Sunday, November 10, 2013

Stupid Questions

“Beware,” I told my daughter, “of the question-and-answer session.”

We were sitting in the audience, waiting for the Billy Collins reading to start.  And I knew from experience that a lot of people in the packed auditorium had questions.  Burning Questions.
Also, I knew that not all of these questions would be Smart Questions.  In fact, not all of the Questions would be questions at all.  Some of them would be Ways to Show the Writer that the Question-Asker Is Really Smart.

(Okay, so as an adult, I know I’m supposed to say that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.  But at a writer’s talk, that’s not really true.)

During his marvelous reading, Mr. Collins addressed some of my concerns.  “I think the worst question I’m ever asked is, ‘What is your favorite letter?’” he said.  The crowd groaned collectively.

When he finished reading and took several courtly bows, my daughter whispered, “Oh, my God.  I’m so nervous about the questions.”

“Calm down,” I said.  “It’s not as though he doesn’t know they’re coming.”  But I knew what she meant.  Sometimes you cringe, just knowing that other people are going to make fools of themselves.

Some of the first questions were okay.  I think “Which of your own poems is your favorite?” was in there, as well as “Who were your literary influences?”  (Coleridge).  All seemed to be well until a woman on whom Mr. Collins called cleared her throat.  I knew we were doomed.

“Sometimes,” she began, “I tell people you are my imaginary boyfriend.”

The audience laughed.  Collins looked embarrassed.  My daughter was looking into her lap.  “Oh, my God,” she whispered.  “Oh, my God.”

The woman went on to say that she had told her son she was going to a poetry reading and he had said, “Oh, well, then it won’t take very long.  You’ll be back in half an hour.”

More laughter.  More all-body wincing in the seat next to mine.

The woman went on again.  She was trying to say that what she loved about Collins’ poetry was the way it was conversational, accessible.  What she actually said was, “Other poetry seems, like, really deep and complicated.  Yours is just, like, on the surface.  Why is that?”

I’ll bet Billy Collins loves having to explain that he does, in fact, have a Ph.D in English over and over and over again.  And that “accessible” doesn’t mean “on the surface.”

Clearly, though, he’s an old hand at keeping the question session to a minimum.  Which was a relief to everyone.

I should have tried to ask my question—“Can you speak to the difference between free verse and prose?”—but I was too shy.

Ultimately, even after what Collins said during his talk, someone raised his hand and asked, “What is your favorite letter?”

“Oh, ‘L,’ I guess,” he answered, sounding weary.

I think he said ‘L.”  I was too busy squinching my eyes closed and whispering “Oh, my God, oh, my God” to be entirely sure.

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