A – Z: The Billy Collins Poetry Broadcast

An A- Z of Billy Collins’ Poetry Broadcast

Lockdown is long – but Billy Collins and his Poetry Broadcast has brought joy and and a sense of belonging to many. So here is the A – Z of all things that you may just be wondering about when you watch the broadcast. I’m sure I’ve missed some – feel free to let me know…

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A – Address or adress (you decide), ‘After The Inauguration’

B- Billy’s Birthday Girl, Blackwing

C- Cotton Tail F***er, Cool People The Night People, Cicada (just don’t)

D – DFFD, Dogs (and especially dogs in poems – get him every time)

E – Elephant in the room (this Broadcast won’t go on forever, will it?)

F- Freaky Blast (have one)

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G – Google it up!

H – Handsome Bastard Studios

I – Insurrection / Inauguration – they got their approach to the Broadcast right every time

J – Jazz & Jamesons – is all you need,. Oh, and juke box poems.

K – Key cards – that is a mighty collection.

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Artwork by Johnny Eaton

L – (This) Lime Tree Bower 

M – Mould remediation  and  the Minor Third

N – New poem – those two beautiful words.

O – Oxymoron

P – Professor Bebop, “the paint is still wet on this one”

Q – Questions About Angels – he’s read that and all the rest.

R – (the) reader is central

S – Suzannah  – without her we wouldn’t be here. Shovel – if you have to ask, well …

T – Triscuits & Tom Thumb’s Thumb

U – Unauthorised use of music – it’s Billy’s flirtation with the the popo

V – Value for money – you’re getting all this for free for the duration of a whole pandemic

W – WPD, “wouldn’t want to live on the difference”, Whale Day is ours

X- Let X stand for what it will

Y – You’re not double parked, are you?

Z – “why does z, which looks like
the fastest letter, come at the very end?” (The Long Day)

Catch Billy and his Poetry Broadcast on Facebook — you can watch it live at 10.30 pm (MT) or see the recording next day.

The picture in the banner of this page is the artwork of Johnny Eaton – thanks to him for allowing me to use it.

2020 in Ten Poems

What Poem of The Week Says About 2020 and Me

At work we have a system of sending a Poem of The Week to all staff. I can only imagine how many of those emails remain unopened in deleted files, but I know from feedback that every now and then a poem really lands, and it makes a difference. The difference might be someone smiles at their desk on a Monday morning, or they will send a reply saying how much they liked/appreciated it, or the difference is I have a conversation with someone about a poem – someone I might not normally have much to chat about is talking to me about poetry – that’s a win! Let me declare now – the idea of doing this simple thing was not mine – but I really enjoy being part of it.

I have looked back at the poems I sent this year and I was wondering if they tell a story, perhaps a story of how I was feeling, or of bigger things. Looking at my list I think these poems say a lot about 2020. Note there are only ten poems here because I share the scheme with others in my department, plus it is a school and so poems were not sent in holiday time, or indeed, in the white heat of switching to remote learning overnight.

How I Select

I take quite a bit of care over the choice of poem – there are a few guiding principles. Firstly I have to like the poem – this is my chance to impose my taste on the world – what an opportunity. The poem will not be too saccharine, too flowery or from on high.  It must be reasonably short and accessible – people have a million other things to do and 98% of the recipients are not in the English Dept. Therefore the poem has to work pretty immediately. I avoid anything too controversial – why bother with upsetting people or having to defend your choice? I try to send something most will not know by a writer they may not know. I want the poem to capture the mood of the school, the season, the state of the country or at least have a connection that goes beyond my taste.  Generally I go with one I can get on the internet – that’s me being lazy and avoiding the fuss of scanning a perfect copy etc.

The poems I sent …

Days Billy Collins.

Collins deceives with his light touch – there is more than you think going on in the poems. But this is accessible and bright and what we need as we struggle to enjoy January.

11th February, 1963 Paul Farley.

This would have been sent as close to the date as I could get it – the poem is a fantastic collision of two events that took place on that one day. (To say more would be unfair to those who are about to read the poem for the first time).

But These Things Also   Edward Thomas

Spring and Winter overlap – where is the join?

Pandemic Lynn Ungar 

I sent this poem in March. It demonstrates how the list of poems ends up as a kind of diary. Little did we know what we were about to get into.

A Study of Reading Habits Phillip Larkin

Across the country there is something called National Book Week and there is also World Book Day. Either way, this is my cheeky choice for Larkin’s last line, “Get stewed: /
Books are a load of crap.”

Yes William Stafford

Here is a short and fantastic poem that is instantly accessible and yet endlessly yielding new insights. I sent this in July, as school was ending for the academic year. I said it could be Poem of The Week or Poem of The Year – and now we get to the end of December I still think that holds.

Praying Mary Oliver

This poem was one I heard Billy Collins read on his Poetry Broadcast – another that is deceptive in its simplicity and of course relevant to where we were in the Autumn.

