Book Review: Windows & Stones by Tomas Tranströmer

Windows & Stones: Poems by Tomas Tranströmer
translations from the Swedish by May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972; reprint, 2011

reviewed by Mike Walker

Tomas Tranströmer, with his reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, has gained something close to celebrity status in Europe and even the United States in the sense that only the Nobel can afford such status: long well-known in the literary world but not a household name to the general population, the Nobel has put him in the greatest spotlight any poet could desire. Now, people are wondering “who is this Swede who won the Nobel this year—and what has he written?”. No time could be better to release a volume of his selected poems translated into English and that is exactly what the University of Pittsburgh Press has done, returning an updated version of its 1972 book of Tranströmer in English translation to the shelves. Windows & Stones is, and has always been, a perfect introduction to Tranströmer in English and as beautiful as the Swedish language is, it is not a majority language and Tranströmer has himself known for years that to reach the greatest readership he needs translations. To this end, he has taken his poetry to India, to the Middle East, to everywhere he could in person and in translation yet it is fair to say a good, short, yet comprehensive introductory volume in English translation probably will reach the most people worldwide. Thus, the stakes for this slim book are high, especially in the light of the Nobel.

First though, perhaps we should reflect for a moment on the Nobel Prize in Literature itself: though commonly considered the most important prize in the literary arts—the one even people outside of literary circles know of and admire—what do we know of the majority of men and women who have won it? These laureates, who are they? Of course, they include T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison but how many remember or have even heard of Roger Martin du Gard? Like any prize given to a comtemporary, living, person, the Nobel to some extent is faulted by the very fact it doesn’t have the longest span of time to take into consideration the lasting merits of those its honors, even though it does in general look at a writer’s works over an entire career. Still, it cannot project what writers will be read in two or three decades let alone a full century and in contrast, those who will appeal mainly only to scholars and graduate students hunting fodder for their dissertations. In the sciences it is no different: the biochemist Kary Mullis saw the Nobel ceremony as a grand opportunity to practice his pranks and practical jokes that he had as a slightly awkward, sci-fi loving grad student play around the lab. (He teased security forces with a laser pointer when he went to to pick up his Nobel, for one thing.) The botanist and geneticist Barbara McClintock on the other hand did not even have a telephone in her Long Island home and was thereby fully unaware she had even been selected for the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for her work on genetic elements of control until she walked into her lab Monday morning and heard the welcome news on the radio: “Oh dear” was supposedly the response of the matronly scientist. Aside from writers of fiction being awarded the Nobel for their efforts—that is, when a poet doesn’t get it instead—the Nobel itself often appears in fiction, television, and the movies as a shorthand for the vast acumen of a character—normally a scientist—who has won it, for few things make for a marker of true genius like the Nobel.

So to see that Tranströmer’s greatness, thus recognized by the most legendary of prizes, is broadcast far and wide and to as diverse and vast a readership as possible, we find publishers now doing the good work that Tranströmer the man has done his entire career of trying to get his poetry out there to the reader, the listener. Tranströmer is often praised as a writer adept at capturing the simple beauty and truths of nature in a nearly-religious tenor on the page, but he is no simple man. Trained as a psychologist, he practiced his profession as a clinician in adolescent psychology for a number of years while writing his poetry at night. He is also an accomplished pianist and his love of music has always worked in tandem with his efforts as a poet. Yet as much as someone like the farmer, laborer, and poet John Clare, Tranströmer infused his poetry with the material of his day job and while he may not have been out in the pastoral fields with ox and horse as Clare was, his experience with troubled young patients also come forth in his poems, often as an undercurrent of counterpoint to the grandness and godliness he finds in nature. To take up each day as one’s work the problems of young patients who are bothered by demons and depressed, injured, damaged to the point of needing intensive professional help has to be a taxing venture; certainly, mental health professionals often seem to have one of the more thankless jobs in all of health care. Tranströmer was a man unknowingly ahead of his time, using an arts and medicine approach of therapy of the literary word before such was a trend—before entire journals were devoted to the application of literature as a healing modality.

So Tranströmer had his nature which he dearly loved—the natural landscapes and lakes of rural Sweden—but he also had his clinical practice and his piano. He never set out as a poet to become all things to all people, I think, yet he came very nearly close to that mark via the depth, scope, and long trajectory of his writing. Here was a man who wrote right through the entire time period of some of Western poetry’s most crucial developments over the latter half of the twentieth century and he was aware of those trends and developments, to be sure, but he stood mostly apart from them and found his foundation in the pastoral views he shared in his own work. Tranströmer has been called a Christian poet, a religious poet, and he is in a sense but what most critics who offer him these titles really seem to mean is that he is a poet adept at touching on both the grandness of the natural world as observed by humankind and also the very complex inner world of emotion private to us mere humans who inhabit this grand sphere. Poets as diverse as John Clare and the Central Asian poet and mystic Ali-Shir Nava’i were men whom Tranströmer found to share a synergy between observed landscape (or cultural landscape) and the mental analysis of the same whether expressed via sound or words. He was not interested in the type of “modern” experimentation or confessionalism of many poets of the twentieth century yet explored the same ends via very different means: always a poet who showed more than he told, who spoke more of the general than the personal yet all the while maintaining the most personal, most humanistic and intimate realities within his commonality.

