First, start somewhere familiar. Chopping parsley in the kitchen. Listening to headphones on 44th street. Observing three-year-olds throw insults like Big Sewerface at a birthday party.
Then, follow a trail of crumbs into the woods. Better yet, find a rabbit hole and jump down it. Or pull the candle stick on the mantle in the haunted house and slip through the bookcase when it swivels around. Enter the less familiar, somewhat weird, darkly funny, sometimes frightening.
This is the poetry of former United States poet laureate Billy Collins, 66, who visited the Island for the first time this weekend.
On Saturday night, he engaged an audience of more than 400 at Featherstone Center for the Arts. On Sunday, he chose a shady corner of the patio of the Point Way Inn in Edgartown to sit and share some thoughts with the Gazette.
"I think of my own poems as friendly, but I also think they're rather complicated," said Mr. Collins, bestselling author of Nine Horses and Sailing Alone Around the Room, and New York state's poet laureate. "They're not difficult to understand, but if they work, they tend to take the reader to a place where the reader doesn't quite know where he is, or where she is. So my poems tend to be friendly in the beginning, but often kind of disorienting in the end."
He calls it travel poetry - it takes the reader somewhere. But first, it takes the poet.
"You're basically just looking for an ending once the poem gets under way," he said. "You're thinking, ‘How the hell do I get out of this thing? Where is it taking me?' And once you discover where it's taking you, that's the moment of surprise and satisfaction, because there you are. You've arrived. But that can't be repeated. You can look back and admire yourself, admire the ‘genius' that took you there. No, once the poem is over, you're left out of it and the public is let in. It's like one door closes and you can never get back into your poem again once it's cooked - but the public is there to eat it, to walk in and read it. And then you hope that they will sort of vicariously experience the surprise that you did."
Many call Mr. Collins's poetry accessible. Mr. Collins prefers the term hospitable. Accessible implies ramps for poetically handicapped people, he was once quoted as saying.
High school teachers write him letters and e-mails thanking him for his hospitable poems and for Poetry 180 - the national program he introduced during his two-term tenure as poet laureate, from 2001 to 2003. The teachers say it's the first time their students have taken any interest in poetry - and the same experience has been had by adults, as well.
"I think overanalysis has driven people away from poetry," Mr. Collins said, noting that the Poetry 180 program entails reading a poem a day, without discussion or tests. "There are a number of pleasures to be gotten out of poetry other than interpretation. That's why I put these poems together. The 360 poems in these books, you could re-read them several times, but you don't really have to. You can get them on the first reading - and they don't require the intervention of teachers."
He remembers his introduction to poetry in school. It was all 19th century poets - "highly conceptual, highly difficult."
"They were all dead and they were all male and they all had beards and they had three names," Mr. Collins recalled. "I just had two names, I was alive, I didn't have a beard, I was in high school. I didn't quite identify with these guys. And they were always talking from the grave of the 19th century. It took a little work for me to find that there were other poets around, contemporary poets that seemed alive and they were talking to me as if they were across the table, instead of talking to me out of a catacomb or something."
The wandering, unpredictable imagination evident in Mr. Collins's poetry is something he cultivated as a youth.
"I was an only child and I spent a lot of time hiding and running away from other children, hiding under the stairs and behind hedges. I think the more privacy children have - they need a space for the imagination to grow in. Today, everything's so organized," he said. "I'm not particularly worried about it, but I wonder if children are deprived of the secrecy and privacy in which I think the child's imagination begins to be formed."
The imagination might be formed early, but it can't be properly tapped without reading and studying poetry for a good portion of one's life - and practicing, Mr. Collins said.
"One of the reasons there is so much bad poetry, is that people think it requires no materials - you just need a pencil and the back of an envelope. You wouldn't pick up a cello and saw away at it. You'd have to practice - scales, fingering, chords. And oil painting, you have to learn turpentine and color mixing - you have to study these things. With poetry, you just pick up a pen and start writing about how sad you are. But the problem is, if you don't know what you're doing, you'll do it badly - and no one cares about how sad you are anyway, so what's the point?
