A Cyber-Interview with Martha Collins
On the day that America would elect its first African-American President, Martha Collins gave a reading in Phoenix, Arizona, from Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), her book-length poem based on a lynching her father witnessed when he was five years old.
This reading was long anticipated by the 8,000-plus students, faculty and staff of Paradise Valley Community College, one of ten colleges in the Maricopa Community College District. Previously, Martha Collins was to be the college's Spring Visiting Writer and Scholar and her reading was scheduled to be part of Black History Month events.
However, due to illness, Collins was forced to cancel her February visit She was greatly distressed by this turn of events, and the creative writing students were deeply disappointed. They had studied Blue Front in class and had read various critiques and reviews of the book. One African-American student privately told his professor that Blue Front was of particular importance to him, as lynching was part of his family history.
Dr. Lois Roma-Deeley, program head of Creative Writing and director of the Visiting Writer and Scholar reading series at the college, decided to reschedule the reading. Then high-tech merged with low-tech as Roma-Deeley collected interview questions from her students and emailed them to Martha Collins. In addition, Roma-Deeley collaborated by phone with Collins about Blue Front and the selections Collins would have read if she were well enough to fly to Phoenix and give her reading.
During various phone conversations and email exchanges, it was decided by Roma-Deeley and Collins that, on the day of event, Roma-Deeley would “stand in” for Collins. Roma-Deeley would read portions of Blue Front that were pre-selections by Collins. The pair decided they would incorporate additional material to give the poems an historical context as well. After reading the poems, Roma-Deeley would then read the student questions and Collins’s responses to those questions.
Martha Collins has also published four collections of poems, two books of co-translations from Vietnamese, and an earlier chapbook of poems. Her awards include fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation, as well as three Pushcart Prizes, the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and a Lannan residency grant. A selection of poems from Blue Front won the Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize in 2005; other selections from the book appeared in Kenyon Review and Ploughshares.
Collins founded the Creative Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts 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 one of the editors of the Oberlin College Press.
Blue Front won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006” by the New York Public Library.
Below are the questions—and answers—from a cyber-interview with Martha Collins.
Did your father ever elaborate on how the lynching touched his life? Besides your father, what other primary resources did you have?
Some years ago, when we were visiting Cairo, Illinois, my father’s birthplace, he told me that he had seen a man hanged there when he was a boy. That’s all he told me. I somehow knew, given the racial history of the town, that the victim had been an African-American; but I only recently realized that the image I had in mind, disturbing though it was, was of some kind of public but orderly and probably legal execution.
Then, following a trip to Alabama during which I visited places of importance in the Civil Rights movement, I went to New York and saw an exhibit of lynching postcards. The exhibit and the accompanying book, which I bought, were shocking both for their content and their occasion: the postcards were purchased for souvenirs, and often sent to friends and relatives with glib messages (“This was the barbecue we had last week” was the most appalling of these). But the exhibit was personally shocking to me because it included a series of postcards of a lynching in Cairo that was clearly what my father had seen; until then, I had no idea that there were 10,000 people there, or that my father was only five when it happened.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this discovery, and a year later I contacted the man who had gathered the postcards and also began doing research on the Internet, looking up Cairo, lynching, the victim’s name, etc. The “Historic Cairo Illinois Website” (no longer available) was particularly useful, though it didn’t mention the lynching.
The details of my subsequent research—including several visits to Cairo and several days in the Illinois state archives looking up and photocopying newspaper accounts—are described at least in part in the Acknowledgments at the end of my book. In the Cairo Library, I used city directories, promotional brochures, and other materials; in the museum, I found an exhibit of paintings by my father’s childhood friend Margaret Rust. I read all the books I could about Cairo, southern Illinois and lynching, and I interviewed people who knew Cairo’s history and people had been involved in the later civil rights movement there. The newspaper accounts in various Illinois papers (especially Cairo and Chicago) were the source of all of the sections about the events surrounding the lynching itself.
How would you describe the voice speaking in this book? After writing this book, could you go back in memory and connect various events, feelings that your father might have had with the lynching in Blue Front?
Although I rarely use the first person in the book, the voice is really my voice, wondering, first, what happened, and second, to quote the excellently worded question above, what “feelings my father might have had.” Every time I found out something new, I put that information through the “lens” of my imagined five-year-old father’s eyes and asked: Would he have seen this? Would he have heard that? I didn’t “invent” anything in the book: I just tried to get as close to what might possibly have been the truth as I could, based on a blending of the “facts” I read and the wondering I did.
The more I wrote, the more a third kind of wondering became part of my process. I’ll address this further below, but the basic question was, what did all of this have to do with me as a White person writing almost a hundred years after the event? In the end, I did use the first person occasionally—in the sections about the Alabama cities and in a few short, short-lined sections, most crucially in the section on p. 74, which confronts the question of being White directly.
What gave you the idea for the format of this book? Did the structuring of the book—that is, the small poems and segments as well as the wording, punctuation etc.—happen at the same time? What was your strategy for the final structure?