In a tradition approriate to that of a Christian poet, Tranströmer creates poems that regardless of their exact topic at hand always provide either insight, succor, or a furthering of our own sense of wonder. The everyday intersections of nature into our lives Tranströmer rebuilds as true wonders seldom seen, though these moments are endlessly availible to each of us just as they are to him, as he notes in his poem “Winter’s Formulae”:

I fell asleep in my bed
and woke up under the keel.

Thus the stage is set for adventure though with very few words: the keel of course conjures a boat, an older ship perhaps—and that Nordic love, lore, and need for seafaring, too. This verse is also a prime example of how Tranströmer sets up a sense of mystery in his writing; a sense of an unexacting yet alluring atmosphere where great promise of adventure is yet to come. There is, even in his advanced years and advanced verse, a boyish nature in Tranströmer’s poetry: there is an element of desire—no, I would daresay even thirst—for new places and grand vistas, the exotic even if we must for now content ourselves to find such in the familar ground of home. Tranströmer’s Sweden is the bridge and airport to an extended world and no matter where he writes—or writes about—he brings to his subject an especial sense of concern and delight. He is, verily, a man capable of falling asleep in his normal bed yet waking as if by some magic instead in a boat set to sea.

What I couldn’t say
filled and grew like a hot-air balloon
and finally floated away through the night sky.

With these lines in the poem “To Friends Behind a Border” Tranströmer sums up the plight of anyone trying to reach someone who lives in a place where we cannot go, we cannot write to, we cannot get a letter or telephone call inside as that place is all locked up. Likewise, for anyone living within a nation where speech is censored and people are kept from open expression of their ideas, the same can be said: there is much that one cannot say due to borders such as these. During the horrible times of the Yezhovshchina under Stalin’s rule when people—especially writers and other intellectuals—lived in great fear, such could well have been said, that all those words that couldn’t be spoken, couldn’t be written, couldn’t be shared, seemed to drift off into the atmosphere somehow, free yet unknown.

However, as noble as Tranströmer’s concern for those “behind borders” is, the really powerful aspect is how he deals with this topic while all the while adroitly applying the language of nature, the language of supple wonder he has employed time and again elsewhere. For him, it seems, there is no border between the personal and the political nor the natural and the poli-social. Such qualities without a doubt are a high part of what earned Tranströmer the Nobel. Another reason for the admiration of Tranströmer that brought him a Nobel plus scores of other awards and honors is his fluid longevity: over the years, the decades in fact, his poetry has both adapted to the times and concerns of the day but also retained his simple, humble, and very personal voice. Some of his poems—such as “The Name” where the speaker falls asleep in his car by the side of a road only to awake and not know his own name—seem like they could be the work of an older man dealing with dementia, yet this poem was written between 1970 and 1971 according to the book. The speaker considers his emergency a bit but “eventually my life comes back to me. My name reappears like an angel.” It is classic Tranströmer: a man diverges from the expected course of daily life to take a nap in the middle of nowhere, in the backseat of his car in fact as a child might, only to awake and find he cannot recall who he is yet when he is restored to such knowledge, it is not only the escape from a psychological or medical crisis but an event of nearly holy, supernatural, powers and meaning. In poems such as “The Name”, Tranströmer reminds me of much of the theorist and novelist Hélène Cixous’ writing in her anthology Stigmata: Escaping Texts where she also concerns herself with an absence of names and their return and, as her title would suggest, how entire texts “escape” unseen, unheard. Like, Cixous, Tranströmer is very concerned with personhood, with what it means to have a name in the first place, a concern probably evolved to some degree out of his work as a clinical psychologist.

Somewhat separate but still very connected to Tranströmer’s way with nature in his poetry is his manner in dealing with geography: for Tranströmer, like many northern Europeans, the world is very interconnected. When your own nation is as small as Sweden, travel to other neighboring nations is natural and to be expected. Most Swedes at least visit Denmark, if not further afield and holidays in France or the Balkans or elsewhere are not uncommon. Of course, the war years also greatly changed the European view of geography and Tranströmer’s own generation saw an acute transformation of geographical ontology between the effects of war and the effects of new technologies such as telecommunications and air travel. Tranströmer, for his part, became adept at writing about nature—and people—whether in Sweden, Iceland, the Balkans or even Oklahoma. His constant, steady hand in description displays a control and mastership of his faculties as a writer that many other authors could learn from and a calm, sure, even, touch that a ship’s captain or fighter pilot would envy. Critic Hephzibah Anderson felt that in awarding Tranströmer the Nobel, a writer who was little-known outside his native country won the most-respected of literary honors, however, if Tranströmer has been little-known, it has not been his own fault in the least. He has not only encouraged ample translations and promoted his own work, but has never cloistered his poetry away to the concern of Swedish or even Nordic places or topics alone. Branching out, as he is always it seems doing, he has taken in every place visited and even every letter exchanged with a far-off friend as possible material for the basis of a poem.

In February life stood still.

There, in one line, one opening to one short poem, we have a perfect example of the universal nature of Tranströmer’s poetry yet of his firm grounding in Nordic climes and environs all the same. Life might well stand a bit more still in Lund than in Miami in February, but poems such as the one this line comes from, “Face to Face” speak in plain, sincere, secure, speech to the condition at hand as a universal one. To read Tranströmer in the Swedish is even more direct at most junctures, with his language being forward yet descriptive without leaning towards the overly verbose. May Swenson and Leif Sjöberg did a masterful job in finding English analogs for the type of plain-spoken language Tranströmer employed in his native Swedish and Windows & Stones demonstrates a very strong faithfulness to the tenor of how Tranströmer writes.

