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Former U.S. poet laureate holds reading at CLC

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Poetry reminds you that you’re alive and that life’s not going to continue forever. That’s what former two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins says.

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“That’s why a lot of poetry is about human immortality,” he said.

Collins conducted a poetry reading, book signing and workshop Tuesday at Central Lakes College (CLC).

It was part of Verse Like Water, the visiting poet program of CLC, in conjunction with The Crossing Arts Alliance.

Community members and students packed into the Chalberg Theater to hear Collins’ light-hearted, witty writings.

Collins read several poems, including: “Influence,” “Einstein,” “Dream Life,” and “A Note to Thomas Stearns Eliot.”

Two poems — “After the Funeral” and “What she Said” — were inspired by parts of conversations Collins heard previously. Both pieces earned laughter from the crowded theater.

Jeff Johnson, CLC English professor and head of Verse Like Water, said Collins is “advancing poetry in American culture” like no one else.

Question and answer session with Collins:

Q: What’s the most frustrating misconception about poetry that you’ve seen in your career?

A: “That poetry has nothing to do with daily life, that it’s irrelevant ... that it’s something that belongs in school. Most people don’t read poetry and therefore have misconceptions about it. (Many) have left poetry behind in school. ...If you have a misconception about poetry, it’s because you don’t read it. If people would start reading it, the misconceptions would fall away.”

Q: If you could get one message to people about poetry, what would it be?

A: “Poetry is not something that’s for specialists. It’s not just for academics or professors or any other group of intelligentsia. It’s for everybody and it’s just a matter of finding the right poets for you. Lots of poets are unreadable, lots of poets are boring. There’s a lot of terrible poems out there. But you just have to wade through some of that until you find the good stuff, and you can customize your reading to your own likes. I don’t consider all books of poetry equal ... but the poems that do talk to me, I find that I couldn’t live without them.”

Q: You’ve dedicated your life to poetry. What is your mission and have you completed it yet?

A: “I’ve never thought of myself as having a public mission. Writing poetry is a very solitary act, which is one of the reasons it appealed to me originally; that it’s something you do in private, alone. I wrote a poem this morning and I wasn’t thinking about how this poem will assist my mission or advance the cause of American poetry. I don’t think I could write if I ever thought like that. I was thinking of trying to get through this poem and make it make sense and make it interesting to me and the reader.”

Q: Why is poetry effective in delivering the message an author is trying to convey?

A: “One of its powers is that it comes in a highly condensed form. If you read a novel, it can take you three, or four, or five days, or a couple of weeks. If you read a poem, it can take you 25 or 45 seconds. Poems are powerful little packages, at least the good ones. And I think the effect of poetry is often tied up with the suddenness.”

Q: Describe your ultimate writing environment.

A: “I don’t need privacy. I can do it on an airplane or on a train. I can do it with noise around me, but I’m not hearing the noise. When I say it’s a private activity, it doesn’t mean I need perfect quiet in a sound-proof room and then a scented candle. I don’t need a setting. Optimum time, though, is the morning for me, because in the morning, I haven’t spoken yet, heard the radio. The language seems a little fresher earlier in the day. I usually do my best work before 10 a.m.”

The 2014 programming for Verse Like Water is funded with grants from Five Wings Regional Arts Council, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Minnesota Legacy Fund.

CLC will also host former U.S. Laureate Robert Hass Oct. 29 and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith Nov. 21.

JESSIE PERRINE may be reached at jessie.perrine@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews.

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