When I began writing, I really didn’t have any idea at all about the structure of the book—either the large, overall structure or the smaller matters addressed by the second question. In fact, I really didn’t choose the form—it chose me. I began writing in Santa Fe, before I was able to look up contemporary accounts of the lynching itself; by necessity, I wrote in fragments that reflected what I had at a given point learned and/or remembered. Another related but important issue is what I mentioned above: that my point of view for writing the entire book was one of not knowing and therefore wondering: the fragments and repetitions reflect my own thinking. I would begin a thought, and then realize I couldn’t complete it; I would return to a phrase or a fact because I was obsessing about it.
While I was writing, I just let the sections pile up. I knew the first section would be first, and I knew that the different kinds of sections that make up the collage—the dated narratives, the 14-line sections based on a single word, the sections about my father’s life, the sections about Alabama cities, etc.—would be scattered throughout the manuscript, but I had no idea what the order would be. When I was almost done, I scattered the pages on the floor and began to collect. Much shuffling of paper ensued, but the final ordering was initially pretty intuitive.
After I finished the book, I realized that I did have some subconscious sources for different structural aspects of the book—works I knew very well but that I wasn’t thinking about consciously while I wrote. Peter Klappert’s The Idiot Princess of the Last Dynasty, C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, and Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” are some of those.
What was the racial atmosphere of the city or cities you were living and working in while writing Blue Front? Were there any present-day “racial triggers” that influenced you in the writing of this book?
I did much of the writing of the book during residencies in Santa Fe; Marfa, Texas; and Ireland—places that don’t have a significant history of Black-White relations. But I was conscious of the history and tensions in all of those places—between Latinos and Whites, on the one hand, between Catholics and Protestants on the other. My primary residence at the time was Oberlin, Ohio, which has a rather proud racial history, going back to the Abolitionist movement—though it, like virtually every place in the country, continues to experience economic disparities between Blacks and Whites. I was also living in Boston, which has a recent history of racial tensions surrounding the efforts at school integration in the 1960s and 1970s.
But no, there wasn’t a present-day “trigger” for the book—just a historical one that, crucially, had personal resonance for me. Shortly after I wrote the book, though, the [U.S.] Senate finally “apologized” for the history of lynching—though a huge numbers of senators sat out the vote. And of course there’s Jena [Louisiana], and there are other recent incidents with “nooses” that make clear that the history of lynching is not over.
How has this book been received by the Black community? The White community?
I of course can’t speak for either “community,” but the response I’ve gotten from both Black and White readers has been quite positive. I know that some Black readers are initially skeptical, when they hear about what I’ve done. But when they actually read the book, they see that I’m not trying to write from a Black point of view but rather explore the material from a White perspective.
I of course know that there must be readers out there who don’t like or approve of my book at all: White people (and perhaps others) who don’t think that material like this belongs in poetry at all, and Black people who think a White person shouldn’t be dealing with it. This is always true, no matter what one writes: somebody won’t like it. But fortunately those people haven’t written to me.
As a White woman—and considering the intensity and magnitude of this event—did you ever feel you could not do the subject matter justice?
I not only felt this, I knew it—and thus did not try. No one can ever do justice to “the intensity and magnitude” of an event like this—and this particular event calls for treatments that I simply could not offer. For one thing, I’m not an historian: trying to find out what actually happened and how it related to other such events is work that’s being done by others (notably by Kathryn B. Ward, who is writing a history of Cairo and who was very generous in sharing information with me). For another, there’s a Black perspective on all of this material which is very, very important for all of us to hear. I didn’t try to find that perspective; I wrote from my own.
There are two places in the book where I address this directly. One is in the poem “Montgomery,” where I cite the question an African-American asked when he and his friends were taking me around the city to see places that had been important in the Civil Rights movement, including the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I hope you don’t mind my asking,” he said, very politely, “but why would a White person want to explore all this African-American history?” I had a lot of answers to that, even at the time—most centrally that I think the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century is one of the most inspiring aspects of the history of this or any nation. But the question was there for me all the time I was writing Blue Front, and emerged directly in the section of page 74: I had to know what it was like to think of myself, as a White person, in the kind of racial terms in which Black people have been required to think of themselves throughout history. Since then, I’ve been heard to say that I don’t think the racial problems of this country will be solved until White people as well as Black people confront the racial history that belongs to both races.
One more comment. The history of lynching is White history. Imagine a film being made of the events depicted in Blue Front and consider: how many actors would be Black, how many would be White?
The New York Times Sunday Book Review of your collection of poems Blue Front refers to you as a language poet. How would you define that term? Would you comment on that characterization of your work in Blue Front?
I’m extremely grateful to Dana Goodyear for doing such a careful reading of my book: she worked much harder than most reviewers do, and I think it went a little against the grain of her own poetic inclinations to do so. It’s a very smart review. But neither I nor any of my poet friends understood the remark about my being a “language” poet. I won’t go into the history of language poetry (initially defined as “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” poetry), except to say that it’s extremely experimental, and to offer an analogy that is very superficial but that I find is sometimes helpful to people: as abstract painting is to representational painting, so is at least some language poetry to “other” poetry. Or so it was once: that artificial line is becoming more and more blurred, by others as well as, I guess, by me.
