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.

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