In the same house as Billy Collins

Another memory from summer 2015

At first I see his basket of dry goods on the counter of the communal kitchen. Raisin Bran, Cape Cod Potato Chips, Nature Valley Granola Bars. A bottle of Pellegrino is as fancy as it gets. I contemplate writing a poem called “Eating Billy Collins’s Potato Chips.”

In the late afternoon, heading out for a bike ride, my mind full of my own writing from the morning, I encounter the man himself in the dimness of the living room. He says hello. I try to see the title of the book in his hands. His female companion bounces in from an adjacent room — a fluffy guard dog — introduces herself, then him. I laugh. I like the order. She looks at me expectantly, waiting for my name. Then she begins to explain who he is.

“Oh, I know. He was the freaking Poet Laureate. Twice.” I say, cutting her off.

She asks me if I write poetry.

“Yeah,” I respond, sheepishly. Like that’s a question I want to answer in front of Billy Collins. I look at him, then her. “Yes, yes, I do,” in the voice of someone who’s found Jesus as her personal savior. “Here,” I say, reaching for my notebook, “let me read some of it to you!” They both laugh.

She’s reading Pushkin, he, Randall Jarrell. He waves me over into the dimness. I sit on the edge of a sagging armchair upholstered in botanicals. I can barely speak. Such is my fortitude in the face of celebrity. Perhaps noticing my state, Billy fills in the silence, talking about Jarrell and how he’s supposed to be such a big deal but he doesn’t see why. I nod dumbly, hoping that I appear intelligent, interested.

Somewhere in the spinning inside my head, I remember a poem that I think Billy might have written. Pulling my dry tongue from the roof of my mouth, I say, “Um, I’m going to ask you about a poem and I really hope you wrote it…The one about the sparrow in the Christmas tree.”

He nods, says something about the bird being brought into the house by the cat.

My relief is immense. “Oh, thank god. I would have felt awful if it hadn’t been yours.” I pause. “I love that poem.” Somehow it feels remarkable to be able to say that to the man himself.

He smiles. “Yeah, it awkward when someone comes up to you and says, ‘I love that poem about the computer.’ And you never wrote a poem about a computer.”

The next night, Billy gives an impromptu reading in the back yard. Before and after the reading I pass him on the lawn a few times, he says hello, remembers my name. I am awkward again, self-conscious, make a poor job of returning his basic civility. He reads a poem called After the Funeral, which pokes fun at our tendency to emphasize meaning by doubling words: drink-drink, elegant-elegant, bar-bar.

On the final afternoon of my workshop, I run into the pair again in the living room. Billy says something teasing about whether the “sharing” is over. Something has either possessed me or released me from my shyness; I am suddenly bold. I say, “You know, for someone in your position, you could afford to be a bit more generous.” I am stunned. The air around me feels thin and my head is pounding. He seems not to notice and asks me where I’m headed.

“I’m meeting a friend over in Oak Bluffs. We’re going to ride the Flying Horses.”

Billy doesn’t know what that is.

“Oh, it’s a merry-go-round, a calliope, you know,” I lean in meaningfully, “… a real carousel-carousel.” I am delighted with myself as his eyes pop and he looks at me, reconsidering who I seemed to be. I point my index fingers and waggle them at him. “See what I did there?” We laugh.

I coast out of the house on the wave of victory.

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