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Billy Collins reads to standing room only crowd in Erie

An audience from across the nation (including a small contingency from Cleveland) traveled to Erie, PA’s Gannon University on Tuesday evening to hear Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-03.

As part of the university English department’s awards, students from as far away as California competing in the national high school poetry competition, as well as Gannon students and many others, filled the hall in the student center to standing room only capacity for one of the nation’s most popular contemporary poets.

Collins was introduced by two students and one faculty member (Chuck Joy) who wrote a poem for the occasion, after which Collins made several jokes throughout the evening about requesting three introducers for all future readings.

Collins began the reading by quoting a few lines from Frost’s poem, “Two Tramps in Mudtime” as a commentary on the beautiful spring day, but then promptly informed his audience that, “That was a mistake, because those are the best lines you’ll hear tonight.”

Probably one of the most commonly used words to describe Billy Collins is “accessible”, which undoubtedly contributes to his popularity. But the humorous observations of everyday life that populate his poems become laugh-out-loud hysterical at a live reading, as his (nearly) deadpan manner of speaking remains even throughout a poem’s delivery. Even when the subject is a Sicilian, opera-singing squirrel, as in the poem “Palermo”.

He also took an entertaining critique of overused language ticks, like “like” and “Oh my God,” also explaining that, “there’s a past tense of ‘Oh my God.’ And the past tense is, ‘I was like, oh my God.’”

He even exhibited a little gently self-deprecating humor. After reading “Duck/Rabbit”, based on the optical illusion, he gave a brief pause and said, “I’m not sure about that one either.” He also added later in the evening, “You can probably tell that I don’t know where I’m going with most of these.”

But Collins’ poems not only cover the ridiculous, but also his Catholic background and education at a Jesuit University, reflections on academic life, and even, yes, love of all types.

“If you want to take on a big subject, you need to start much smaller,” he said, before reading “The Lanyard”, a poem that aptly illustrates the point.

Collins, for one, has no trouble taking on subjects big or small. His latest book is Ballistics, available online here.

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