Thank you, Billy Collins
musings on the first year of The Poetry Broadcast
The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things: of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—of cabbages and—Billy.
It’s time because Billy Collins and his wife, Suzannah, (and viewers around the world) are celebrating one year of The Poetry Broadcast this month. Happily, it will coincide with his 80th birthday. He’ll be delivering a special episode on that day, March 22nd (Facebook Live, 5:30pm EST). Happy birthday, Billy!
During the pandemic, Billy, a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, and Suzannah (who he affectionately refers to as producer/ director/ lighting/ makeup), have consistently delivered these weekday broadcasts of poetry and jazz to thousands upon thousands of people across the globe. And many faithful daily viewers say The Poetry Broadcast has been one of the only consistent, positive things for them all year.
Hearing him recite his poems, and the poems of other excellent poets (and the jazz music he shared, with commentary)—has been, and will continue to be “an absolute treasure,” said Martin Cordrey, a viewer from England.
When the pandemic arrived one year ago, the way people accessed poetry changed from smaller pods of people geeking out—to thousands upon thousands freaking out in virtual settings because Billy’s readings were suddenly online. Clearly, he could no longer travel to give readings at universities, which he used to do often (his tall stack of plastic hotel room keys is legendary).
Suddenly, he appeared on Facebook Live reading to thousands of us around the world during lockdown orders and shelter in place restrictions. He says he enjoys delivering the broadcasts as much as we enjoy hearing them. His dream for World Poetry Domination has gained a great deal of traction. In fact, his broadcast inspired the formation of a large underground group of his poetry fans from around the world called The Cool People, The Night People (a nod to his love of Jean Shepherd’s radio hour when he was a boy).
In the running chat thread of the broadcast, comments have been rolling in all year from Aberdeen, Sweden, many edges of Ireland, and England to thank Billy and Suzannah (and to engage in fun banter with them and other viewers). To balance out things in the chat thread, Peadar O’Donoghue and Johnny Eaton throw hilarious, witty spit wads from Ireland and Canada.
And just when you think there’s no one left in the world who hasn’t watched the broadcast, people from Sydney, Canberra, and Rio de Janeiro leave comments that whizz past, along with those from New South Wales, Italy, Belgium, San Miguel de Allende and Dhaka.
Last September, loyal followers saw the release of his latest book, Whale Day, and tripped over themselves rushing to order signed special editions from Barnes & Noble. Well, he sunk a hole-in-one with Whale Day. It’s been an amazing year for the book both in its appeal to readers and in sales. By the way, when Billy’s not writing poetry he’s golfing. When he’s not golfing he’s hosting the broadcast.
Change is in the air globally and for the broadcast as we all adjust to some kind of new normal. The broadcast will soon be delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, rather than every weekday, and viewers are feeling sentimental. Billy, Suzannah, and loyal viewers, have become like a large family. We’ve rejoiced and sorrowed with each other through highs and lows this past year.
One of the highs was welcoming new life. In fact, Suzannah and I both welcomed two newborn grandchildren (two!) during the pandemic. And yet there were also many lows through which we all supported each other. Loved ones—pets and humans—passed on, there were sprains and broken wrists, gout, hospitalizations, depression. Most sadly, one of our own viewers, Owen Hogle, passed away.
Faithful viewers have amassed a collection of “Billy memories” which we joke about often: Billy almost choking on a Triscuit in one episode (he’d eaten one just before airtime), his love of Blackwing pencils, yellow Leuchtturm writing notebooks, sipping on Jameson’s from a Waterford roly tumbler, and the little mice that make their way into quite a few of his poetry stanzas. The copy of his book he sometimes reads from (Aimless Love) is so worn out it looks like one hundred Kleenex tissues loosely stitched together.
He’s also a good teacher. When Billy gave backstories (for his own poem “Genius”, and “Icarus’s Dog” by Charles Simic) a gal named Leesa Weisman Barenboim wrote in the running comments: Nice. All the things we need to know before you read them. It’s like getting all dressed up for the dance.
We also remember when Pamela Sztybel featured Billy and his broadcast in one of her famous 365 Days of the Pandemic watercolors.
One year ago, as the broadcast was evolving day by day, viewers noticed small changes in his writing studio like when one Dan Christensen painting was switched out for another. “We call them Dannys,” he said (the same way one would say, we call them paintings). “And this is another he gave me for my birthday one year,” he said, pointing behind him.
Nowadays the painting most often on the grasscloth covered wall is of the airplane featured on the cover of his book, Horoscopes for the Dead, the title poem he wrote in honor of his friend, Michael Shannon, who passed away (Michael was a Pisces. Billy is an Aries).
And we discovered that even though Billy is an only child he’s humble enough to recognize many other forces in the poetry world like himself, including, of course, Amanda Gorman. After she recited her poem on Capitol Hill, Billy celebrated her on his broadcast as “a spellbinder” with incredible poise … “who works this hypnotic hula dance with her hand gestures.”
He delighted his broadcast viewers with an analysis of her alliteration in “The Hill We Climb,” of the internal rhyme, and anaphora she used, and how—like Walt Whitman—she didn’t have regular meter in her poem but that she was still “very, very rhythmical … an amazing sense of rhythm but not by the metronome.”
Lately, he’s read a few of his new poems which might make it into his next book of poetry, and viewers are thrilled. Today, as usual, at the end of the broadcast Billy swivels in his old black leather chair toward his laptop, clicks Play on the jazz music he’s chosen for his exit, and gives a few parting words.
Then he stands, picks up the tumbler in a smooth gesture of the hand and walks away to the tune of Sonny Rollins’, “I’ve Found a New Baby.” Strains of a jazz saxophone still fill the view of his now-empty chair. One young viewer from Ireland comments in the still-active chat after he’s gone, “I like to imagine you two having a wee dance together just now.” I asked Suzannah about that and she said, “We were.”
Thank you for every nano-second of these poetry broadcasts this past year, Billy and Suzannah. Thank you for every poem, every laugh, every tear. As viewer Scott Renzoni would say, “You’re both straight from the fridge.” And, borrowing a phrase from Billy, it’s been “a freaky blast.” I think I can speak for all of The Cool People, The Night People—we’re extremely glad there are more broadcasts to come.
[Nota bene: here’s a list of every song he played on the broadcast during 2020.]
—Gwendolyn Soper writes commentary about current events, basic human rights (and is just starting to let other people read her poetry at gwendolynsoper.com).
Billy Collins is the kind of guy you'd like to hang out with, go to a game with, play a round of golf with. I read his books cover to cover, usually in one day.
Thank you Gwendolyn, beautifully written, you captured every emotion. I am tearing up with joy and gratitude.