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Stanton Heights poet Collins works to keep his words full of meaning

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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Poet Kristofer Collins will be reading at Hemingway's Cafe on July 28th as part of his book release.

The penultimate poem in Kristofer Collins’ new poetry collection, “Local Conditions” (Coleridge Street Books, $8) is called “Omar Moreno,” after the former Pittsburgh Pirate.

“I had been carrying around the idea of a poem made up entirely of the names of Pirates players from my youth because they had such great names: Omar Moreno, Kent Tekulve, John Candelaria — those names are music themselves,” says Collins. “All you have to do is string them together and have a fun little poem.”

But the fleet centerfielder from the “We Are Family” era only makes a cameo appearance. Like many of the Stanton Heights resident’s poems, “Omar Moreno” surprised Collins at the direction it took.

“What started out as a tone poem, a scene based on the sound of that name, the ballpark, turned into a poem about my father,” says Collins, who will read from “Local Conditions” on July 28 at Hemingway’s Cafe, Oakland.

“It surprised me, and it always surprises me,” he says. “It might be my favorite poem, one of the favorite things I’ve ever written. And it always catches me when I read that line — and, of course, I miss my father. It’s a good example of allowing a poem to take its own form.”

Collins’ reading is part of Hemingway’s Summer Poetry Series Grand Finale.

Collins, 41, took a circuitous path to poetry. He originally intended to study writing at the University of Pittsburgh, but admits “it wasn’t a good fit” and, instead, wound up in the religious-studies program. After graduating, Collins worked in libraries and bookstores — he is currently employed at Caliban Book Shop in Oakland — and found he was not only more comfortable in those environments, but also he could learn about the craft from reading and being around poets.

Like his main poetic influences, Frank O’Hara and Richard Brautigan, Collins tends to write about the world through an unvarnished window, removed from academia.

“A lot of what I write is kind of conversations with people,” he says.

In “Local Conditions,” Collins’ informal tone is seen in poems such as “Fix Bayonets,” which opens in a Baltimore bar before shifting to the battlefield at Little Round Top. “Spending Sunday Afternoon Listening to Jim Daniels’ Copy of Hall & Oates’ ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’ ” is a nod to the Pittsburgh poet Daniels and the Philadelphia-based pop duo.

Collins says the new collection showcases the evolution of his work.

“When I started writing what I consider mature poems, they were very much in the mold of Brautigan and certain Japanese poetry,” he says. “They were very short. Short lines, slightly surreal. That’s kind of where I started figuring out how to actually write a poem. Before that, I was just throwing words on the page and trying to make pretty images.”

Now Collins concentrates on imbuing his work with a conversational tone. One way he does that is via fellow writers and poets. Collins cites Bob Pajich, Scott Silsbe and Jason Baldinger as close friends and serious writers. What they provide, however, transcends their craft.

“We never really talk about writing when we’re together,” he says. “We almost never discuss it. At best, we’ll see a piece of work from one another and comment about that, but there’s the writing, and then there’s your life. You try to live your life. If all you thought about was writing, and all you talked about was writing, it would be awful.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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