Rollins' Winter Park Institute Sets the Stage for Paul Simon and Billy Collins

October 24, 2008

Billy Collins and Paul Simon
A highlight of the Winter Park Institute, the Rollins community sat in on an intimate conversation between two legendary artists as poet Billy Collins (left) and Paul Simon discussed poetry, music and life.

Rollins College hosted two poets of a modern generation when former U.S. Poet Laureate and Winter Park Institute Inaugural Fellow Billy Collins sat down with singer-songwriter Paul Simon to discuss poetry, music and life.

The event was part of the Winter Park Institute, a program that showcases thought leaders from diverse fields who are invited to the Institute for limited residencies.

The Knowles Chapel provided an intimate setting that gave the audience a glimpse into what could have been mistaken as a private conversation between old pals. This event was a continuation of a dialogue that began in February as part of New York's 92nd Street Y lecture series.

Collins and Simon bantered like no one was watching and then let the Rollins community into the conversation by answering questions submitted by those in the seats. This type of interface is what the Winter Park Institute is all about.

“The Winter Park Institute introduces new sources of intellectual capital into our campus and our community,” President Lewis Duncan said. “The Winter Park Institute offers exceptional occasions for visiting scholars and artists to interact with one another and members of the Rollins College faculty – and for members of the Rollins and Winter Park communities to enjoy unparalleled opportunities to share time with these thought leaders and participate as active listeners in some of their conversations.”

paulsimon.jpgCollins, referencing an inside joke of the evening, asked Simon if he could call him Al, which led Simon into the story of how the line and subsequent song, “You Can Call Me Al,” came about. Simon explained how he and former wife, Peggy, were having a party to which a composer friend brought renowned French composer Pierre Boulez. According to Simon, when Boulez was saying his goodbyes, he said, “Sorry I have to leave Al, and give my best to Betty.” “Ever since then, Peggy would call me Al, and I would call her Betty,” said Simon. “It became a running joke.”

From the creative effects of boredom to global inspirations, the poet and songwriter shared what motivates them to do what they do. Simon discussed songwriting techniques including the importance of tonality, harmony and rhythm. Both men gave the audience a glimpse into their personal creative processes. “There’s a lot of waiting before creative bursts,” said Collins. “It’s like boredom is a prelude to creativity…it’s a preparatory state.”

Agreeing, Simon added, “The part of creating that I don't like is the boredom part… but I’m not going to write a song about being devoid of ideas and waiting.”

“I just sort of collect words or phrases and put them in a book,” Simon continued. “Three-fourths of them aren't interesting. But the others are interesting, and they have a certain rhythm to them. The creative process goes on all around you, and it doesn't cohere until later.”

Simon picked up his acoustic guitar to provide an example of a new song that was born from one of those interesting phrases that had a unique rhythm. He sang…“God and his only son paid a courtesy call on earth one Sunday morning.” The song starts out as a theological vision, but the creative path led Simon to turn it into a love song by the end.

After booming applause from the crowd, Simon explained how the song emerged from differing melodies and admitted he “hadn't written a song with just a guitar since ‘Graceland.’” He said he usually comes up with some sort of melody or finds a phrase he likes and tries to play off that, choosing what sounds good musically or lyrically.

Simon discussed his fascination with world music and the intervals of sound. From Indian and Kenyan musicians to the sounds of doo wop and rockabilly, he says he finds interest in a variety of sounds.

Collins joked about how his creative process never begins with an instrumental rhythm, but compared writing poetry to solving problems. "Writing creates problems,” he said. “And the solution is the finished work." Both artists agreed that language is not always cooperative with desire, and a lot of the task of creating is negotiating with language.

As the conversation evolved, audience members had the chance to submit questions for the duo. In response to the question inquiring which song Simon wished he had written, Simon revealed that the only one was the holiday favorite, “Silent Night.” “It’s just such a beautiful song,” he said. Some whimsical questions from the audience, such as "Have you come up with more than 50 ways to leave your lover?" and "Do you need a roadie?" remained unanswered. Collins asked if Simon would conclude the night by treating the audience to a performance of one of his songs. Simon answered with his 1972 hit "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard." The star-struck audience responded with a standing ovation and Collins thanked Simon for making him “look like a cool guy.”

Billy Collins opened the Winter Park Institute’s inaugural year in September. Internationally known jazz banjo player Béla Fleck was the second scholar to visit Rollins by way of the Winter Park Institute. Author and editor Linda Wagner-Martin and writer, performer and psychodramatist Natalie Krasnostein will be coming to engage in conversation with the Rollins community in November. Please visit the Winter Park Institute website for more information and a complete schedule of events.

Contributing Writers: Heather Georgoudiou (Class of 2009) & Justin Braun (Class of 2010)

Copyright © 2012 Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, FL 32789  407.646.2000

News Archives: