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'An Evening with Billy Collins': Poet to present at several local venues Saturday

Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, will stop at several locations in Bemidji Saturday in addition to presenting "An Evening with Billy Collins" Saturday evening at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. The visit here is his first to northern Minnesota.

The poems of Billy Collins often open with a phrase that seems prosaic rather than poetic, but at some point turns into a surprise.

For example, "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun In The House" begins with the simple statement: "The neighbors' dog will not stop barking," a situation most people are familiar with. The poet closes the windows and puts a crashing Beethoven symphony on the record player, but the dog's rhythmic barking continues to intrude.

Suddenly, the scene in the poem changes from inside the house to the concert hall: "and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra, his head raised confidently as if Beethoven had included a part for barking dog."

After the reader smiles at that idea, the poet takes the reader back to reality: "When the record finally ends he is still barking..." But in the next phrase, Collins doubles the image of the irritating dog outside and the orchestral dog: "sitting there in the oboe section barking, his eyes fixed on the conductor who is entreating him with his baton while the other musicians listen in respectful silence to the famous barking dog solo, that endless coda that first established Beethoven as an innovative genius."

Collins will share his work with Bemidji audiences Saturday, Sept. 25. He will lead a discussion of poetry at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Chief Theatre, sign books from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at Book World and read his poetry for "An Evening with Billy Collins" at 7:30 p.m. at the Bemidji High School Auditorium. There is no charge for the discussion in the morning workshop. Tickets for the evening reading cost $20 for the general public and $10 for students and are available at the Headwaters School of Music and the Arts and Lueken's Food Village North. A reception at the Headwaters School for ticket holders will follow the reading.

Collins said this will be his first visit to northern Minnesota, one stop on a tour of Minnesota and Nebraska. Between his public appearances Saturday, Collins said he hopes to visit the Headwaters of the Mississippi to wade across the river.

In a telephone interview from his home in Florida, Collins said poetry traditionally reflects either the tragic or comic masks, but he said he has little tolerance for silly poems or those that take themselves too seriously.

"That middle face is never depicted, and that's irony," he said. "A mild smirk. There's a thin line. I don't know if I walk that line all the time."

He also describes his poetry as "a door into the serious."

In a documentary made during his years a U.S. Poet Laureate, he told an interviewer, "A really good poem is an emotion for which there is no word."

He said a poem should lead to something, a switch in tone at the end.

"If I didn't do that, I think I'd just be bored," Collins said. "There should be something left over in a poem that eludes our intelligence - a whiff of mystery with a certain amount of clarity."

Collins said of the Saturday morning discussion at the Chief Theatre, "I'm really happy to talk about the inner workings of poetry."

As for reading his poetry aloud, he said it was a skill he had to learn. If a poet is lucky, he said, he or she comes to a second segment of a career in which people ask for readings.

"I suspect, in a way, we're trying to capture those moments in childhood when we were read to by a parent or a benevolent presence," he said.

Among many other honors, Collins is distinguished professor of English at the City University, New York, and served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-2003.

His poetry has been introduced to a wide audience by his appearances on National Public Radio, especially The Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.

"He gets into all sorts of corners of the country that don't have readings," Collins said.

He said Keillor is responsible for opening all kinds of poetry to people who might not otherwise be exposed to the art.

Collins has published nine collections of poetry. His next book, a collection of poems titled "Horoscopes for the Dead," will be published in spring 2011.