"It takes a long time to find a way to integrate influences, to throw out influences that aren't going to help you and to create this monster which is your persona, which is the speaker you use in your poems."
As a result, Mr. Collins has no interest in reading his old poems - although he has no interest in reading his more recent poems, either.
"I would never read my old stuff. I don't care about it. If you walk by here this afternoon and you see me sitting here reading one of my poems, just take one of those stones and hit me over the head with it. I'd have to be senile to do that," he said. "When I read them in public, I have to feign interest in them. I'd never pick one up and look at it again. Any artist would say that. You're off to the next thing. Any artist who sits around watching his own movies, that means it's over. You've had it. Give it up."
Mr. Collins and his poetry have garnered a fair share of critics over the years.
"I call them ankle-biters - gnats," he said. "You can't worry about that. You have to be grateful that as a poet, you're actually selling books and people come to your readings in numbers beyond your wildest expectations. And the price for that is relatively small. You make a lot of other poets unhappy. They're not quick to share in your success."
Some poems have inspired a particular public uproar, like Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes.
"That's one of the few poems I wrote that began with the title. I don't know how the title occurred to me, but once it did, I thought well, let's have a go at it, let's start taking her clothes off. Let's see, where should we begin? Hmm, maybe her bonnet first. Then there's a sequence of undressing someone, and that becomes the sequence of the poem."
There are now poems titled Taking Off Billy Collins's Clothes.
"They were written by outraged feminists, who describe it as a thoroughly unpleasant experience. It was some revenge writing there," he laughed. "I wrote that because I was actually very irritated by all this biographical speculation - because we know so little about [Emily Dickinson] and nothing about her sexuality, really. But there's so much speculation. She's claimed by some groups as being lesbian, there's gossip about ‘Maybe she was celibate,' and ‘Did she have an affair?' and I find it all snooping. It's like People magazine - ‘Jessica Simpson put on 15 pounds' - I mean, who cares? I thought, I'll just have sex with her and just shut this controversy up temporarily.
"But of course, I also see poetry as a place to make mischief, to be bad, to step on sensibility," he continued. "Poetry is the most egotistical form of writing, and along with it can go so much pretentiousness and preciousness that it's always good to set off some firecrackers sometimes."
It is evident that Mr. Collins has a deep reverence for the form though.
"The idea that poetry comes in lines is very important. Turning back before you get to the end of the page is a way of drawing the reader's attention back into the poem, like always pulling the attention back into the body of the poem, rather than just filling the entire page with print," he said. "The fact that the poem sits in a white space on the page, with space around it, becomes an indication that the poem is actually displacing silence, the way your body displaces water. Poetry is an interruption of silence and prose is a continuation of noise."
Poetry is also unique for its physical appearance, he said.
"It's a box like a sonnet, or it's a long skinny thing or it's broken up in stanzas, but it has a visual shape to it. And in that way, the poem is like sculpture - it always looks the same, whereas prose is like a liquid or like water. You can pour it into a thimble or a ten-gallon hat and it will assume the shape of the vessel."
Poetry is a superior form of art and entertainment, he said.
"Poetry is thousands of years old. The novel is only a couple hundred years old, and television's only 70 years old," he said.
It used to be that poetry had the allure of television. In the 19th century, poets like Tennyson, Longfellow and Byron were widely and wildly popular, he said, remarking at the length of Byron's funeral procession - three hours. But after World War I came high modernism, with poets like T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound.
"For social reasons and aesthetic reasons, they wanted to get away from Victorian poetry, so they turned poetry into a much more difficult form, a very specialized form. And you needed a certain kind of glasses to read the stuff. It's like looking at abstract expressionism - you need to know something about what it's revolting against. You have to see it as a counter-movement against something for it to make sense. It's moving away from the storytelling poem into something more fractured."
It wasn't until the 1960s or 1970s that poetry began to regain a sense of personality, he said.
"The high modernists were very interested in masking personality," Mr. Collins said. "But personality has now returned to poetry, and that warms it up a little bit. We get the sense in a lot of contemporary poetry that someone is actually talking to you - a human being talking to another human being. So poetry has regained its intimacy also."