashtray, instead of just a piece of battered tin—these more privileged children would come home with these cups, they'd make ceramic cups, but they weren't bright enough to put a handle on them, so they were about as useful as they lanyard, and one mother told me, after I had read that poem one night, that these cups are referred to as "lanyard holders."

One little insider tip that I like to give students of poetry is that if you get stuck in a poem, just have a dog come into it, and it will kind of get you out of your self absorbtion for a few lines... dog's just tend to cheer things up when they arrive. But the problem with that is it's a very risky genre because things can get very quickly sentimental, a poem about any kind of house pet, a gold fish, whatever, can get moist, a little maudlin, so again, this is another poem, one of the few poems where I set out with an agenda, I wanted to write a poem about a dog that was as free of sentimentality as I could make it, and the reason the poem is called "The Revanant," which is the word for the day - a revenant is simply a ghost that comes back to pay you a visit:

The Revenant

I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you -- not one bit.
When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.
I resented the way you moved,
your lack of animal grace,
the way you would sit in a chair to eat,
a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand.
I would have run away,
but I was too weak, a trick you taught me
while I was learning to sit and heel,
and -- greatest of insults -- shake hands without a hand.
I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.
You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.
The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place.
All I ever wanted from you
was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.
While you slept, I watched you breathe
as the moon rose in the sky.
It took all of my strength
not to raise my head and howl.
Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place
except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner --
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.


Suzannah said...

wow, what did you do, tape the reading? i'm amazed that you would be granted permission to do that. did you get permission from billy collins or from his agent?

Bruce Schauble said...

I didn't tape the reading. I did tape his comments, because I have often found the most interesting part of a reading is not the poems themselves, which I can after all read on my own, but what the author has to say about the poems and about the process of writing. I sometimes try to take notes, but I can't write fast enough and I miss a lot. So I happened to have with me a mini digital recorder of the kind that many students use to record class notes, and I turned it on several times when Collins went into elaborated explanations.

As far as the poems themselves go, I think they are all available elsewhere online. There might have been one that I had to find in print and type out.

And no, I didn't ask for permission. What I recorded and what I posted was by way of recordkeeping for myself and by way of information for the maybe fifty people interested enough to find their way to this particular blog post. If Collins or his publisher have any objection to praise and free publicity, I imagine they'll eventually let me know.

- B