Written By: Josh Gray

Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins has a few words to share with Nantucket.

Few have transcended poetry to become a contemporary, popular force like Billy Collins. A former Poet Laureate of the United States, prolific author, speaker, and professor, Collins has been called America’s favorite poet by The Wall Street Journal. This June, he will headline the fifth anniversary of the Nantucket Book Festival. This will mark Collins’s second trip to the island. His first came two years ago when he presented at The Nantucket Project’s annual event. “I was a misfit in a way, because most of the people there were financial people. That said, I am all for putting poetry in unexpected places, and I like trying to make converts.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 3.14.47 PMA regular commentator in media and pop culture, Collins, now 75, has written a dozen collections, commanding large publishing fees and selling better than almost anyone else in his field. As Poet Laureate, he created a national high school program through the Library of Congress called Poetry 180 that promotes awareness of the craft. “The American public has so many misconceptions about poetry, and those are carried over from school, when they were so often forced to read the wrong of kind of poetry, antiquated and too difficult. Poetry has become subject matter that is left behind like trigonometry or something else they don’t need.”

Collins’s poems are often about nature and speak specifically to American sensibilities, using humor and lightness to convey straightforward, sometimes profound messages. The poet Richard Howard said of Collins’s work, “He has a remarkably American voice… that one recognizes immediately as being of the moment and yet has real validity…” The novelist John Updike has called his writing, “lovely poems… Limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides.”

Collins’s Friday night event at the Unitarian Church will be a conversation with National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm, an encounter that has festival organizers excited. The conversation is one of three events scheduled with the author. Saturday, Collins will read from his most recent book, a collection of poems called “Aimless Love.” Sunday he will be featured in one of the festival’s few ticketed events, a breakfast and reading at the Brant Point Grill.

“Some readers dismiss poetry as inaccessible or inscrutable. Not many who have ever read a poem by Billy Collins — particularly who have heard him read his poems — will find that easy to do,” said Tharon Dunn, chairperson of the Book Festival’s literary committee. “Billy wakes us up from our laziness or fear of poetry and gives us direct, easily comprehended stories in his poems that often make us smile or laugh out loud and almost always make us say to ourselves, ‘I get it but I don’t know how he manages to tell the truth and make it so funny.’”

Perhaps nothing loomed bigger both in the creation and eventual presentation of his work than when he was asked during his tenure as Poet Laureate (2001- 2003) to write a poem marking the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Titled “The Names,” he read the work before a special joint session of Congress.

Humbled by the concept of his popularity, Collins surmised his success might be due to his efforts to be “plainspoken and extend a certain courtesy to his readers” that are as simple as using full sentences and a reasonably plain vocabulary. “That is to start, at least,” he continued. “I do then try and make the poem go somewhere; starting with something small and moving into something big.”

Billy Collins will be speaking on three occasions during the Book Festival: “A Conversation with Diane Rehm” on Friday, June 17th at 7 P.M. at the Unitarian Meeting House (free); “A Host of Objects of Affection” on Saturday, June 20th at 2:30 P.M. at the Unitarian Meeting House Sanctuary (free); “A Lyrical Breakfast” on Sunday, June 19th at 9 A.M. at Brand Point Grill (tickets required).

by Billy Collins

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.

Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.
I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

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