But I’ve never considered myself a language poet—although I’ve never been a highly conventional one either. As Goodyear acknowledges in the review, there are reasons for the fragmentation in this particular book. But it’s also true that my poetry in general is interested in explorations of feeling and thinking and wondering: I don’t write in a more conventional form because what I apparently have to say doesn’t lend itself to conventional statement. It’s also true that the music of poetry is very important to me, and that I “hear” poetry as I write it, whether I’m reading it aloud (as I often do) or not: the repetitions and fragments that seem so experimental are, for me, part of that music.
Could you describe your editing (revision) process, both in general and as it relates to this book? Since you are an editor, did you edit your book Blue Front? If so, how did you decide what to leave in/take out and did that have an impact as to your format for the book?
I’m a constant reviser, and I don’t just “edit” on the computer: once a poem or section arrives at computer status (I begin writing by hand), I print out numerous versions. In fact the revision process is so integral to what I do that I’ve sort of stopped thinking about the main part of it as revision. Like an oil painter who keeps working on a canvas till it’s done—working first in one corner, then in another, painting over what’s already been painted, etc.—I really think of it all as a composing process, until I’m satisfied enough to show what I’ve done to someone else.
My work as an editor has no doubt had an impact on my work, but not as directly as the question suggests. “Editor” is a tricky word. As one of the editors of a magazine, my most essential work is to decide what goes into the magazine—to choose among the many submissions. I think this may make me a more critical judge of my own work, but who knows. As an editor of books, part of my job is to make sure that the book works AS a book—that the order is effective, that there’s no extraneous material. Again, this may make me a better judge of my own work, but it’s hard to be specific about how.
As a teacher, did you take suggestions from your class and/or did they have any involvement (such as a listening audience) in your book as you were was writing it?
No. This is a personal matter, but I’ve always felt that my classroom time belonged to my students and their work and should not be a platform for my own. A number of my students did hear me give readings from the book while I was writing—and participants in the two-week Joiner Center Writers Workshop where I teach every summer heard sections from the book at public readings every year from the time I began writing. Their responses helped cheer me on as I worked to complete the book.
Having experienced emotional pain in the writing of this book, would you approach another project of similar intensity? If so, how? What is in the works for the future? Would you do anything differently?
Good question—but a hard one to answer. I would take on a similar project, if I could find one that was as personally compelling to me as this one was; in fact, there’s a part of me that’s in search of just such a project. What I’m doing in the meantime is writing short lyrics in fairly long sequences that are more personal than Blue Front, and also more spiritual—but that also inevitably reflect events of our own time. What I don’t seem to be inclined to do since Blue Front is write short poems.
I can’t think of anything I’d do differently—not because I think Blue Front is perfect, but because I followed the process through to the best of my ability at the time. The second printing makes one correction of an historical fact, and adds a date I didn’t have at the time; if other such things come to light, I’ll add them in subsequent printings.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Write, write, write. Revise, revise, revise. If you don’t like the process of revision, you may want to think twice about being a writer. Years ago I heard Philip Levine give the following advice to a group of students. It takes three things to be a successful poet, he said, and they go in this order: First, stubbornness; then, luck; and finally and lastly, talent. There’s a lot of talent around; it’s the stubbornness that makes the difference.
Lois Roma-Deeley, winner of the Samuel T. Coleridge Literary Prize, is the author of three collections of poetry. High Notes, her third collection, was published from Benu Press in 2010. The book forms the basis of a jazz opera she is writing with composer Christopher Scinto. Benu Press awards The Samuel T. Coleridge Prize for "an outstanding work of literature, written by a contemporary author, that fulfills Coleridge's vision of the artist as a reconciling architect of the imagination. Such a work invites us to examine our understanding of the world, establishing new meaning in a just future transformed by possibility."
Her second book, northSight (2006), earned her a nod from the Los Angeles Book Prize nominating committee and received critical praise.
Rules of Hunger, her first full-length poetry collection (2004), earned her a National Book Award nomination.
Roma-Deeley has taught creative writing at the graduate and undergraduate levels for more than 25 years. She has given poetry readings nationwide, including: Bowling Green State University, University of Wisconsin--Waukesha, Arizona State University (main, west and east campuses), Northern Arizona Book Festival, AWP Conference in Atlanta, West End Reading Series in Ithaca, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Humanities Festival, Clearwater Flordia Public Library, Harold Washington College, Phoenix College, Austin Community College, Mesa Community College, Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Changing Hands Bookstore, Book Stall Bookstore, Antigone Bookstore, Biblio Books, Reader's Oasis, Borders, Phoenix Writers Club, ARC Gallery, ARTFIT, Scottsdale Museum of Modern Art, Scottsdale Cultural Council and many others.