An Interview with Martha Collins

Martha Collins is a poet, translator, the editor-at-large for Field Magazine, and an editor at Oberlin College Press. She is the author of the poetry volumes, Day Unto Day (Milkweed, 2014), White Papers (Pitt Poetry Series, 2012), Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), Some Things Words Can Do (Sheep Meadow, 1998), A History of a Small Life on a Windy Planet (University of Georgia, 1993), The Arrangement of Space (Gibbs Smith, 1991) and The Catastrophe of Rainbows (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1985).  Her volume Admit One: An American Scrapbook is forthcoming in 2016.

 

She was interviewed by Danielle Legros Georges for SolLit-Diverse Voices in February 2015. Excerpts of this conversation appear below.

DLG: Do you consider your work experimental? How might you label your work if asked to do so?

MC: I have never thought about myself one way or the other, though it’s true that I’ve never particularly wanted to write like anybody else, and don’t think of myself as being influenced by others. Of course that’s not true: I’m as influenced as anyone else. But I have never identified with a school of experimental writing or any other school. One important turn, though, was doing an independent study with a student on John Ashbury. What I got from that slow reading experience was license, permission. Though the permission isn’t always easy to come by. One of the best lessons I have ever learned is to listen to my internal censors. When they say you can’t do that, they often point me in the direction I should go.
DLG: You’ve recently done a lot of work dealing with what is difficult to say, to write. There seems in your work a tension between a desired control over language—and utterance, the insufficiency of language . . . Does this drive you into the new?

MC: I think it’s often insufficiency that leads to what people call the innovative or experimental. In a review of Blue Front in the New York Times, Dana Goodyear referenced me as a language poet, which seemed odd because I would never have thought of myself that way. But insufficiency, yes. The point of view in that book is that of my father, who witnessed a lynching as a five year old. On the one hand, I was dealing with facts that would not budge; I did a lot of reading, gathered a lot of accounts of what took place. On the other hand, I was wondering about my father, trying to figure out what he might have experienced. I started writing Blue Front before I had all the information, and there was a sort of stammering to get to what I didn’t know. Another layer of this was the insufficiency of language to understand my own reaction to the material. I often cut myself off in the middle of something—not a deliberate cutting off, but a reflection of an inability to say what I meant or felt. Sometimes, too, it’s coming up against what I don’t need to say, something everybody knows but nobody quite says. The other side of omission in Blue Front is a lot of repetition. I am not unconscious of this, but the techniques grow out of the material. I should add I had been doing a certain amount of fragmentation before I wrote Blue Front, but it became central in that book.

DLG: There’s the story and the meta­story taking place . . .

MC: . . . the awareness that the story is a story that language made happen in a particular way makes language problematic.

But beyond that is language in general. To talk about race, for example, is to talk about language. In White Papers there’s a section that discusses which people have historically been white; the Greeks, for instance, weren’t white. Racial labels are shifty terms.

DLG: What about the authorial voice as a concept?

MC: I have problem with the authorial voice. There’s tension between respecting and loving language at its very best, and suspicion of what drives it.

DLG: Is this tension a function of our times, this post­post­post modern (or wherever we are) moment?

cover-day-unto-dayMC: Our world is full of terrible uncertainty. We’re faced with the destructiveness of wars, of our climate. Sometimes when I’m teaching Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I note that the assumption about art as that which will survive no longer applies. We can’t assume that anything will survive.

I think that is true, yet we can’t fall into apathy. One pull is that the world we live in is very important to me, including what is wrong with it, what its injustices are. But how does language deal with that? I recently went to a Black Lives Matters protest, and couldn’t help but analyze some of the slogans. The language of social protest is very sure of itself, which is one reason that my protestor self and my poet self were somewhat separate for some years. I have been pulling these parts together for the last twenty years or so.

DLG: You have mentioned the extent to which you’ve used documentary material in your recent work, the trilogy of Blue Front, White Papers, and Admit One: An American Scrapbook, a forthcoming volume on a segment of American history and your relationship to it.

MC: Perhaps part of being innovative, for me, is using documentary material. I do a lot of research, both before and during the writing process. But I don’t try to be inclusive, as I would be if I were doing academic work. I let the poem tell me what should go into it, and my basis for selection is not thorough or definitive.

DLG: Your poems evoke sculpture for me. They feel both chiseled out of language, and aware of how they appear on the page.

MC: In 1982-83, I had a fellowship at what is now the Radcliffe Institute. I intended to use it to finish a long narrative poem, but instead I started writing fragments. Then I happened to see a special exhibit of David Smith’s sculpture in DC, and thought this is what I’m trying to do. His sculptures were asymmetrical, abstract, pieces made out of pieces. More than I had before, I began to sculpt my poems with an awareness of how they look on the page. That work became part of my second book, The Arrangement of Space.

I also discovered the dash with that book. Though obviously influenced by Dickinson, it was for me a way breaking off, not completing, which seems to me to be true to the mental process. The so-called stream of consciousness doesn’t interest me much. You think about something, it kind of shimmers for a bit, and then you think about something else.

DLG: Would you talk about your earlier work?

MC: My first book was obliquely personal, really more personal than anything I have written. The title is based on mathematical theory, catastrophe theory, an example of which happens to be the rainbow. That, plus looking at a lot of paintings, led me to starting thinking about and in color. But the book also has a lot of narrative, and meta-narrative in it. I love story. But I can’t tell one straight.

With the second book, which I’ve already discussed, there was a little bit of stretching toward the epic in the unfinished narrative poem. In my third book I became very conscious of language; this was partly the Ashbury influence. And my fourth is called Some Things Words Can Do.

DLG: You were already considering language as artifact, as terrain of exploration with that last title.

MC: Yes. I published a couple of chapbooks after that, and then I saw an exhibit of lynching postcards—and that changed my writing life again. My father had told me he’d seen a man hanged when he was a boy in Cairo, Illinois, but I didn’t know the details until I saw that exhibit. When I finished Blue Front, the book-length poem about that, I felt as if I didn’t know how to write a short poem anymore. I knew I needed to write more about race, but I didn’t know how to begin until the title White Papers came to me.

Not knowing is really important to me. If I know what I have to say, I don’t write a poem. I was a musician while I was growing up, and it always frustrated me that I knew what the thing was supposed to sound like before I could play it. With poetry, I don’t know, and that’s both challenging and exciting.

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