The tugboat is freckled with rust.
What is it doing so far inland?
It’s a heavy, quenched lamp in the cold.

Thus opens “Sketch in October”, one of the poems included in this collection that is perhaps most representative of how the world sees Tranströmer—the world that knows him, at least that is, if what Anderson claims carries any merit. We have the cold, the water, the physical items as metaphor of other tangible things, other objects that they in some hapless way come to resemble. This last point is not an aside, as in much of Tranströmer’s writing we locate cases—such as the tugboat—where one object appears more like another and most often it is some object that in its own inaction it comes to resemble more something else, often something smaller, something less mobile or less powerful than it should in its own powers convey. On a good day, a tugboat is after all the one part of the puzzle that allows a massive cargo ship or tanker to enter a port without a mishap; it is the literal guide in unknown, dangerous, waters. A tugboat found inland, away from its normal port and duties, would in fact be as listless and worthless a creature as a table lamp turned off and even rolled over on its side. (The original Swedish can be translated in fact to suggest the lamp is upended as well as “heavy”, but in this case our translators ignored this aspect—one of the few cases in these translations where I found them somewhat wanting.)

Another powerful aspect of Tranströmer’s word-smithing is that he is keen to see man-made objects within natural surroundings in a pragmatic, direct, manner without losing the heart of the poet about it, either. Something as mundane yet essential as a tugboat is not made ugly for ugly’s sake nor is it exalted but instead is cast into its role and duties with a no-nonsense approach that would make a logistics officer or accountant proud. Each bird, each airplane, each train, each road, each hill, each stream or creek to yet be forded or crossed with a sure bridge—they’re all fair game for our poet. Tranströmer approaches the world as a whole, just as it actually is, as a place to explore, record, and tell about later. This is why his poems, though often quite short and lean on details, seem robust and full. He will start off a poem with words such as “lying on his back under tall trees”, as he does in “Breathing Room: July” that are personal, inviting, and uncomplex. In a sense, he conjures all those inviting vistas every landscape painter and every New Age musician has desired to create in our minds—places beautiful but ones we could with ease position ourselves right into in a most inviting way. Tranströmer’s high success rate in this regard is made manifest by his uncanny ability to discern exactly what such pastoral, personal, experiences entail. After the stroke he suffered years ago, one might fear he would have lost some of his faculty towards such empathy but instead his poetry did not appear to suffer at all from his physiological losses and in fact may have become all the more nuanced.

In all, though covering only a portion of his career, Windows & Stones presents Tranströmer’s writing in a select yet comprehensive, short yet fit, manner that should invite the reader to explore this poet further. The Nobel Prize will without doubt serve as a fine catalyst for more translations, criticism, and exploration of the Swede but I can think of no finer a point to open his pages than here, with this book. Tranströmer the sublte, Tranströmer the lover of nature, Tranströmer the humble yet steadfast diplomat on behalf of a poetic nation of his own creation—all these men step forward in this volume. While this book will not fill the complete need for translations of Tranströmer in English, we would truly be impoverished without it.


The Meeting

by Publius

I couldn’t come up with any actual reason why I shouldn’t go to the faculty meeting. I’m healthy, of sound mind, and have no pressing engagements.

The only serious agenda, at least at my table, was why Mr. Gates has a bra hanging in a tree just outside his classroom’s window. It’s just out of reach, and, for that reason, will remain there for the life of the tree. We ask, and he just responds, “Don’t ask.” Thus are we forced to turn to the meeting’s actual agenda.

The meeting’s topic is “The High Quality Learning Environment.” We’re told that we must address the question, “What does learning look like?”

Each table is to discuss, and put on a chart, various aspects of “The High Quality Learning Environment”. Scintillating topics such as Teacher Interaction With Students, Expectations Of Learning, and Regulation Of Instruction. My gang drew Topic #4, The Planning, Managing And Measuring Of Transitions. We have twenty minutes until we are to share.

Mr. North suggests we begin by joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.” My immediate response is, ‘Well, I’m senior teacher at this table, so my teaching environment from here on is pretty much summarized by simply saying, Fuck All. You folks are going to have to …’. My buddies give me that “Oh, hell no!” thing, and elect me group spokesman.

Our next response is some minutes of numbed silence. Then Sullivan asks, “What, in the name of Sweet Jesus, is a managed transition?”

‘I think it’s something like foreplay. I think we should discuss the planning, managing and measuring of foreplay.’ At which point everyone ignores me, their leader. We’re to outline our response to # 4 on a large sheet of paper, and present this, in ten minutes now, to our colleagues. So respond we do.

The paper is three feet long. Our actual responses look a little measly —

have an agenda
sequential symmetry
remind kids of the time
remember to remind kids to work

Since I’m to do the presenting in like seconds now, my first question is, ‘What is sequential symmetry?’

Gates says, “It means do the first thing first, the second thing second, the third thing, and make sure the second thing is harder than the first, the third harder than the second, and like that. Sequential symmetry is the latest in teacher jargon.”

