APU Welcomes former Poet Laureate Billy Collins

by Brandon Hook

“The question is: What should poets do with the other 23 hours of the day?” asked Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-03, in front of a packed house in Upper Turner Campus Center. Collins visited Azusa Pacific University as part of the Department of English James L. Hedges Distinguished Lecture series, and was not short on insight and humor.

This is the first time APU has welcomed a poet laureate (which is simply the U.S. representative for poetry) to campus. Mark Eaton, Ph.D., English professor, first noticed that Collins was speaking at USC. APU took advantage of Collins’ presence in Southern California, splitting costs with USC.

“There’s not fixed date for the lectures and it worked out really well,” said David Esselstrom, Ph.D., Department of English chair. “It was serendipitous.”

From the get-go, the English faculty were shooting high for this year’s guest lecturer.

“We wanted to have someone significant and we wanted to have someone at the top,” Esselstrom said.

Esselstrom found the opportunity to host Collins fortuitous and also a means of addressing culture from a Christian standpoint.

“I thought this was a way of being in dialogue with the larger culture,” Esselstrom said. “He’s not a Christian poet. He comes from a Catholic background, but I don’t know if he’s practicing or not. That wasn’t necessarily what we wanted for the lectures—we wanted a major force in culture. It’s important as Christians to be in the world and to be in dialogue with other parts of the culture.”

Despite the fact that Collins may not be a self-proclaimed Christian, the APU community welcomed him warmly, giving him a standing ovation as he finished.

“I’m proud of the APU community for welcoming him warmly,” Esselstrom said. “He got better as the time went on. He said to me as I drove him back to the hotel that it was a great audience. I had no idea we would pack out UTCC and have people lining the back wall. That was amazing. He was energized by the end of the evening.”

Collins has been called the most popular poet in America, and is widely known for his accessibility. Fan favorites include The Lanyard and Litany.

“He’s a very accessible poet,” Esselstrom said. “He was a winner of Poetry magazine’s first Mark Twain award for humor in poetry. For a poet, he’s wildly successful. Here’s how successful he is: his poetry makes money. Because he’s accessible and humorous, I thought he would be a good fit for the APU community.”

Joseph Bentz, Ph.D., American Literature professor, believes Collins is so accessible because he addresses topics that everyone experiences.

“Collins writes about topics that everybody can relate to,” Bentz said. “And that’s one thing readers enjoy about him and the audience on Tuesday night really enjoyed. He writes about childhood, family, and relationships. His poetry really hits you at a deep level of experience. It’s not distant from most people’s own experience, and that makes it enjoyable.”

Bentz was excited to host a poet who holds a place in the American literature canon, but found that his favorite moments displayed one of Collins’ most notable traits: humor.

“My favorite poems to hear him recite are the humorous ones,” Bentz said. “Part of the humor depends on or at least is helped by how the poems are delivered, and he’s a master of delivery.”

Fine arts major and English minor Cat Raia, 2012, found the night accessible, funny, and interesting.

“I think it’s good to see who they pick for a poet laureate because that person represents poetry in the U.S.,” Raia said. “So it’s interesting to see who they choose for our country. It was very blunt and straightforward, and it’s funny because in some way you question why they picked him. But on the other hand, the night provided an outlook into the poet’s mind and his ability to take everyday moments and turn them into an art form. He was able to find the sadness within comedy and vice versa.”

Indeed, the lecture series’ second installation has given it momentum it did not have before.