A Conversation with Martha Collins

Martha Collins’s eleventh volume of poetry, Casualty Reports, was published by Pittsburgh in fall 2022; her tenth, Because What Else Could I Do (Pittsburgh, 2019), won the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award. Her previous poetry books include three focusing on race and racism (Admit One: An American Scrapbook, White Papers, and Blue Front) and the paired volumes Night Unto Night and Day Unto Day. Her fifth collection of co-translated Vietnamese poetry, Dreaming the Mountain: Poems by Tue Sy (co-translated with Nguyen Ba Chung), is due in May 2023 from Milkweed. Collins founded the UMass Boston creative writing program and later served as Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her website is marthacollinspoet.com.


Jody Hartkopp: I wanted to start the interview by talking about the Blacksmith House in Cambridge. I was there for your reading in October from your latest collection Casualty Reports, which marked the 50th year anniversary of the Blacksmith House Reading Series. You gave your first reading at the Blacksmith. Can you talk a little more about that? How did that reading come about for you?

Martha Collins: I was a newly-tenured assistant professor at UMass Boston, teaching what was probably my first creative writing course. I hadn’t been in an MFA program, or for that matter in any kind of workshop, and I’d published no more than a handful of poems. But my graduate assistant Helene Davis referred me to Gail Mazur, who’d recently founded the Blacksmith series, and Gail invited me to read. The setting then was quite informal: there were tables and coffee and pastries, and poets so new to public reading that we did things like forget to take our poems to the podium, or maybe that was just me. Things have changed since then: it’s been many years since the Blacksmith hosted anyone’s first reading. But the spirit behind Gail’s invitation lived on: first-book poets continue to read in the series along with twenty-book poets, the young with the not-so-young. I should also note that Gail, who hosted the series for almost forty years, became and remains a dear friend.

JH: Did your connection to the Blacksmith enable you to get involved with the community of poets in Cambridge (or in Boston)?

MC: I’m not sure “get involved with” is quite the right phrase. But yes: I met other poets there, and began to meet informally with some of them in my first-ever workshop. The Blacksmith was really the only major reading series in Cambridge at the time, aside from colleges and universities that hosted well-known poets. You could count on meeting the same wonderful poets, some of whom were or were becoming widely published and deservedly well-known, at almost any Monday night Blacksmith reading. 

JH: Does your writing process involve sharing your work with others? In what ways do you get feedback on your work? Is this an important part of your process?

MC: I shared my poems off and on in informal workshops until I left Cambridge to teach at Oberlin in 1997. For a while my only reader was Pamela Alexander, a Cambridge friend with whom I shared the Oberlin position. Since then a few friendships with other poets have evolved into poem-sharing relationships; I now have precisely three friends (including Pam) who are trusted readers. I might note that I never show a poem to my readers until I’m relatively satisfied with it—until I think (usually wrongly, of course) that there’s nothing more I can do with it.

The informal workshops were important for me in those early years—not only for helping me to see my work more clearly, but also for giving me language for talking about poems. More recently, it’s been particularly valuable to have readers who’ve known my work intimately for some years and who therefore have some sense of what I’m up to in new work.

But I’m still grateful that I wrote poems pretty much on my own for some years. The process began seriously when I realized, in writing a dissertation on Henry James, that I didn’t want to write about writers, I wanted to be a writer. From then on I learned by reading. I didn’t have anyone to tell me what I could or couldn’t do, which I think has made me more open to taking risks than I might otherwise have been.

JH: I see that you will be leading two online workshops, one in February for the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA and one in May for the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Did Covid create opportunities for you to instruct online? 

MC: Covid created the necessity for me and almost everyone else to teach online! But necessity has also become opportunity: people no longer have to travel long distances to teach or participate in workshops. 

JH: How do you see teaching and leading workshops informing your work as a poet?

MC: Teaching has always been for me a source of community. Writing poetry is lonely work, which is no doubt one reason I was drawn to it (I’m really quite shy, though I doubt that anyone would describe me that way). But teaching is a way of both sharing what I’ve learned and learning from others. Classes and workshops have taught me, among other things, to appreciate that there is no single or best poetic process: people approach the work in very different ways, and come up with very different results. I’m also grateful to be in spaces where there’s no outside noise, no question of whether what we’re doing is worthwhile; it’s simply what we do. 

JH: Are there other things you do on a regular basis to inform your work?

MC: As in the beginning—reading! Re-reading old favorites, discovering new ones. I’m not a conscious imitator, but I know that other poets’ strategies make their way into my subconscious mind and transform themselves into what I may mistakenly think is something altogether new. I’m compelled by syntax, and love following it in others’ work. I’m also compelled by individual words; the dictionary, with its etymologies and multiple meanings, is one of my favorite resources. 

