So, what exactly does a poet laureate do, anyway? "Well, the main duty is answering that question," says the latest scribe to hold the post, Billy Collins. "Ninety percent of the poet laureate's time is spent trying to explain what the poet laureate does, and there's no answer because no one knows. It's a totally nebulous job. Every laureate is appointed with the sole purpose that maybe one of them will come up with the answer."
So far the only duties that the poet has been able to ascertain of this $35,000 job are an inaugural reading and a lecture at the end of his tenure. But the former has already been canceled because of the anthrax scare, making his job, as he puts it, "even more nebulous" than before.
Fortunately, the only credible threats made on his office lately are the packets of poetry that crackpots send to the Library of Congress. "There are people desperate to get their poems recognized and published and they feel that sending it to Washington will help them," Collins says, "and anyone who does that is by definition hopeless."
Billy Collins teams with Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat to read, sign and answer questions as part of the Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Cullen Performance Hall, University of Houston, entrance no. 1. 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 5. $5, free for students and seniors. For more information, call 713-521-2026. He also will read at HCC's Heinen Theater, 1300 Holman, at 10 a.m. Tuesday, November 6. Free.
Of course, no one opens the mail in D.C. anymore. "So we're pretty much eliminating all of the obligations this job tends to carry," Collins admits.
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He has come up with one thing to keep him busy. He selected 180 contemporary poems for his Poetry 180 initiative, to be read during high school announcements. Teachers are instructed not to teach or analyze the poems in any way so that the poetry can simply become a part of the students' lives. Does everything have to have a purpose?