My passion for poetry is surpassed only by my passion for pizza, so I suppose it should come as no surprise that while reading “American Sonnet,” a poem not just by Billy Collins, but by past Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins, I was distracted by these lines:
“A slice of this place, a length of white beach, a piazza or carved spires of a cathedral ...”
The poem is about love, longing and postcards as a vehicle for compressed and compartmentalized language. I had the audacity to write to Billy Collins and ask if, when he wrote ‘a slice of a piazza,’ five words on top of each other, he intended for the reader think about a slice of pizza.
I wouldn’t have written to him if I hadn’t been urged to by Professor of Humanities Ann Page Stecker, my instructor for Studies in Literary Theory. When I asked the pizza question in class and she told me to go to the source, I figured what the heck. A postage stamp, like a postcard, costs a couple of quarters. I hastily wrote a letter, signed it MN and dropped it off in the mailroom.
I forgot about it for a week or two.
And then a white envelope appeared in my mailbox. It was postmarked from Orlando, Fla, and my name was scribbled on the front. It bore an Elvis Stamp and BC was the return address.
My hands shook as I tore open the envelope. It was blue inside and smelled like the post office. Inside was the letter I had sent Billy Collins with his reply scribbled on the other side. I could practically see Collins leaning back in a bright red armchair, reading my letter, turning it over in his hands and penning a response with nonchalance.
He wrote that he did not intend to reference pizza in his poem, but that he recognized after writing it that “a slice of/a piazza” rings “a pizza bell” but he decided to leave it. The lesson to take, he wrote, is that “words in poems relate to the words around them and not just the other words in the sentence in which they play a syntactic role.” Words in a good poem, he said, “appear to be enjoying the company of the words around them, not just those in front or back.” He also told me to say hi to my English teacher.
Collins’ message about happy words is masterful and invaluable advice for a poet, but it pales in comparison to the greater message I garnered from the experience. Writing to Collins illustrated literature as a two-sided endeavor, and showed me that I can become part of literary discourse instead of merely reading about it. When I typed up my question from the safety of my dorm room, I was becoming part of the conversation; I was bridging the gap between hungry college student and illustrious poet. Billy Collins’s poem pierced my life with its existence, and I was able to turn it over, send it back and pierce his, however briefly. That’s a nice, warm, sticky sentiment, albeit a bit cheesy.
Sure, I asked an egregiously stupid question. Sure, Collins probably rolled his eyes when he read it. Nonetheless, he took the time to forge a connection by responding, which made quite the impact on me as a student, a reader and a participant in the literary conversation.
Matthew Nosal ’17 is an English major from Manchester, N.H.