Billy Collins likes finding poems where he least expects them.
St. Paul’s Sidewalk Poetry Project, in which people vie to have their words cast in concrete, is one example.
So was his idea for Delta Air Lines’ poetry option among their audio channels — a program he considers among his three most important contributions while U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003. (The channel ended after a few years — the clamor for Classic Rock apparently unceasing — but Collins made his point. )
Even humdrum Metrocards for New York City’s subways became vehicles for verse earlier this year when they carried a short poem Collins wrote for the centennial of Grand Central Terminal.
Such efforts enable people to encounter poetry on something other than the radio, said Collins, who will read his poems Friday at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. Not that he has anything against radio, far from it.
“Poems are good for the radio, and no one knows that better than Garrison Keillor,” he said, noting the 20-year run of “The Writer’s Almanac,” on American Public Media. Collins pinch hit for Keillor this summer — an experience he enjoyed once he got Keillor’s voice out of his head.
“The first time I was in the studio, I began by saying, ‘Here is “The Writer’s Almanac” for Tuesday, June …’ and I stopped. It was ridiculous. I felt like I was doing a bad imitation of him. I was pretty insecure. I didn’t want to screw it up.”
Collins chose each poem during his stint, which meant that most reflected his tastes, which run to “the relatively quirky, I would say. A little more slanted, peculiar, sometimes jokey, sometimes a poem that would leave you not uncomprehending but leave you scratching your head at it.
“I tend to like poems that are mildly disorienting.”
Calling on shared experience
Consider “The Country,” which opens his new book, “Aimless Love,” (Random House, $26), his first volume of new and selected poetry in 12 years.
The poem begins with a friend’s insistence on keeping strike-anywhere matches tightly sealed in his house “because the mice might get into them and start a fire.” Now unable to sleep, Collins imagines “one unlikely mouse” with a match in his teeth, rounding a corner, “the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam.”
Who could fail to notice, / lit up in the blazing insulation, / the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces / of his fellow mice, one-time inhabitants / of what once was your house in the country?”
Disorienting, mildly, and yet rooted in ordinary life. That’s one of Collins’ hallmarks, a way of striking a common chord in a way that enables poetry to be less in need of a plaintive cheering section.
“I think poetry is coming in from the wilderness, in toward the suburbs, although it’s not going to reclaim the center of our culture since that’s already been taken by television and other electronic means,” Collins said. “But I think it’s inching back toward more legitimacy in American culture. I think people are less afraid about it, less shy, less — what’s that image? — less dilettantish, like chess or something.
“People use the language of shared experiences — opening a can of soup or taking a dog for walk, accessing very bedrock emotions about being human, the need for love.”
The language of common experience is partly what lifts the book’s last poem, “The Names,” a commission as laureate to honor those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
That the poem is here is something of a surprise, given that Collins once said he would never include it in a collection, lest it be perceived as capitalizing on the tragedy in any way. He read it before Congress and only rarely since.
“I didn’t want to just treat it like another Billy Collins poem,” he said. “It was an honor to be asked to write it, and so specific to that terrible event that I didn’t want to toss it into a bunch of other poems.”
Yet, at 72, Collins realized that “Aimless Love” may be his last book of “new and selected” poems, citing an informal rule of thumb that it takes four books or a dozen years to accumulate enough from which to make selections.
Also, he added, people keep asking for “The Names.” “And you can find it online, so it’s no secret,” he said. “It was now or never.”
“The Names” is the second of his most important contributions as laureate. The third is Poetry 180, a program that encourages high school students to read one poem every day of the school year.
Just one, perhaps Collins’ “Cheerios,” which begins:
One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago / as I waited for my eggs and toast / I opened the Tribune only to discover / that I was the same age as Cheerios.
And you keep reading.