Former Poet Laureate recites poetry at Brown Family Assembly


Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, right, shakes hands with President Rick Commons. Credit: Caitlin Chung/ Chronicle

Lindsay Wu

Former U.S. Poet Laureate, former New York State Poet and Distinguished Professor Billy Collins discussed the nature of relationships by reading selections of his writing at the annual Brown Family Assembly on April 24.

Collins said his goal when writing poetry is to connect with those beyond himself.

“[Poetry] can be easy; it can be 10 minutes [to write a poem] if I’m lucky,” Collins said. “It can be difficult and it can take three, four or five hours or longer. The reason is [that] I feel that the moment and the time I spend writing should be an experience, first for me and then for the reader. The poem is susceptible to listening to what you want it to do or defying it, but that makes it all the more interesting for everyone because it’s full of surprises.”

Collins recited 22 of his poems during the assembly . Collins’s works “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl,” “On Turning Ten” and “The Lanyard” highlighted his different relationships with various people prominent throughout his life. In “Lucky Cat” and “A Dog On His Master,” Collins also presented poems that explored interaction between pets and their owners from the former’s perspective.

Collins also shared the stages of his writing process, in which he said he follows the individual feel of each poem.

“Mostly, I sit down and write and finish the poem in one sitting,” Collins said. “I’m incredibly curious about how my poems will end, so I can’t really write a couple stanzas and leave it be. I’m not a poet all the time, but when something appears to be right on, it’s game on. I’m totally focused, I’m in the moment. Then I stay with the poem. If the poem’s being uncooperative, I throw it in the wastebasket. I try to listen to my poem, see what it wants to do and never rush it. The poem is also about imagination.”

After reciting his work, Collins answered students’ questions.

In 2001, Linda and Abbot Brown (Russell ’94, David ’96) founded the Brown Family Speaker Series, an endowment to bring to campus influential individuals at the forefronts of their fields, President Rick Commons said.

Prior to addressing the Upper School as a whole, Collins also visited two combined English classes in Ahmanson Lecture Hall, where he shared more of his writing. In these sessions, students engaged in and received Collins’s work intently, Commons said.

During the assembly, however, Commons said the audience’s lack of attention was disappointing and disrespectful.

“[Collins’s] poems are exquisite and so accessible, but I was disappointed that a quiet voice was not being heard,” Commons said. “The way in which we were wrapped in attention to [our last speaker] Kid Cudi was great. I wish we could have given the same kind of gesture of respect to Billy Collins. I apologized to him for that and he noticed. It was tough hearing him read poems that I loved and he loved, but couldn’t focus on because of the chatter. I say that respectfully because I am proud of Harvard-Westlake students, but [the assembly] was not one of those times.”

Nevertheless, students enjoyed hearing Collins speak,2018 Los Angeles County Youth Poet Laureate Sophie Kim ’19 said. As a budding writer, Kim said Collins’s unique style of poetry served as an inspiration for her.

“[Collins] is so amazing,” Kim said. “The way he fused humor and seriousness in his work is inspiring to me, and it’s super cool how his tone could be playful but also relate to more somber topics at the same time. The audience seemed to connect to this lightheartedness. I really admired him, and it’s truly amazing that we had the opportunity to have him on campus.”