George Bilgere describes himself as "a middle-aged, middle-class guy living in middle America." But there is nothing average about his poetry, where sadness begets humor, pain is underscored with wisdom and the mundane is sublime. Imperial ($15.95, University of Pittsburgh Press), which will be released Feb. 1, is a meditation on what America was and is through the eyes of an aging baby boomer. "Aging underlies many of these poems," says Bilgere. "But I never start out with a theme, just a clump of poems that takes on its own personality." An associate professor of English at John Carroll University and co-host of the weekly Wordplay radio show on WJCU, Bilgere will read from Imperial at Market Garden Brewery's Brews and Prose event at 7 p.m. Feb. 4. We spoke with the poet about his writing style, his influences and his relationship with Garrison Keillor.
Q. Why include humor in many of your poems, even darker ones?
A. The last century began with very serious, very gloomy poetry that belonged to the universities, not the common man. ... This century began with a party. Suddenly it became OK to enjoy poetry. Allowing my instinctive sense of irreverence to overcome my own pomposity was exuberant for me. The poems that work best are the ones that manage to be serious and funny.
Q. Why did you choose Imperial as the title for this collection?
A. It's actually about a Duncan Imperial yo-yo. In the 1960s, I remembered the strange pleasure, the solace I found with this yo-yo while everything else was crumbling around me. It became an emblem of the beauty and craziness of America.
Q. What can be conveyed through poetry that can't be communicated through prose?
A. It's about compression and concision. A 16-line poem can be an entire universe, an entire history. In James Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," you can experience an entire town in a few lines. Making a little collection of words as powerful as you can is the magic of poetry.
Q. How has appearing on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion in 2011 and being featured on his daily Writer's Almanac show on NPR affected your career?
A. I became Keillor's favorite poet, and his support of my work has literally changed my life. I suddenly had a big audience with big expectations, and it led to doing readings around the country. It's really barnstorming for poetry, which is a huge fulfillment of this whole process.