Many of my colleagues and I have been fans of Billy Collins for years. When we approached the Steven Barclay Agency in 2000 to see if we could possibly bring him to our school’s Writers Week, we were hopeful but realistic. After some fairly simple negotiations with the agency, we were thrilled to have Billy Collins booked with us for February 28, 2001.
As soon as we announced that Billy would be our guest for Writers Week VII, we began receiving calls from the general public asking if they could attend. That wasn’t a surprise, but our auditorium barely accommodates the number of students wishing to attend Writers Week presentations. We couldn’t very well invite in outsiders. So, we limited the guest list to colleagues from our sister schools and knew we would have a full house.
He was, of course, charming. After coming to the school early in the morning, he began joking right away about how mice were starting to show up in his poems. I told him, “That’s what mice do. They just nose their way into places.” Before his scheduled time in the auditorium with students, Billy asked if he could use a computer to work on a poem that he had been scratching out longhand. We tripped over ourselves to find Billy Collins a computer and a quiet place to work. We set him up in our room 122S workspace with a computer, but everyone kept peeking in the door to see the poetry master at work in our workroom. Then he wanted to go to the auditorium and just sit in back and listen to student poets who were sharing their work with a Writers Week audience. So he did exactly that. An American master soaked up student poetry for thirty minutes or so before taking the stage himself.
I had the honor of introducing Billy Collins to the two Writers Week audiences. Although I can’t remember my exact words, I know I ended my introduction by referring to him as “the great Billy Collins.” As Billy came to the microphone, his first words were “Yeah, the great Billy Collins.” He read many poems and talked about poetry, his childhood, the writing life, teaching, and anything else his mind touched upon, including specific references to the student poets he’d listened to earlier. Even the students who didn’t know the work of Billy Collins beforehand were fans by the time he finished.
Billy graciously allowed us to record his presentations, and we included two of his poems—“Introduction to Poetry” and “Sonnet”–on our first Writers Week CD. One of those recordings was also included, albeit uncredited, with The Spoken Word Revolution anthology and CD (Sourcebooks, 2003). The British Library Sound Archive actually purchased a copy of our Writers Week CD including these recordings of Billy Collins.
My favorite specific memory occurred after his second auditorium presentation. Billy was sitting in our faculty lounge with a notebook journal. I came in to check on him with our then almost three year-old daughter Abby. I introduced them and Billy stopped his writing, handed Abby his journal and asked her to draw an animal in it. Abby, ever the artist, quickly obliged. She made a sketch, handed it back to him and said, “That’s a dinosaur. A dinosaur is an animal.” Billy then drew a cat in the journal and showed it to Abby: “That’s a cat. Is that good?” Abby said, “No” with her characteristic mixture of sweetness and honesty. I love the idea that the journals of Billy Collins may be archived at some prestigious institution and somewhere in the pages of one of them is a dinosaur drawn by my daughter alongside a needlessly maligned drawing of a cat.
By the time of the September, 2001 terrorist attacks, Billy Collins was Poet Laureate of the United States. I wrote to him asking him to sign a book for Abby and encouraging him to respond in poetry to his besieged country. He sent the book for Abby, inscribed with a wish for her to keep drawing animals, and he wrote a note to me suggesting courage in difficult times.
In the decade since then, students who met Billy Collins that day have crossed paths with him again. They report back to me that he clearly remembers his visit to our Writers Week. Of course, when Billy Collins poetry showed up on the Advanced Placement exam a couple of years after his visit, we all looked like geniuses for having him at our school.
Recently a former student, Alyse, had a visit with Billy Collins at the opening of The Poetry Foundation’s new building in Chicago. She was kind enough to send me a signed poster of his “Silence” poem. Alyse told him that she was one of the students in the auditorium that day, and he again sent good wishes our way.
Writers Week has provided a lot of great moments. The visit of Billy Collins was one of the most memorable.
Cross-posted on Writers Week @ Fremd High School