‘We actually have a term for this? We don’t have a term for when some wanker leaves one square of toilet paper on the old roll, and thinks this relieves him of his duty to go get a whole new roll. But we get sequential symmetry?’ But mostly I’m worried that I’m expected to present a chart full of mostly nothing.

So I say to Sullivan, ‘We need like, you know, words or something. I don’t mean words that mean anything, just teacher words. Like sequential symmetry. People are expecting me to say, you know, words. I’m the spokesman for # 4. Wait. I got it — put this on the chart. Anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation. That sounds transitional, right? Anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation? Yea. Put it up on the chart.’

Sullivan refuses to have her name associated with any of this.

When finally I hear, “Number Four. The Planning, Managing And Measuring Of Transitions.”

‘That’s, ah, that’s us. Me. OK, planning, managing and measuring transitions. First, the teacher needs an agenda.’ Which garners me blank stares from the entire faculty. Then I say, ‘Second, an instructor needs sequential symmetry.’ More blank stares. At which point I forget how Gates just explained sequential symmetry. So I add, ‘Sequential symmetry is defined as an anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation.’ I quickly finish, without elaboration, the last two points.

I’d like to say everybody laughed. My buddies laughed. Sullivan almost peed. But folks just stared. Some of the young teachers took notes.

The meeting went on to # 5, The Performance And Assessment Of Non-Verbal Duties.


Book Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Reviewed by Noah Gup

The exclamation mark that punctuates the title of Karen Russell’s debut novel Swamplandia! (Random House, 2011) tells you a lot about the run-down alligator park the book is named after. The cheesy excitement of that exclamation mark, a draw for “mainlanders,” as the book’s precocious young narrator Ava Bigtree calls them, is brought to ecstatic life in the novel. To Ava that exclamation mark is a heartbreaking truth, summing up her enthusiasm for this crumbling park and the alligator-wrestling spirit. The exclamation mark could also accurately describe the novel itself, a hypnotic, beautifully written adventure.

Expanding on a story written in a collection of her short stories, Russell fills her novel with a carnival of eccentrics. Russell’s novel is in some ways familiar, focusing on a family trying to stay together as turmoil sets in. After the death of Hilola Bigtree (“ the Swamp Centaur”), the star of Swamplandia! and matriarch of the Bigtrees, Ava, her siblings, and their father Chief Bigtree, are forced to adapt. The characters are wonderfully quirky, from Osceola Bigtree, who dates the ghost of a dead dredgeman due to the lack of young men on the deserted island they live on, to Kiwi Bigtree, the genius brother who discovers that on the mainland, it is not cool to read Margaret Mead. And, of course, Chief Bigtree, who fakes his Native American heritage in order to give the alligator park more authenticity; the Chief describes the family as “our own Indians.” And all of these characters are tossed into difficult situations, such as Kiwi’s attempt to make a living in the competing theme park, “The World of Darkness.” Ava is left by herself to fend for the park, and she takes it upon herself to string her family back together, including trying to return her sister from the underworld.

Ava proves to be a compelling protagonist. Her innocence is portrayed masterfully through her intense fascination with the swamp and nature, an ideal voice to utilize Russell’s stylistic gifts. And as Ava, of course, comes of age by the novel’s conclusion, her wondrous view is a little less sweet.

But this plot, as compelling as it gets, mostly takes the backseat to Russell’s stunning prose. She has a careful eye for analogy and crafts a memorable, surreal portrait of the swamp and its inhabitants. Seths, the Bigtree slang for alligators, have mouths of “icicle overbites.” When describing the call of the bird hunter, it is “a braided sound, a rainbow sound…a single note held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling.” Or a simple moment of describing a cloud of moths is almost undeservingly pretty:

Outside our porch had become a cauldron of pale brown moths and the bigger ivory moths with sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them. They entered a large rip in our screen. They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidently killed one.

It is Russell’s elegant writing that lends her book so much life. But it is hard not to be wound up in the humanity of the plot, the straining ties that bind the Bigtrees. And as Ava journeys through the swamp, it is impossible not to feel swept into this new world.

Unfortunately, Kiwi’s adventures on the mainland don’t have the same magnetic pull as the swamplands. Kiwi’s interactions with shallow mainland teenagers, while sometimes providing refreshing bits of humor, rely too heavily on youth culture clichés. Still, it’s impossible not to feel for Kiwi as he struggles to make ends meet in his pennies-paying job. And when Russell delves into the life and death of the Ossie’s dredgeman, it is absolutely engulfing. He is described so fully, so lovingly, that it’s completely reasonable that his ghost could still live on; how could a character as fully realized as Louis Thanksgiving simply die? And at the book’s emotional conclusion, Russell doesn’t just wring the reader’s emotions by dialing up the drama. The conflict feels as organic and vivid as the swamp, whose dense humidity nearly seeps out from the pages.

Russell grew up not far from the swamps in which her book takes place, and the living environment of the swamplands fits her rich imagery. It will be interesting to see if she moves from this environment in future writings.

Regardless of where she goes in the future, Swamplandia! is a resounding testament to Russell’s talent. With ghosts and the underworld running throughout the novel, the supernatural plays an important role. But with the endless stretches of melaleuca trees and the swirling maze of rivers, the swamp sets a perfect atmosphere for these unnatural situations. As Ava sets sail to the underworld, she believes in ghosts. The most magical thing about Swamplandia! is that it makes the reader believe, too.


