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Poet Billy Collins offers wit, charm during WMPAC reading and Q&A

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BIG SKY—“Poetry forces us to slow down. I know that right now a lot of us are being asked to slow down,” began acclaimed poet, Billy Collins who joined guests remotely via Zoom on April 18. The reading and Q&A, hosted by John Zirkle, was a virtual event hosted by the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center—instead of audience members filling the seats in the auditorium in Big Sky, they were holed up in their homes, still enjoying the comforting power of the fine arts.

Collins is an American poet—appointed as Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003—and a distinguished professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, where he retired in 2001, and a Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute, Florida. He was recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library in 1992 and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004 through 2006. Currently, he is a teacher in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton, teaching a master class on poetry and preparing for the release of his newest book, “Whale Day: And Other Poems” this September.

Despite his roster of acclimations, the 79-year-old poet was open about the fact that he wasn’t published until he reached the age of 50. “What was I doing between high school and 50?” he asked with a laugh. “I don’t want to tell you. Those were the dark years.”

A lot of those years he did reveal, involved finding his persona, an acquired voice he credits to other modern American poets, including Philip Larkin, who taught Collins that it was okay to be both funny and serious at the same time.

“You have to assume the reader is indifferent,” he said of his persona when presenting his work to a crowd of listeners. “They need to be entertained and persuaded. It’s about making strangers fall in love with you.”

Many of the pieces he read during WMPAC’s event began comically and got darker as they unfolded, “which is how poems sometimes go,” he said inconsequentially.

Rikka Wommack, WMPAC’s Communications Manager says that despite the theater’s temporarily empty seats due to the stay-at-home order, that WMPAC is as committed as ever to enriching the Big Sky community through art by adapting their presentation style.

“When we’re living through unsettling times like these, art becomes more important than ever, as it enables us to better understand the experiences of ourselves and others,” said Wommack. “Art isn’t a luxury, but rather a necessity, for a healthy community.”

Reading from his home in Florida, Collins touched on the role of literature through human archives, noting that “Poetry is the history of human emotion,” and that many of the anxieties we are experiencing today, our ancestors experienced hundreds of years ago as they dealt with their own pursuits of health and happiness in an ever-changing and sometimes turbulent world.

Of our present crisis, Collins believes that although necessary, social distancing is an oxymoron and that depriving ourselves of human contact is unnatural for our species. “Six feet is much too distant,” he said. “This thing we’re going through is absolutely horrible and its happening behind closed doors.”

About halfway through his reading, Collins looks up at the computer screen at the audience, invisible to him but present, scattered all over the state and country. “I think you’re still there,” he said, adjusting, as we all are, to this new, distant form of entertainment. “It is an act of faith, this telecommunications.”

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