The Bird Catcher, New and Selected Poems (Moon Pie Press, 2012), 198 pp.
Since The Bird Catcher was a “new and selected,” I decided not to send it out for blurbs. Instead, I excerpted blurbs from three of my previous books, Two-Ply and Extra Sensitive, Vivaldi for Breakfast and Cardamom Cravings. But the story of how the book evolved deserves telling.
When I was appointed the 8th Portsmouth (NH) Poet Laureate by the City Council of Portsmouth in April 2011, my publisher, Alice Persons at Moon Pie Press, immediately contacted me and proposed a “new and selected.” I told her it had only been a couple of years since she published Vivaldi for Breakfast and I hadn’t had enough poems accepted and published since then to fill another book. In fact, it would be at least another five years until I had enough poems. But then it struck me. I had written at least 800 poems in the last 10 years. And there were at least 100 that I had a lot of faith in, even though they hadn’t found homes in journals or anthologies. What I needed was an easy way to winnow the 800 into a “new and selected” sized collection, which would run about 200 pages.
I shared my conundrum with my friend, Kathy Biehl, and she immediately responded, “I’ll help you.” In many ways, Kathy was the perfect reader. First, because she actually is a reader. And a writer. Second, because with a couple of small exceptions, she had never heard me read my work in public. Hers would be an objective eye. So, I spent the month of June 2011 compiling all the poems I had written since 2000 into annual chapbooks. Kathy’s challenge was simple: don’t study them, don’t analyze them, just read them (as most readers would the final book) and mark the ones that stood out. Through the months of July and August she read all 800-odd poems, which qualifies her for sainthood, or something. She reduced that 800 to just under 400, which was way too many–no one would read a book of 400 poems. But it was a start.
Now, Kathy knew more about me than anyone else on earth–ever.
Incidentally, I sent her poems bundled by year. Two weeks after she returned her last selections, I wrote to her and challenged her to name the 10 poems from all 800 that she found most unforgettable. No cheating; she couldn’t review the list. She could describe them by subject or a memorable line, however she remembered them. I marked the poems with an asterisk after the title in the table of contents. No matter how the list got sliced and diced, these poems would be in the finished product.
We tossed ideas back and forth about how to further cut the number of poems. Kathy came through again. Somehow, she wanted all the poems she had selected to be published because the gave a complete picture of me. But if they had to be divided, I should consider breaking them out into multiple books: one of my poems on gay themes, one of my poems about poetry (which will be combined with my essays on modern poetry in a future book called I’m Just a Stranger Here Myself), and the remainder into the proposed “new and selected.”
I had two other questions for Kathy, which poem would make the best title for the new book and (after waiting a couple of weeks) which poems stood out in her memory. The answer to the former was “How Billy Collins Came to Know of My Work.” The second produced a list of ten or eleven poems, each of which I earmarked–“not to be excluded from the final selection, no matter what.”
In mid-September, working with Michael Annicchiarico, we presented Ambushed by Poetry: No Second Takes, a program of poetry from the upcoming “new and selected” read to jazz piano improvisations at the University. In late September, working with Bob Moore, we presented the Exeter NH edition of Ambushed by Poetry: “100,000 Poets for Change,” an international series of 700 poetry readings in 500 cities, in 95 countries. In early November, working with Andrew Periale and Maren Tirabassi, we presented Ambushed by Poetry: Make ‘Em Laugh, a program of original humorous poems by area poets. This gave me December and January to work on the books. I decided it would be risky to release two books at once, fool hearty to release two.
Since they had the same deadline, March 2012, the month before National Poetry Month (April) 2012, the best time to do “book release” events, they had to be submitted to 2 different publishers. The anthology of my gay-themed poetry, Cardamom Cravings, went to Matt Gallant at Sargent Press and the “new and selected,” still called How Billy Collins Came to Know of My Work, to Alice Persons at Moon Pie Press. There was one more selection to be made on both books. The “new and selected” came to 200 pages but only by running the poems on. Each editor insisted that each poem start on its own page. This reduced the “new and selected” by 97 short poems and parodies. I consider these an important part of my work but felt they could be removed as a group against a time in the future when they could find a home of their own. Cardamom Cravings, which started out at 160-odd run-on pages, was reduced in a similar way by removing a set of songs based on interviews with gay friends on what Christmas meant to them. Between the two of them, I managed to salvage 300 of the 400 poems Kathy had originally selected.
Obviously, there was another change yet to come. Many poets thought the name How Billy Collins Came to Know of My Work was fun and witty. But it was cumbersome, and a difficult name to a abbreviate. Calling it my “Billy Collins” book turned it into something it wasn’t and, as my publisher remarked, gave more press to a great modern poet who, frankly, didn’t need it. Then, as I spoke about it with members of the press and strangers, I discovered that they didn’t know about Billy Collins and I was devoting a lot of time explaining who he is, that I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, and that the poem in question is a funny fantasy I shared with a young, 9 year old poet at a Billy Collins reading on how the young poet could talk to Mr. Collins. Of course, I had several alternative titles standing by. Of the two strongest, the poem containing one, “a butterfly lighting on a silk handkerchief embroidered with cherries,” was removed. That left The Bird Catcher, a story of my lost ability, as a child, to call pet birds and wild birds to me.
I guess that leaves the third book, I’m Just a Stranger Here Myself, my collected essays about modern poetry and poems about poetry. The title is from a song Kathy used to sing in our cabaret act, A Little Touch of Venus, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by Kurt Weill. All that material is safely sitting in my computer and will stay there for a few years. As unwise as publishing 2 books at the same time is, I think i should wait at least 5 years until my next publication, if not 10.