The Vice-Principal

by Publius

My department chair calls me. “The vice-principal will lead the 7:30 meeting.” Bad news. The vice-principal is a narcissist given to dazzlingly incomprehensible rambles.

Much of what went on during the first hour was lost on me. I did catch her reminiscences of New Orleans, as well as her vacation in Vermont. That’s the part I liked. Most of the time, I occupied myself by putting dates in my attendance book.

We get to about a half hour before we’ve got to leave for class. The v. p. says, “OK. We’ve only got a little time — So — Here’s what you guys need to discuss now. You’re going to have an increase in class size, because you’re going to have one less teacher.” We stare at the non-tenured teacher, Ms. Mandel. The v. p. feels what passes in her for sympathy, so she explains, “Given that our senior teacher is out with a nervous breakdown, we have to cut a position. But he has tenure. And the least senior teacher is a Teach For America teacher, Ms. Wong, so she’s cheap. And she’s Chinese. She should teach math. So there’s that.” Ms. Wong is sitting right next to her. Ms. Mandel was last year’s Teacher Of The Year. “Anyway, like I said, all elective classes will be cut. College level classes will have at least 20 or 30 students, this to be fair to the others, who will have 32, the state maximum. There’ll be 150 fewer students next year, so, you know, fewer students means bigger classes. Also, we want accurate grades, but try not to flunk anyone because it makes us look bad. Oh, yea, and we’re going to work the next few Saturdays to prepare the kids for the state test. That and we really want you to have a stress free environment. So have a good day. And now, the reason I called you all together …” At which point, she gives the rest of the half-hour over to a textbook salesman, who appears magically.



by Dawn Roper

During the recent State of the Union Address, while President Obama was talking about the need to bring more and better jobs to America, in the background one of the reporters talked about a rumored conversation between the President and Steve Jobs, in which Jobs was quoted as saying offshore jobs “aren’t coming back.” Later that week I read an article in the NY Times in which the same conversation was referenced, and an example was provided. By now many of us have probably heard that Apple apparently made a last minute change to a product screen, and to facilitate the release date Chinese factory managers forced thousands of workers who live in dorms on site to work twelve hours daily or more of involuntary overtime.

Businesses say they need to use cheap Chinese labor to maximize profit, but it struck me that they were using the same argument of economic necessity used by southern plantation owners in pre-civil war America to justify slavery. That the Chinese workers have no option to collective bargaining, no control over their working hours or conditions, and live in dorms that are reportedly surrounded by “suicide nets” makes them seem all the more like desperate slaves with no place to run. On the back of these workers, China has supplanted America as the world’s economic powerhouse.

In an apparently unrelated event, this week China stood with Russia to prevent action at the UN against world pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to stop the massacre of innocent civilians, including children, who protest his oppressive regime. Why would China want to quell dissidents? Perhaps to prevent democratic ideals taking root close to home.

If I’ve got this straight, multi-national manufacturers use cheap labor in China that essentially makes slaves of thousands. This financially enriches and politically emboldens Chinese leaders to support regimes like that in Syria, where torture and murder of dissidents (and their children), is a government tool against those who aspire to the freedoms we take for granted.

The Occupy Movement has brought these seemingly disparate issues into clearer focus so we can begin to better understand the more negative effects of globalization, consider the cost of globalization to working people both abroad and at home, and perhaps weigh how badly we need cheap cell phones.


Push the Poem: An Interview with Martha Collins

Interviewed by Michael Simms

Martha Collins is the author of several poetry collections, including White Papers recently released from the University of Pittsburgh Press and the book-length poem Blue Front, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006” by the New York Public Library. Her other awards include fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. She is also the recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and a Lannan residency grant. Collins founded the Creative Writing Program at UMass-Boston and for ten years was Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and an editor for Oberlin College Press.

Michael Simms: What are your writing habits? Is there a particular time of day or a location where you do your best work? How much do you revise? Do you revise poems after publication?

Martha Collins: I’m currently blessed with an office away from home, just ten minutes from my apartment. When I’m in town, I eat a quick breakfast, fill a thermos with coffee, and head over there to write—or do something related to writing (like this interview), or at least think about writing. When I was teaching, I got in the habit of writing in the morning, before the work of the day hit me. It’s a habit I can’t and don’t want to break.

Anybody watching me would say I revise a lot, but I look at it a little differently. Like some painters I’ve known (not watercolorists!), I keep working on a poem till it feels done, which sometimes takes quite awhile. That work, to me, isn’t revising, it’s just writing. Once I reach the point where I can’t think of anything else to do, I consider that I actually have a poem; after that, whatever tinkering I do—sometimes in response to the comments of a good reader—is revising. But by then most of the work has been done.

I don’t often revise after publication. But if something feels wrong, even years later, I’ll certainly change it.

MS: What are you currently reading? Who are the authors who have been most important to you?

MC: I’ve recently been reading a lot of African American poetry, of which there’s a tremendous outpouring these days, partly due to the influence of Cave Canem. Beyond poets like Carl Phillips and Marilyn Nelson, whom I’ve been reading for years (and who are of course very different from each other), I’m impressed with the work of a lot of younger poets. Thomas Sayers Ellis, Evie Shockley, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, and Major Jackson are among those I’ve read closely enough to review in print recently. This is a current interest, not unrelated to the writing I’ve been doing.