Robert Frost George Bilgere

It is easy to get carried away with trying to match the poem to lofty ideas of raising the spirits of co-workers. Instead I can go with a piece like this that says “Yep, we’re all trying to get through today”. One colleague emailed in response to this asking if the choice was autobiographical. Absolutely. https://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php%3Fdate=2012%252F04%252F08.html

Graduates of Western Military Academy George Bilgere

Here we were in November, Remembrance day upon us. Too easy to go with Owen, Sassoon et al. So yes, I repeated Bilgere (another Billy Collins tip I picked up). Again this poem got a reaction – it really is a poem to make you think and it expands the usual parameters of Remembrance Day.  

Instant Karma Roy Marshall

My last poem for the school year. Schools closing early (well, moving online) because of the virus and things beginning to spiral again. So a poem that embraces the cleaners of our work places.

So there it is… ten poems that say something about the year we just had. I recommend doing this at a work place – if nothing else it’s something to ponder on the journey to/from work – what shall I send next week? Let’s hope we’re sending poems that celebrate life and its wonder next year – and perhaps a poems about the joy of being able to hug each other.

All the poems mentioned here are available online – just search the poet and title.

World Poetry Domination – The Billy Collins Way

This is the year of World Poetry Domination, and Billy is at the helm.

Lockdown has loomed large this year and whichever version you are in, whichever tier you are in right now, it is miserable. I’m not going to detail the way we discovered walking, cycling baking et al as ways of finding respite from the relentless bad news, and we all know nature is the great healer. Instead, I’m celebrating the unlikely hero to many people throughout this time, Billy Collins, and his Poetry Broadcast.

In March, when life became so strange and my work moved online, I discovered via Facebook that Billy Collins was reading a few poems online. I watched, and I’ve been watching ever since. The readings began when Billy’s numerous engagements were cancelled and his wife Suzannah suggested he do something online for a day or two. Reluctantly he agreed, and here we are nine months later – Billy broadcasting Monday to Friday for about 30 minutes each day, giving a sense of balance, calm and joy to life. People comment and Billy picks up on the comments the next day, thus fostering a two way relationship. Suzannah acts as director, producer, lighting designer and makeup artist.

Live and direct from his study at his Florida home.

Billy said way back in the Spring, “The pandemic is slowing everything down to the speed of poetry”, and at the peak of lockdown it really did feel like the world was slowing down, letting us take in the things we often miss. I was able to kick-back after work and enjoy Billy’s poetry half hour. I must point out, that while Billy’s work is at the core of the broadcasts, there is so much more – we have had Billy analyse Colerdige’s ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’ (Billy’s favourite poem), we’ve been treated to examinations of Emily Dickinson’s work, and analysis of Sharon Olds poems, for instance. We go from an anecdote about meeting Paul McCartney to an academic study of a poem right back to what the cat did that day.

However, the sustaining element of the broadcast is the sense of community, the shared interest and the warmth that Billy and his wife exude. In the main there is no mention of the virus, the news and there was certainly no mention of Trump. Though these rules are sometimes relaxed, such as when Billy and Suzannah send sympathy to someone ill with the virus or when they celebrated the election result. Another notable exception to the absence of politics was the broadcast for Juneteenth, when Billy read a number of poems by black writers as a way of marking events. Billy did also mark, in brilliant and moving fashion, 9/11 by reading his poem ‘The Names’. That poem was written when Billy was the Poet Laureate, and it is striking how reluctant he is to capitalise on the poem; it seemed he read it only after persuasion, and that was true of its publication too.

Viewership keeps growing, with people from all corners of the globe watching: Egypt; Ireland; Belgium; Scotland; and Japan, and of course Florida where Billy is. And, as is his habit, Billy covers other poets’ work in addition to his own, doing his part to keep poetry viral, vital and invincible. I need to mention also that at some point Billly added a bit of music to start and end with – this has become an integral part of things and if you want a crash course in jazz then Billy, or Professor Bebop, as he is with his shades on, is the man for you.

Billy in Professor Bebop mode.

It is, above all, the humour and sense of intimacy that sustains things. We’ve lived through the birth of grandchildren, Billy’s health scare, updates on house renovations, and we have been treated to some fantastic anecdotes that include Heaney, Obama, and Bob Dylan (though not all in the same story!).

During the period we have heard new poems from Billy, the “paint still wet” as he puts it. Who else of such stature is reading poems written that day, then giving us the second and third drafts as the work takes shape? Billy even wrote a poem, ‘The Minor Third’ inspired by a discussion that came about from the broadcast. The genesis of the discussion was Billy’s contention that a dog needs a two syllable name so that you can call it home in a minor third. We heard versions of the poem right up until it was published in his latest collection, ‘Whale Day’. The publication of that book is a story in itself, too long for now, but the upshot was personal messages in copies sent far and wide by Billy when there was a giant cock up by the publisher/seller.

When I was growing up, the thought of the year 2020 brought the future to mind – some kind of exciting world of flying cars or space age living. Instead, it brought a pandemic, a dark kind of sci-fi, but it also brought poetry and the quiet brilliance of Billy Collins, keeping so many around the world sane and connected. I didn’t expect to love Billy Collins any more than I did last year – but these are strange days, mama, most peculiar.

Look up Billy Collins, Poetry Broadcast on Facebook to see what it is all about.