There wasn’t a piano on stage. That’s always a good sign when Garrison Keillor is in the room.
Instead, the audience at San Francisco’s elegant Herbst Theatre on February 15th was greeted by a simple stage with three comfy chairs, fresh-cut flowers, and a bowl of shiny red apples. The feeling of having stumbled into someone’s living room wasn’t entirely accidental.
Despite his questionable musical skills, the host of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion has a rare ability to make people feel at home. After doing it every week for years before four million listeners, it was only natural that he could make a 900-seat room feel cozy. All that was missing was the television in the corner flickering with Seinfeld reruns.
As part of the twenty-fifth anniversary of San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures program, Keillor was in town to talk poetry with Billy Collins and Kay Ryan. Who better than these two poets both known for their wit? Collins, based in New York, held the title of poet laureate of the United States from 2001 through 2003 and recently released the unpretentious collection The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems. Ryan, a native Californian, won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2004 and has released six collections of minimalist work, including her most recent collection, The Niagara River.
As with an evening at home among good friends, the conversation flowed easily and freely. The risk that it would get too intellectual was dashed at the start when Ryan botched a metaphor comparing transforming personal experience into writing to, well, turning cookie dough into cookies. It didn’t really work, and she didn’t really care.
Keillor, dressed in a crisp black suit offset with a jarring red tie, sock, and sneaker combo, also made sure that things never got too tedious. “Read one of your poems about animals,” he requested of Ryan early on. After stoically listening to her piece, “Deer,” in which the author uses the animal as an analogy for her own writing process, he deadpanned, “How long did it take you to write that poem, and how did you know you were done?”
Along the way, the laid-back trio engaged in lively debates on the pros and cons of poems that end with rhymes (verdict: not good); poetry versus prose (verdict: poetry wins); and Dick Cheney’s recent hunting accident (verdict: it was no accident).
There were also revelations: Ryan does most of her writing while lying down. When Collins was a teenager in a strict East Coast Catholic school, he would walk around the halls with a volume of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s work hidden in his pocket and daydream about stealing cars, popping pills, and driving to Denver to seek out jazz clubs. And best of all was Ryan’s admission that she got into writing after something she said made a woman spit milk across the table—“A stranger!” That’s when she realized the power of language.
In between the casual conversation, the mostly middle-aged and mostly white audience reveled in samples of the poets’ best work. Most of it happened to be about dogs, turtles, mice, rabbits, and, in one case, a drawing of a cow (“I’m sort of an indoor nature poet,” Collins admitted). Each was stunning in its own way, but what all the pieces shared was an endearing lack of reverence for the poets’ chosen profession and a wicked sense of humor. Collins’ poem “The Trouble with Poetry” came with the kicker “It encourages more poetry.”
When Keillor took the microphone into the crowd and a member of the audience asked the poets what they’d learned about themselves through their writing, they exchanged weary glances. “Just how to finish the poem,” Collins shrugged. When someone else wondered if they had any favorite pieces, Ryan shot back with her own variation on the old children analogy, “We just bear them out and abandon them.”
Inevitably, as it always does when amongst friends, the topic of death came up. Someone mentioned that poets have the highest suicide rate of all writers because they face the blank page more frequently than the others. For the first time all night, brows furrowed and a somber tone set in.
Then Collins piped up, “So kill yourself.”