In my earlier years, Emily Dickinson was enormously important to me, as was Wallace Stevens; they still are. There was a time, later, when John Ashbery gave me a kind of license to write in ways that I might never have thought of; he wasn’t so much a direct influence (nobody would say I write like him) as an enabler. Denise Levertov, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Muriel Rukeyser enabled me in other ways, allowing me to pursue a certain kind of subject matter (and, in the case of Rukeyser, to use research to do it).

Before all of these: The Psalms, which my mother began reading to me when I was very young.

MS: I was very moved by your new collection of poems White Papers just released by Pitt. The book explores what it means to be ‘white’ in a multi-racial and often racist world. Why did you choose to write an entire book on this subject?

MC: I didn’t really choose to write on this subject: the subject chose me. It goes back to my previous book, Blue Front , a book-length poem that focuses on a lynching my father witnessed in Cairo, Illinois. He once told me he’d seen a man hanged there when he was a kid; but until I saw the exhibit of lynching postcards called Without Sanctuary, I didn’t realize that what he’d seen was an actual lynching (centrally of a black man, but then, as a sort of afterthought, of a white man too)—nor did I realize that he was only five years old when he saw it. I became obsessed with thinking about what that experience might have meant to him, and the result, a few years and a lot of research later, was the book.

But at some point I began to think not just about my father, but also about what all this had to do with me, a white woman living 100 years later. The thinking was encouraged by people who would sometimes ask me, for instance, how it felt to be writing about African American history as a white person. I quickly found a short answer to that: If you were going to film just the lynching part of that book, I’d say, how many black actors would you need, and how many white actors and extras?

But the long answer came more slowly, and finally began to appear as poems when the phrase “white papers” came into my consciousness. There are of course a couple of established meanings for the term (try Googling “white papers”!), but its significance for me was racial, and it gave me a kind of license to write a series of numbered but untitled poems that I could think of as “papers.” I wrote them rather randomly, letting one poem suggest another. Or letting a memory direct me to research, or vice versa. I guess I knew from the beginning that I was writing, as you say, “an entire book”; again, it wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity, once I’d embarked on the project.

MS: Although White Papers is organized as a collection of individual poems, it has more coherence than most collections. How would you describe the unifying narrative or argument of the book?

MC: I had no sense of a unifying narrative or argument as I was writing. I think I did have a sense of purpose, though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time: I was trying to educate myself, about both my own past and the racial history of this country.

It didn’t occur to me until after White Papers was finished, but I think the fact that I had just written about my father as a child is what led me to think about my own childhood—something I hadn’t written much about before, and which I now began to explore through the filter of race. My childhood was very, very white: the non-white population of Iowa, where I grew up, is not large (as Michelle Obama famously noted during the 2008 campaign). That was one starting point. Another was history: having researched the very narrow subject of a lynching in the previous book, I now began to explore racial history more broadly, though within some limits: without quite realizing it, I made a kind of “rule” that I wouldn’t write about anything that wasn’t somehow related to me and the places I’d lived, primarily New England and the Midwest.

While the history of race in this country (and in my experience) is centrally black-and-white, it’s of course not exclusively so, and I eventually began to explore other inter-racial relationships too—both in my own life (there was one Japanese American girl in my junior high class) and in history.

I also began to be aware of contemporary events and language that revealed attitudes about race. Many of the White Papers were written during the 2008 election, and I had a number of poems that bore witness to appallingly racist responses to Obama’s campaign. I eventually took most of those out, but the racism I was witnessing was an important impetus for going on.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that was one arc: from early history to current events, pretty much culminating with the election of Obama. The other movement was the personal one, from my early childhood on. So when I finally confronted the stack of “papers” I’d been accumulating without any particular sense of order, I realized that I was going to have to move through American history and personal history at the same time. Those two movements, I would say, represent in a very general way the dual “narrative” (imagine a graph with two lines). It’s a faint arc, not something I would expect a reader to be easily aware of; but it helped me put the book together.

I had a lot of poems that didn’t fit either category—and I also had to decide whether to scatter or group what a friend called the “brown, red and yellow” papers. I finally opted to scatter them only a little, locating most of them in the middle section of the book, along with others that explore the history of “whiteness.”

MS: The poems in Blue Front patch together newspaper articles, census data, legal history, postcards, photographs, and your own speculations about your father’s experience. So, I’m wondering why you keep returning to the history of racism in America as a subject of your poetry? And why is poetry your chosen medium for these explorations rather than prose?

MC: Well, it’s not really returning, I think, so much as carrying on. It’s a process that began the moment I saw the lynching exhibit, which created for me a direct personal link to our country’s deeply racist past. Since then, I’ve become more and more involved in exploring not only the subject, but also my own past and present attitudes toward it. Someone suggested at a reading last year that I now had to start working on the last part of the trilogy that I was obviously writing. The trilogy was news to me! But I think he may have been on to something.

