About thirty minutes before the reading by Billy Collins on Wednesday evening, the gates closed at Hill-Stead Museum. No more cars could be accommodated. It was another poetry traffic jam in Farmington, Ct.
By then 1,600 people filled Hill-Stead’s sunken garden. As they awaited the former U.S. Poet Laureate, another 96, many in party attire, were finishing a fundraising dinner in the museum’s Makeshift Theatre. My job there was to make the toast.
Before I get to that I’ll bring you into the meat of the evening, a great interview of Billy by Frank Delaney. Frank is a treasure himself, author of many eloquent books and BBC host who has interviewed thousands of poets over the years. He coaxed from Billy bright ideas about craft. Among them:
How a Poem Emerges: “Poems come from unlikely places. Small moments that exhibit a willingness to be explored. A phrase I’m paying too much attention to for a normal person.”
What a Poem Must Do: “There has to be some recognition that there is some momentum to it. It’s not a watercolor.”
On Persistence and Dues Paying: “I think Malcolm Gladwell is right. (The author of Outliers says 10,000 hours of work is required for mastery in any field.) My odometer would show this in my case.”
On Early Lines: “Coleridge is a model — his conversational poems. He starts in a simple place, and then moves to Oz. I’m not a big fan of starting in Oz, which a lot of writers try to do. He or she hasn’t taken the trouble to take me there.”
On the Response of Members of Congress to his 9/11 Memorial Poem: “They were cocking their heads like border collies. They knew something different was going on. That poetry was different from political talk. Some listened. Some displayed their anti-poetry deflector shields.”
On the Value of Poetry: “People turn to poetry in difficult times for stabilization. For being reminded they are not alone.”
There was much more. Which is why you should be a regular at Hill-Stead and avail yourself of magical summer evenings of music and poetry produced by festival director Mimi Madden. I toast her here. But last Wednesday, I offered the following to the evening’s guest of honor:
“To the man who creates, among other things, poetry traffic jams — here are greetings from the Farmington police dept which sends its heartfelt resentment.
“To the man who never went fishing on the Susquehanna but wrote about it anyway –giving fellow writers the license to go fishing in unlikely literary waters.
“To the man who many years ago caused journalists around the country to rush to the dictionary to look up the spelling of laureate.
“To the man who made us all look good at dinner parties when we recited his work — that is, until we forgot the words to Forgetfulness.
“To the man whose poem about his father’s hat has given us a chance to say something eloquent at funerals of dear ones.
“To the man who saved this festival without knowing it — giving his first reading here many years ago when we were down to our last fifteen cents. We had dragged to the festival a member of the Connecticut Humanities Council who, against all expectation, found himself choking in hilarity. The next week, the council sent a large check, and so we are here tonight as a result of that and a lot more. Able to buy yet another Billy collection, and to scribble in the margins, man vs. nature, and that in this case man emerged victorious — A toast, then, to our great festival friend, Billy Collins.”