As I’ve begun to write more of what people now call documentary poetry, I’ve found other sorts of reading to be essential. When I was a graduate student in English, I found research tedious; now, when I’m focused on something like a particular historic event, I find it endlessly fascinating and inspiring. 

Since the mid 1990s, I’ve also been informed—again in ways I’m not always conscious of—by reading and translating poems in and from other languages, primarily Vietnamese. I studied Vietnamese for about a year, which means that I’m still dependent on a co-translator. But working in a language that is so radically different from English has expanded my sense of what any given language can—and cannot—do. Co-translating my fifth and forthcoming book of co-translations, Dreaming the Mountain by Buddhist monk Tuệ Sỹ, has been particularly enlightening, both culturally and linguistically.

But I should also and most importantly note that like most writers, I’m informed by living in the world: an observed world, of nature and people and places; a socio-political world, where history, for good and ill, is being made; a world of suffering and joy and frustration and injustice and love. Henry James’s primary writerly advice was to “be someone on whom nothing is lost.” I merely aspire to heeding that advice, but it has been with me from the beginning.

JH: The workshop for Hudson Valley Writers Center is titled “Writing from Home(s).” Poems in your latest book, Casualty Reports, explore, among other topics, your family’s history with the coal mining industry in Illinois. How has connecting home with history led to areas of exploration for you as a poet?

MC: That’s a really interesting question! I don’t think I could have even thought about teaching such a course before I went to Oberlin. But my going there coincided with my first translations of Vietnamese poems, which moved me deeply in their depictions of and attachment to the poets’ native landscapes and villages. I’d grown up in Iowa but moved to Boston when I was in my twenties, and I really hadn’t felt that kind of attachment for some years. When I was offered the position at Oberlin, one odd incentive was that it would take me back to a midwestern landscape: Ohio isn’t Iowa, but Oberlin wasn’t urban, either. At the time I think I envisioned writing my way back home through something like landscape.

But the odd thing that happened was that I discovered that my father had witnessed a lynching in Cairo, Illinois, when he was five years old. And so, the Midwest that drew me was both a familial one and a historic one. It was relatively easy to visit Cairo from Ohio, and I did so a number of times. The result was Blue Front, a book-length poem that focuses on the lynching; but the process has been ongoing. My next book, White Papers, explored my own history as a white person, beginning in Iowa; my 2016 book, Admit One: An American Scrapbook, began with the fact that my maternal grandparents had attended the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. As you note, my recent book makes a similar connection between family and history—again, Midwestern history. It’s also true that I couldn’t have written any of these books without having a personal connection. Maybe I could have written articles, if I did such things. But I write poems.

JH: How did the subject of the coal industry become interesting to you? Did you have an awareness while writing that larger issues, such as global warming, were at play? 

MC: As I’ve just suggested, the coal poems would not have been written if there hadn’t been a family connection. The two sections of the book that focus on coal are both called “Legacy,” and the first legacy is deeply personal. My paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both coal miners in southern Illinois; as I note in the first poem in the book, my father (though he’d deliberately, and with his mother’s encouragement, avoided becoming a miner himself) had saved and labeled his father’s and grandfather’s mining lamps and other paraphernalia, and had told me in detail (I took notes) what he knew of the coal mining that dominated the town where he grew up. From there I went on to explore, through research, the history of coal mining in southern Illinois. 

But while I’d known the personal history since my early adulthood, I became much more deeply drawn to the subject when larger issues became apparent to me—global warming, yes, and also both the dangers and decline of coal mining and the subsequent political upheaval caused by the loss of mining jobs. That larger legacy—the legacy of all living beings on the planet—became the center of the second coal section in the book, which took me all the way back to the pre-history of coal and all the way up to the present.

JH: In your notes on “The Dudley Bus” you say that riding that bus line from Cambridge to Boston was a project called Poets & Writers Ride the Dudley Bus, whose founders asked several people to ride the bus and write about it in the summer of 2019. The name of the station was changed from Dudley to Nubian after the community brought forward concerns about Governor Dudley’s ties to slavery during colonial times. The poem makes reference to racial issues but only as the experience of a witness and by your observation. What is the role of a poet as a witness? How about as an activist?

MC: I didn’t actually know that history when I wrote the poem, though I was deeply conscious of the racial complexities of riding a bus that began its route in Harvard Square and ended in a historically Black section of Boston. The poem, taking the bus ride as structure, was also a journey back in time for me—to my first years in Boston, when I was living in a more racially diverse community than I ever had. (Iowa was 99.3% white when I was growing up.)

