Like “jumbo shrimp,” “famous poet” is pretty much an oxymoron. Still, if any contemporary Cleveland wordsmith is poised to make that leap, it's George Bilgere. The John Carroll professor and Cleveland Arts Prize winner will be a featured performer on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday December 10.
Bilgere, 60, calls it “the biggest break by far” in his long career.
While the show will mark only the second time that Bilgere has met the writer, humorist, and NPR variety-show idol, the machinery for his appearance was set in motion nearly ten years ago, when Bilgere began “a great and lasting friendship” with former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins.
In 2006, Bilgere published a poetry collection entitled Haywire. His pal Collins sent the book to Keillor, and Keillor read three poems from it on his Writer's Almanac radio program the week it came out. “All 1500 copies sold out immediately,” marvels Bilgere. “In the world of poetry, that's like selling a million copies!”
Bilgere's subsequent collection, 2010's The White Museum, has become a Keillor favorite, too, boosting that book's sales to “incredible” heights. Yet while Bilgere savored the occasional emails from Keillor's staffers seeking permission to read his poems on air — “wonderful little gifts,” he calls them — the two had never met.
That changed in September, when Keillor was at Severance Hall for a one-man show.
“I was told he wanted to speak to me,” Bilgere recalls. “So after the show his assistant led me down into the bowels of Severance into this little room where there was nothing but Keillor in his red sneakers and two chairs. Keillor just handed me a bottle of water and told me to sit down! It was truly amazing: I've been listening to that voice on a cracked Sony radio on the top of my fridge for the past 30 years — and now here he was, in front of me, asking me about my poems!”
The upshot? An invitation to come to the Town Hall Theater in New York City on December 10 and read.
“I told him I'd have to think about it,” deadpans Bilgere before adding, “Really, I just tried not to fall down on my knees and say 'Thank you, god!”
Bilgere will be part of three rehearsals culminating in the live, on-air broadcast. Besides reading, he's been told he may have a part in one of the show's comedy skits: He's hoping for “Guy Noir, Private Eye” but he won't know until tomorrow.
Beyond that, he's hoping to translate his appearance into additional national attention, including a possible guest shot on Terry Gross's Fresh Air.
“Billy Collins and I dined together a few weeks ago, and he told me his own appearance on APHC had been 'life-changing,'” says Bilgere.
While his big break is coming relatively late in his career, the poet says he has no regrets. “Really, it's been great. When I was 25 or 30, I would just miss 'the big prize' and I would feel embittered. But now I look back and see that everything that happened just lead me to this moment. And I couldn't appreciate it more.”
You can catch Bilgere on A Prairie Home Companion at 6 p.m. on Saturday December 10; the live broadcast can be heard on local NPR affiliates WCPN 90.3 and WKSU 89.7. Go to prairiehome.publicradio.org for show information. Learn more about Bilgere at georgebilgere.com. — Elaine T. Cicora