Other people have asked me why poetry rather than prose, and the simple answer is—well, I’m a poet. Just before Blue Front came out, Cynthia Carr published a 400-page book about her family’s similar involvement in an Indiana lynching in 1930. I applaud such work: I’ve read an enormous number of nonfiction books, scholarly and otherwise, in thinking about my own material. The research I did for Blue Front, particularly the discovery of the documents you mention above, was extremely rewarding: to come upon these materials, to hold them in my hand, took me closer to the events themselves. And reading for the White Papers was, as I’ve mentioned, a process of self-education. But what I value as a reader of poetry is that it conflates intellectual, emotional, even physical experience in a way that factually-oriented prose cannot.

An example. Eighteen years ago, after I’d spent years reading about the history of Vietnam and particularly the American war there, a Vietnamese poet gave me copies of some roughly translated versions of a few of his poems. I was stunned: the feelings and images the poems evoked made me feel as if I’d been taken to the country itself. I’ve been co-translating Vietnamese poetry ever since.

MS: Would you talk about your poetic style? You avoid punctuation and capital letters. Grammar is often fragmented. Even when you use complete sentences, they run into other sentences in ways that create ambiguities. Also, individual words are often used in unusual ways, giving them new meanings. Why is this unconventional style appropriate to your voice and subject?

MC: One reason I think I was initially drawn to poetry is that I’ve always been uncomfortable with certainty. My first book, while more syntactically conventional than later ones, foregrounds uncertainty: one poem begins “It’s important not to say”; another quickly corrects itself with “No, no.” Fragmentation became more central in my second book, and still more in my third. But when I got to Blue Front, uncertainty was central to the process. I began by knowing very little about that particular lynching, or lynching in general, and had no way of knowing how it had affected my father—and yet I felt compelled to start writing. The earliest example of resulting fragmentation occurred when I was trying to figure out the meaning of “Blue Front,” the name of the restaurant where my father worked when he was five: “Was it the blue of”—and then I broke off. The more I wrote, though, the more those breakings off reflected emotional uncertainties and difficulties: how could I say, could I say, did I even know what I was trying to say—

My interest in individual words goes back to my fourth book, where I have a series of unrhymed sonnets that focus on individual abstract nouns with multiple meanings (lines, lies, races, times, etc); in Blue Front, there’s a similar series, scattered throughout the book. In both cases, and in other poems as well, I’ve found that thinking obsessively about a single word, even its totally dissimilar meanings, is a way of opening up my mind to emotional complexity.

MS: You are often regarded as a “language poet” because your poems explore the limits of meaning and syntax. But it seems to me that you are different than the language poets because your subject is usually not language itself but rather the ways that language and injustice intersect. In your five collections of poetry, you look closely at racism, domestic violence, social repression, political deception and war. How do you see your work in the context of the language poets, such as Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and Rae Armantrout? Do you see your work as part of the movement toward a more exploratory style of American poetry?

MC: I don’t know that I’m often regarded as a language poet! Because an otherwise very perceptive review of Blue Front in the New York Times Book Review referred to me that way, I’ve been asked about this before. As I noted earlier, reading Ashbery (who was writing language poetry before there were language poets) gave me a certain license; and when anthologies of language poetry began to come out, I read them. I even made a few attempts to write language-y poems, which was kind of fun; but what I discovered was that some kind of subject matter always emerged—often, I have to confess, of a sexual kind: that’s what I seem to get when I try to repress subject matter.

But what the reviewer was really noting about my work, I think, is what you very nicely call its “exploratory style.” Language poetry, in the early years when its name was written with equal signs and capital letters, was much more extreme in its repression of subject matter than it’s since become; if you look at the more recent work (and some of the earlier work too) of any of the poets you mention, it’s impossible to not find “content.” I heard Rae Armantrout on PBS last night speaking very eloquently about some of the “subjects,” not unlike mine, that her poems have been embracing lately. These days, terms like “innovative” and “experimental” seem more apt to me—though not “avant garde”: experimentalism has become too mainstream for that term to apply.

It’s a dialectical process, I think, and we’re in the synthesizing phase.

MS: You were a professor of creative writing, as well as a college administrator, for a long time, and now you’re working as an editor for FIELD magazine and Oberlin College Press. How have these varied professions combined with your work as a poet? Do you feel that being part of the academic world has been good for your writing? If so, how? What are the trade-offs that poet has to make in order to have an academic profession?

MC: I don’t think that teaching has interfered with my work as a poet, and it’s certainly enriched me as a person: to share the inevitably solitary art of writing poetry with others has been very rewarding. It’s true that thinking about students’ poems can keep me from thinking about my own, and use a similar kind of energy. For that reason, the academic calendar has probably contributed to making me (and a lot of others) a kind of “binge” poet. Ultimately, though, that calendar is one of the great gifts that the academy gives us: what other profession gives you summers, not to mention sabbaticals and semester breaks? You may work more hours during a semester than someone doing another kind of work—but before you know it, it’s summer.

It’s also true that when my academic schedule has been particularly intense (and directing creative writing programs certainly helped to make it so), I’ve made myself work on that morning schedule I mentioned earlier, so even the most extreme busy-ness may have actually helped. Administrative work is very different from teaching, I should note: it occupies a different part of my brain, and I don’t think it interferes much with writing itself—though it may have kept me from being more active on behalf of publishing my own work.

Editing has been extremely helpful: a kind of focused reading, often of writers I might never have encountered otherwise.

MS: Thirty years ago, there were just a handful of MFA creative writing programs in this country, and now there are hundreds. In your opinion, how has this change affected the field of poetry?

