Billy Collins and Elmore Leonard at the Tucson Festival of Books

The Tucson Festival of Books began with a mystery friend—the designation is at the request of said friend—and I wandering the booths. Some monkish types tried to convince me to buy a copy of the Bhagavad Gita that I already had. We attended a nonfiction panel where one member spoke of the danger of “Not realizing the potential of the moment” and capturing “the spirit of the event” and asking “what is truth?” During the talk, I read the first 40 pages of Out of Sight.

The food tent came next, and with it most notably some excellent caramel corn:

caramel-corn2

A few hundred people heard Elmore Leonard, but the guy who interviewed him wasn’t particularly skillful (with questions about Westerns—Leonard hasn’t written them in decades—and ones that boil down to, “What writers have influenced you?” His answer, which I could’ve predicted, was The Friends of Eddie Coyle; see this post) and called Leonard a “man who needs no introduction.” Then why introduce him? Anyway, Leonard did say that he shifted from writing Westerns to “Easterns” and that Arizona highways in the 50s were filled with good stories that he used in his novels and stories.elmore_leonard_signing2

The novel he’s writing now is set on the East Coast of Africa, which is a greater stretch for Leonard than some previous novels because he doesn’t know how to relate to the story as well. But his forthcoming novel, Road Dogs, will be released in May and follows the more familiar teerritory Jack Foley of Out of Sight along with a few other characters from books I haven’t read. Expect to read more about Road Dogs in this space.

Leonard’s best response came from a question about his characters’ morality or lack thereof, when Leonard said “I have a kind feeling of all my characters… I like my characters, but I think most of them are just dumb.” He’s also difficult to imitate because “you have to imitate the emotions behind them,” which too many people seem to discount. An audience member asked about redemption and Leonard answered about money; he also repeated the advice he’s given to directors of movies based on his books: When someone delivers a funny line that’s not intentionally funny, don’t cut to someone laughing. To Leonard, that’s part of what ruined the movie version of Be Cool, which is better as a book.

The last speaker on Saturday, Billy Collins was a quiet riot, knowing that the better part of jokes often consists of holding back and the better part of delivery consists of practice. His reading was like a big-deal boxing match, with a few palookas warming up the crowd before the main card that served chiefly to highlight Collins’ skill. He took Leonard’s advice by not smiling as he said, “If it’s wrong to be writing to a reader, I don’t want to be right.” Next month is apparently national poetry month, and Collins said, “If you name a day or a week or a month after something, you know it’s in decline.” There is no national TV week.

His poems were wonderful; in “Tension,” one got the impression that Collins is a rule-breaker of the best sort. He’s wry and self-aware, as in “The Trouble with Poetry:”

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,

[…]

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks

He’s contributing to the proliferation of poetry, so it’s obviously not so great a problem, and yet the poem shifts into a brief comment on life, when he mentions a book that “I carried in a side pocket of my uniform / up and down the treacherous halls of high school,” implying that perhaps poetry helped him to become a poetic thief and thus to encourage “the writing of more poetry.”billy_collins2

The tongue-in-cheek aspect continued through Collins’ poems; he read one called “On Turning Ten” that he said he wrote because he “wanted to make fun of poets who write midlife crisis death poems.” So there’s an elegy to all that’s lost upon attaining one’s tenth year. In “The Lanyard,” looking up the word “lanyard” in a dictionary functions as a “cookie nibbled by a French novelist.” The poem compares a child making a lanyard for his mother in payment for all she’s done:

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
SHe nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

The mock conceit reminds one of the disparity that must exist between most parents and their children, which can only be repaid by passing it on. But for Collins, the issue isn’t a heavy burden, or if it is, it should be addressed lightly, in a poem like “The Lanyard” that is aware of its own absurdity and therefore becomes more real in exchange of “thousands of meals” for a lanyard, “which I made with a little help from a counselor.”

I wish Collins’ attitude had been shared by the nonfiction panel. Alas: we can’t all be so reasonable.

If nothing else, being induced to read Collins made the Festival worthwhile. Hopefully I learned something and, to paraphrase something its participants said, this post captures the spirit of the event.

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