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INTERVIEW WITH MARTHA COLLINS

Martha Collins

Photo by Doug Macomber

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Born in Nebraska, raised in Iowa, educated at Stanford and the University of Iowa, I began to think seriously about poetry while pursuing a PhD in literature and working in a bookstore. Several years later, while I was teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, I began writing. I founded the creative writing program at UMass, and since 1997 have taught half-time at Oberlin College, where I'm Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing. Cambridge, Massachusetts is still my primary residence.

My book-length poem Blue Front was published by Graywolf Press in 2006. Some poems from the collection received the Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize, and the book itself was recently honored as one of "25 Books to Remember from 2006" by the New York Public Library. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation, as well as three Pushcart Prizes and a Lannan Residency Grant. My other publications include four books of poetry, two books of poems co-translated from the Vietnamese, and two chapbooks (the second forthcoming).

Describe the room you write in.

I have a large study in my Cambridge apartment where I write when I'm home; it's a room with a predictable number of bookshelves, books, and piles of paper, as well as the equally predictable desk and the maybe less predictable couch. When I'm not home, I write wherever I can-including, when I'm traveling, on planes and trains.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

"Favorites" are hard for me: the current favorites change too frequently. Here are some who have influenced me in the past, somewhat in order of influence. Henry James and Wallace Stevens. Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Louise Bogan. Gwendolyn Brooks. John Ashbery. Sigmund Freud.

Discuss your new book, Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006)

Blue Front is a book-length poem that focuses on a lynching my father witnessed when he was five years old in Cairo, Illinois. Part lyric and part narrative, the book is more collage than straightforward narrative. It includes fragments of sometimes conflicting evidence, and a great deal of speculation about what the experience might have meant to my father.

Your Father witnessing a lynching must have been so horrible. Discuss your whole process of research and being in Cairo, IL. How old were you when you found out about this?

About twenty years ago, when I was visiting Cairo with my family, my father told me he had seen a man hanged there when he was a boy. But it wasn't until I saw an exhibit of lynching postcards that I learned that he had seen a lynching that 10,000 people attended; that he had been five years old when he saw it; and that the primary victim was an African-American man, accused of rape and murder, who had been brutally hanged, shot, and burned. The postcards were my first source of information; I describe them and refer to them in the book. But I did a great deal more research, too, beginning with the internet. I read all the books and articles I could on the subject of lynching in general; I read all I could about Cairo and, more generally, southern Illinois. I visited Cairo four times, exploring the museum and library archives as well as the streets of the town; and I looked up all the newspaper accounts of the lynching I could find in the Illinois State Archives in Springfield.

Researching the lynching and racist attitudes, must have been so painful. What has writing this book been like emotionally for you?

It was of course emotionally difficult. But it was also gratifying, in a number of ways. Although everything I wrote has a basis in my research, I had no interest in or capacity for writing a coherent narrative: I began writing before I finished reading and exploring, and the result reflects several layers of wondering. The first layer is of course "what happened"-and because I ultimately couldn't know, the book is filled with the kinds of doubts, questions, and contradictions that I in fact believe are intrinsic to all our knowing and writing. Beneath the layer of "what happened," though, was the question of what my father perceived and experienced as a five-year-old child, which I also could only wonder about, since my father was no longer living. And beneath that was the even deeper question of what I was experiencing in writing the book, and what it had to do with me as a white person living in the United States almost 100 years after a black man had been lynched in my father's hometown.

You founded the creative writing program at U-Mass-Boston. What year was this program established? Please talk about this program.

The program was established in 1979. From the beginning, it required the completion of four creative writing courses, three literature courses, and a portfolio; students could and did pursue it as undergraduates, graduate students, or special students. In 1997, a creative writing track became an option for the MA in English; this fall an MFA in creative writing will be offered for the first time.

You currently are the Chair at the creative writing program at Oberlin College in Ohio and teach. What do you try to teach your students about writing?

Actually, I'm currently on sabbatical. But what I try to teach my students is to work hard, if they want to pursue writing in a serious way-and many Oberlin students do: we have a creative writing major, and a remarkable percentage of our students become accomplished writers. But I'm happy if students simply use creative writing courses to learn more about literature, language, or themselves.

Being Editor of Field must be such a wonderful experience. Talk of your experience editing the magazine. What sort of work do you look for? Anything else you would like to share about it for the newsletter readers?

I'm actually one of several editors; this year, because I'm not at Oberlin, I'm officially "editor-at large," which means I'm looking for work but not involved in final decisions. Like my fellow editors, I'm interested in poems that are not only accomplished but also surprising. Of course my fellow editors aren't always surprised by the same things that I am.

Talk about your other books, Gone So Far (Barnwood, 2005), Some Things Words Can Do (Sheep Meadow Press, 1998), A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet (Univ. of Georgia, 1993), The Arrangement of Space (Gibbs Smith, 1991), The Catastrophe of Rainbows (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 1985, and 1998), and your Vietnamese translations, Green Rice (Curbstone, 2005) and The Women Carry River Water (U-Mass Press, 1997).

Gone So Far is a chapbook of poems that focuses on the last years of my mother's long life. The other books are harder to characterize; I'll take them in chronological order.

The Catastrophe of Rainbows, influenced by the mathematical theory known as "catastrophe theory" as well as by color theory and painting, is probably the most personal book I've written, although it includes "fictions" as well as autobiographical poems. The Arrangement of Space consists of three poetic sequences; the central one, "A Book of Days," was influenced by the sculptor David Smith, though I doubt that anyone would recognize that. The next two books are less personal. A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet takes on some social issues, in oblique ways, and is driven by varieties of language and voice more than visual image. Language is also central to Some Things Words Can Do, as the title suggests.

Have you studied Vietnamese for very long? Have you ever been there? How difficult was it to translate Green Rice and The Women Carry River Water?

Both of these books are co-translated-The Women Carry River Water with the author, Nguyen Quang Thieu, and Green Rice (by Lam Thi My Da) with Thuy Dinh. I began working with Thieu in 1993, when he came to the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass-Boston; in 1994, I went to Vietnam, traveling with Fred Marchant, to continue working on the book. At that point, I had studied Vietnamese for one semester at Harvard; when I got back, I got through part of another semester before I realized I didn't want to spend the rest of my life becoming fluent in Vietnamese. I rely on my co-translators, but I know enough about the language to work through rough versions myself, which I always do, even when I have the co-translator's version at hand.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently selecting for a New and Selected Poems. The new poems will be sequences, somewhat reminiscent of work in my second book.

 


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