ANTI-HERO by Steve Downing
Between you and me, there are so few heroes in this life, it’s a privilege to be able to single out one for special mention: Billy Collins, a hero of mine. We crossed paths with him last fall, and I think often of those moments, that encounter.
Billy Collins was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, New York State Poet 2004-2006. POETRY magazine regularly selects him for one award or another, including Poet of the Year. He’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and more. He’s a distinguished professor at City University of New York. He reads his work, solo, everywhere, for serious money. In 1997, he recorded “The Best Cigarette”, a by-definition best-seller CD of his poetry (re-released in 2005). Best-selling poetry recording: a contradiction in terms, before and after “The Best Cigarette”.
In 2002, he wrote “The Names”, to commemorate the victims of the 9/11 attacks, which he read at a special joint session of the United States Congress. Then he pretty much shelved it. He refuses to include “The Names” in any readings or books he gets paid for. It was a gift.
Here’s a world-famous guy who could be so full of himself you’d never get close to him. His ego could understandably be planetary. And it’s just not. He’s as approachable as you or yours truly; he’s as interested in you as you are in him.
Dodger and I wound up in Billy Collins’ company last September in Bemidji, on our way back to the Hampton Inn from the event across the street at Sparkling Waters. We’d talked to him at the restaurant, so technically we weren’t absolute strangers, but it actually felt as though we were old acquaintances. He made it that easy. Three non-special human beings crossing a parking lot together, riding in an elevator, chatting about dinner and the weather.
And then the next night he delivered a riveting, tour-de-force, standing-ovation poetry reading at the Bemidji High School. This would be routine in New York City at the 92nd Street Y or Power House Books. Not here.