By coincidence, the names of Dudley Station (and Dudley Square, where it’s located) were changed to Nubian Station and Nubian Square just months after I completed the poem. That was the first I knew of that history, which—by now an inveterate attender to history—I certainly would have included in the poem had I known it.

As for witnessing: in the Dudley bus poem, I’m witness to my own community, trying to be “someone on whom nothing is lost” as I observe and reflect on the racial complexities of the community that is now home for me. 

In other poems, I’m what Terrence Des Pres has called a “secondary witness”: I didn’t witness the lynching, or the eugenic displays at the 1904 World’s Fair, but I read and absorbed the accounts of others who did, and passed those accounts on. To call myself even a secondary witness, I’ve always felt the need to get myself so deeply into events that I can almost feel I’m there. When I was finishing Blue Front during a residency in the small town of Marfa, Texas, I once had the weird sense that I was walking down the streets of the similarly small town of Cairo, Illinois. That was a one-off experience, but I always need, emotionally, to get as close as I can. Thus the family connections. Blue Front is filled with questions about my father: did he see this, did he hear that? And what did my grandparents learn at that 1904 World’s Fair?

None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t in some sense been an activist, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was an anti-war protestor. My activism has spread out considerably since then, and one cause of that has been writing the poems. It’s a two-way street: activism leads to poetry, poetry to activism. I should add that I don’t think activism needs to be part of the role of all poets; I’m just describing myself here.

JH: You have talked in previous interviews about paying attention to your “censors.” How did you become aware of these interior voices, of maybe past teachers or others who tell us we ought not to do or write certain things—and more importantly how did your censors become such a great source of strength and inspiration for you?

MC: I think my first awareness of the censors came early on, when I was trying to figure out what worked for me formally in poems. I’d start to do something with syntax, or maybe with some kind of variation on form, and hear a voice—not of a creative writing teacher, since I hadn’t had those, but some authoritative literary person or tradition—questioning whether I could really do that. And then I would just do it.

Or I would find a personal subject, perhaps about my childhood, and there would be censors again, maybe parents: You can’t write about that! And then—since no one was, after all, reading my poems—I started learning to say well why not!

When I discovered that my father had witnessed the lynching, the censors came in big time: How could I write a poem about a lynching? And then: How could I write a whole book about one? But by that time I’d learned to love the censors, and I still do: when they say you can’t do that, I know I’m onto something that I have to do. The censors are my muses.

JH: There are several examples in this collection of your style that you have often referred to as “stuttering,” where you use white space and break off to form partial lines. One such example is the poem “Of Late,” which deals with dementia. Your style lends itself very well to the subject matter, and also to a sense of immediacy, to the emotion of the moment. Can you talk more about the emotional experience of writing and hearing your poetry?

MC: First, on the stammering. I guess I’ve always been compulsively aware of getting things right. In my first book, I told a lot of fractured stories, both personal and fictional, and found myself making corrections within the poems: “No, no. The car is white . . .”  Then, I suppose, I thought I could correct and finally get it right.

But somewhere in the 1990s, I discovered that there were things I couldn’t get right. Some of the poems I wrote then were about my mother, who would say things in her disconnected but often eloquent dementia that were quite fragmented but also quite moving (a precursor, those poems, to the one you mention). But the style carried over into—or maybe developed independently in—other poems I was writing, where I found that broken phrases were often a better way to get at deeper stuff than complete sentences.

This became especially helpful when I started writing from history, in Blue Front. For one thing, I discovered there were things I simply didn’t know—including how the Blue Front restaurant, where my father sold fruit when he was five, got its name: “was it the blue of the / was it the river / front of the blue of.” As I went on, I found myself at emotional stopping points, without language to describe what was almost unimaginable, and this led to more breaking off, more repetition, to try to find it, whatever it was.

Breaking lines with white space, even when I’m not breaking off, has now become a part of the music of my poems. Denise Levertov, explaining in “The Function of the Line” how lineation can be a kind of musical scoring, suggests that a line break might function as half a comma. When I add white space to the center of a line, that might indicate something like a fourth or an eighth of a comma.

Or not. As I discovered all those years ago, when I had no one to teach me what poetry was or was not, there are no rules. There is simply grace.


Jody Hartkopp

Jody Hartkopp is a Master of Fine Arts student in poetry at Boston University. Her poems have been published in The Briar Cliff Review. She frequently writes about growing up in Iowa and her Lithuanian heritage.

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