MC: Well, there are a lot more poets! I would never decry the numbers: I’m grateful for any interest in poetry, including its emergence through the (initially) non-academic route of the poetry slam and open mic. I don’t think the professionalizing of poetry has necessarily been good for everyone: the expectation that one must have poems published to get into an MFA program, or that one must have a book by the time one gets out can mean, for some, that more time and energy are spent on the “business” of poetry than on the reading and pondering that are essential parts of the writing process. That MFA programs require reading is of course a good thing. And even better is the fact that both undergraduate and MFA programs have allowed people who might not ever have thought about writing poetry to explore it; as a result, the field is a lot more diverse than it once was.

MS: What advice would you give a young poet?

MC: Read, read, read. Read broadly, not limiting yourself to poets who seem immediately appealing to you; read deeply, when a poet does attract your attention. Read especially carefully when you’re drawn to a poet or poem but don’t know why.

When you turn to writing, don’t settle easily: push the poem as hard as you can. I don’t know whether young poets today have the problem I did (and still do), but I’ve learned that I have to push past the a whole army of mental censors (based on parents, teachers, critics, the culture at large) that tell me I cannot / should not / must not write what I’m writing, whether for aesthetic or moral or some other reasons. It took me awhile, but I finally learned that I’m usually onto something when I hear the censor’s voice.


On Rejection

By Publius

I’ve got a bit of free time between classes, such as it is …

Speaking of Publius, I think he’s a devout follower of Thomas Merton, who once said, “In this era, it is no longer necessary to parody. it’s sufficient to simply quote.”

University of California Press just sent me a Class A Rejection. Since I was a horny bachelor for forty years, and a barely-published writer for even longer, I’ve developed all manner of theory about rejection. A Class A is an actual missive from some living being. A Class B is the rejection slip with a note at the bottom. Class C is, of course, just the rejection note. In any case, I got a Class A for the University Of California Press. I hate when publishers tell me how they find my work, to quote UC, “an appealing submission but…”. The Utne Reader once was interested in republishing my “Ghetto Hawk”. The editor wrote to tell me how it was under consideration until the very last editor’s meeting. I feel like the guy who came in 4th in the Olympics, who lost the race by 1/2934857393023875630283 of a second.

Be the Donkey

by Michael Simms

Recently I heard someone say that when he stopped drinking, his life changed so quickly it was like being “rocketed into a new dimension”, and I remembered when I got sober a number of years ago, I had the same experience. During the first two years of sobriety, my health, my friendships, and my family relationships were transformed beyond recognition. But now, my life is not like taking a rocketship at all; instead, it’s more like riding a donkey. Slowly, steadily, reliably, the donkey and I are moving down the road. Sometimes, though, for no reason I can see, the donkey stops and refuses to go any further. My tendency at that point is to get off the donkey and beat the hell out of it — teach it a lesson. But that never works: all I get is a mean donkey that bites me in the ass the first chance it gets. What I need to do, of course, is to get off the donkey and wait for it to start moving again. Stretch my legs. Maybe have a picnic in the meadow beside the road. To borrow a phrase from the poet Tony Hoagland, I need to work on my “donkey wisdom”.


Celebration as Protest

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

In California the state fiscal crisis has resulted in the scheduled closure of seventy state parks (25% of the total number) by July of 2012. The majority of the parks scheduled for closure are in Northern California where the poet Katherine Hastings lives.

Hastings, who runs a well-respected reading series in Santa Rosa, CA, called WordTemple, and hosts a public radio program by the same name on NPR affiliate KRCB FM, is an avid hiker and park-goer, so when she heard the news about the impending park closures, her immediate response was to find some way to draw attention to the closures as a means of protest.

The result was an anthology of poems, What Redwoods KnowPoems from California’s State Parks, which protests the closures through a celebration by fourteen poets of state parks as the vital, historic and—still all-too rare for many urban dwellers—restorative presence of wildness in our lives.

To quote a now often-quoted passage from Hastings’ eloquent introduction:

“The idea of this book didn’t come about as a way to save our parks; I’m not unrealistic,” said Katherine in the introduction of her book. “But some action had to be taken so I put out a call to poets in Sonoma County to join me in hikes through several state parks and asked them and other poets up-and-down the state to submit poems inspired by the parks in their areas, whether they are scheduled for closure now or not.”

So far Hastings has scheduled readings from the anthology up and down the coast and heartland of California, including one in the capital (and my home city), Sacramento.

A while ago I wrote about Martha Ann Blackman’s decade long protest against the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. (It started for Blackman with the writing of a poem and ended with the plant’s closure.) Hastings is another poet who is doing her best to harness the power of the word for the common good.

To read more about the anthology and the thirteen poets in it (of which I am one), to hear the poets read from the collection, to order a copy, or to read more about the specific park closures, click on the links below.

Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from “Breathing,” one of Hastings’ poems included in the collection, about (scheduled for closure) Jack London State Park:

Where braided shadows of redwoods drape

Nests of mice, voles. Breath comes more softly

Standing at the picket fence of graves—

London under the red rock, fresh ashes

Poured in a mound nearby. (We wondered if

That’s desecration or a human right.)…

(Hastings’ full-length collection, Cloud-Fire, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvill Press in the fall.)


(Scroll down to What Redwoods Know)


Letter to a Teacher

Metropolitan High School
[Read more…]