Winter With the Writers Concludes With Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins

February 20, 2009

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins – February 19

It was standing room only as this year’s Winter With the Writers series concluded February 19 with former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

After a master class with students at 4 p.m., Collins treated the overflowing audience to a reading of an assortment of his prized poetry. From serious poems such as “The First Night” and “Divorce” to more whimsical poems like “Hippos on Holiday” and “Ballistics,” Collins delivered the verses with his typical style of comedic reprieve.

"Billy Collins’ genius is to make poetry look easy, poems brimming with imagination, reason and passion yet so worded, that the reader sees no reason either in the selection or the order of words, why he or she might not have said the very same in an appropriate conversation," said Director of Winter With the Writers Carol Frost. "It’s magic, really, like pulling from behind a child’s ear an egg or silver dollar."

Rollins’ Tiedke Concert Hall didn’t stay quiet for long. The crowd connected with Collins through dramatic oohs and ahs and audible gasps when shocked by words not traditionally uttered by poets. More often though, roars of laughter spilled from the group as Collins couldn’t help but smirk when reading the unique style of comedic poetry he is known for.

“I write for complete self entertainment,” Collins said. Collins admits that many of his poems are inspired by aggravation. “Many poems start because I am annoyed with something,” Collins said. “It’s more irritation than inspiration.” Collins read an unpublished poem with the possibility of two titles, “Hangover” or “Migraine,” during which he described a morning he was abruptly awakened by children playing Marco Polo at a hotel pool.

During a question-and-answer session conducted by Frost, Collins talked about growing up as an only child in Queens, New York and his enjoyment of solitude and hiding. The audience asked a variety of questions ranging from the serious to the curious.

When asked why he has such a fondness for dogs, Collins questioned back, “Who wouldn’t? I’ve always had a dog in my life,” Collins continued. “To have a mute companion, who is always adoring and entirely forgiving with almost no memory… I’m just astounded by the fidelity and willingness of dogs to go along with us.”

He also responded to questions about his time as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001. “It was very exhilarating to be Poet Laureate,” Collins said. “There is only one of you in the nation. It was jarring for me. I got to do some exotic things like meet Mrs. Putin and dance with Kim Cattrall.”

Collins, who is the Winter Park Institute inaugural scholar-in-residence, was recently named the Irving Bacheller Professor of Creative Writing at Rollins through the 2008-09 academic year. He is the author of more than nine books of poetry, including Ballistics (2008) and Nine Horses (2002). His poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks and periodicals, including Harper's, Paris Review and The New Yorker. His work has been featured in the Pushcart Prize anthology and The Best American Poetry. Collins has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1992, he was chosen by the New York Public Library to serve as "Literary Lion" and in 2001, he served as the U.S. Poet Laureate.

Scottish Novelist Margot Livesey – February 12

Winter With the Writers continued Thursday, Feb.12, with Scottish novelist Margot Livesey. The author of seven novels, Livesey is currently a distinguished writer in residence at Emerson College, Boston, Mass. and at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Livesey approached the stage with a bright smile, which carried on throughout her talk and interview. She read from four parts from her most recent book, The House on Fortune Street, which was published by Harper Collins in 2008. She later discussed how stories like those she read from Fortune Street usually come to her in fragments. “They come like a jigsaw puzzle with all of the pieces coming together in a meaningful way.” She said she spends much time revising sections as the story becomes clearer.

She graciously thanked Director of Winter With the Writers Carol Frost for welcoming her to Rollins, which she said seemed to be “the epicenter of writing in the South.” She also thanked the students in the Winter With the Writers class for inviting her to take part in the program. “I know the courage it takes to let a stranger weigh in on your prose.”

During the audience question and answer segment, Livesey was asked questions about her inspiration, her mentors and her character development among others. With a bright smile, she answered all questions with memorable quips and sincere stories. When asked what she does in time of writers block, Livesey responded with a variety of ideas, from complaining to friends and reading the dictionary to “reading local newspapers for ravishing little stories about tragedies, discontentment and bad behavior.”

The audience also wanted to know if “likes the people in her latest book.” She answered with a definite yes. “In some way, they all have something in common with me,” Livesey said. She also spoke about how she gives each of her characters a “literary Godparent,” who is key to their character.

Livesey was also asked about one of her former students, Alice Sebold, author of the international bestseller The Lovely Bones, Lucky and The Almost Moon. Sebold studied with Livesey when she taught at the University of California Irvine. Sebold was working on The Lovely Bones novel at that time.

St Lucian Nobel Prize Laureate Derek Walcott – February 5

As the second author featured in this year’s Winter With the Writers, A Festival of the Literary Arts, St Lucian Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott conducted a master class for students in the afternoon and continued with an evening public talk on February 5.

Community members packed the Tiedtke Concert Hall Thursday evening as Walcott read from his collection of poetry and treated the audience to recent poems he wrote about the election of U.S. President Barack Obama for the London Times, titled Forty Acres and The World is Waiting.

Director of Winter With the Writers Carol Frost, an award-winning poet herself, asked questions submitted from the audience, from the obscure to serious. While confused by the question about how often he trimmed his mustache, Walcott maintained his dry sense of humor throughout it all, answering questions and making jokes with a gentle, friendly spirit, yet not a hint of a smile.

During the evening event, the multi-talented Walcott discussed his adoration for painting, theatre and poetry. When asked which of the crafts he enjoys most, Walcott's answer was painting. "Painting can bring a lot of physical joy," Walcott said. "The joy you get from writing a poem is relief that you made it through. Poetry is such a thing that you serve that your identity is minimum or even non-existent.”

Walcott’s candid answers stirred numerous bouts of laughter from the audience. The sincere poet freely discussed his successes and failures. “I have become an authority on the flop,” Walcott said referring to his recent theatre experience. “However, there is a sequence of meaning in these flops. The experience is based on sincere work. I liked what I did and I am a pretty tough judge. And you are the real judge of what you have done.”

“I cannot think of a work that is perfect,” Walcott said. “But the question for any artist is one of satisfaction.”

Awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, “for a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity,” Walcott has published 11 books of poetry, including Collected Poems: 1948-1984, which won the 1986 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, London Magazine and other periodicals. Walcott is the recipient of a five-year fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation (the “Genius Award”) and was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, among numerous other honors. Also an award-winning playwright, Walcott has created plays that have been produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Negro Ensemble Company. His most recent book, Selected Poems, was published in February 2007.

Award-Winning Poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly – January 29

Carol Frost interviews Brigit Pegeen Kelley as part of Winter With the WritersThe 69th year of the Winter With the Writers, A Festival of the Literary Arts kicked off Jan. 29 with award-winning poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly. A self-described "creature of place," Kelly grew up in rural New Jersey and later lived in central Illinois. She read from her work and told stories of her life. When asked about her writing method, she explained that she started out in the visual arts, "You sketch, paint, paint over it, "she said. "My writing method resembles the construction of art. I write a lot of drafts."

During the question and answer session, she sometimes struggled to verbalize her work. But the likable Kelly seemed to have an epiphany when she explained that her father read to her and her siblings often and they watched foreign films together. "Of all of the readings and all of the films, never once did we talk about them," she paused. "I think of art in silence."

Read about the entire Winter With the Writers, A Festival of the Literary Arts series. Special thanks to Winter With the Writers photographer Christian Kebbel (Class of 2011).

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