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Notes from Chautauqua — Monday

July 7, 2008 - Phyllis Sigal
There are moments in your life you wish you could capture in your memory forever. Today, those moments were many.

I am vacationing at Chautauqua Institution in western New York, an amazing place I’ve written about before. It’s a summer community of education, the arts, religion and recreation programming.

I came here this week to indulge myself in the writer’s week, with Roger Rosenblatt and Friends.

Rosenblatt, an essayist and writer, who I’ve seen here before — and a really funny guy — started this morning’s lecture by saying “I don’t have any friends.”

But this week his “friends” are poet Billy Collins, authors E.L. Doctorow, Amy Tan and Joyce Carol Oates, and “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau. That’s a pretty impressive list of friends, I’d say.

He will engage each in conversation from the amphitheater stage for the morning lectures.

Today was Billy Collins. He was the U.S. Poet Laureate earlier this decade.

I first met him 10 years ago when he was a featured poet at the James Wright Poetry Festival in Martins Ferry.

I heard him read “On Turning Ten,” just about the same time Leland, my son, was doing just that, turning the "first big number."

Collins signed one of his books of poetry that included that poem, “To Leland, on the verge of 10.” I’ve since sent that poem to just about everyone I know who has a child turning 10.

Leland has enjoyed Collins for 10 years. He’s carried his books with him. He’s shared the poems with his friends, who he believed needed to love Collins, too.

So, today, after I stood in the longest of lines for more than an hour for Collins’ book signing (Leland was in a class and couldn’t join me) I got the chance to tell Leland’s favorite poet about one of his biggest fans.

I shared the “On Turning Ten” tale and I told him that Leland read to me “The Lanyard” one Mother’s Day and “Fiftieth Birthday Eve” on the eve of my 50th birthday some time ago. What better gifts could a mother ask for.

“Sounds like a great kid,” Collins said. “I’d like to meet him.”

Later today, Collins was to be at a dedication for the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall. I grabbed Leland and we stopped by the dedication. As Billy passed us by, he stopped, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “So this is your son.”

And they talked … about poetry, about Leland’s experience with poetry, a bit about theater.

It was the best. I stood there just taking it all in.

It was a moment I wanted to last forever. Especially for Leland.


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Billy Collins at Chautauqua Institution's dedication of the Literary Center.


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