Wednesday, April 28, 2010

An Interview with Martha Collins

Did I mention that Martha Collins is reading at the DWC this week (Friday @ 7)? Because she is. Here, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers talks to Collins about BLUE FRONT, extinction, distinction & discrimination.


1. Describe your initial inspiration(s) for writing BLUE FRONT. Did you begin this project with a specific goal or intention, or realize, mid-process, what kind of book you were writing?

Several years ago I saw an exhibit of lynching postcards in New York. It was shocking, first because of the often horrendous images of lynching scenes and victims on the postcards, but also because they were postcards, which were sold for souvenirs, or for people to send to relatives and friends. What shocked me most, though, was coming upon a group of cards from Cairo, Illinois, and realizing that the hanging my father had once told me he saw there when he was a kid was not some kind of awful but legal public execution, but rather the lynching of a black man (and later, as a kind of afterthought, a white man) that was witnessed by 10,000 people. My father was no longer living, but I explored what I knew of his life and the town of Cairo at the same time that I was extensively researching the lynching itself. I began writing a year after I saw the exhibit, but long before I finished the research. My first goal was to find out what, most literally, happened; but I was more importantly wondering how such an event would have affected my five-year-old white father. Increasingly, I began to realize that I was even more deeply interested in what all of this had to do with me, a white woman living 100 years later. That last issue is central to the work I’m doing now.

2. In what ways was BLUE FRONT related to or in conversation with your previous work? How is this book different from your others?

My early work, like that of many poets, was often focused on my own perceptions, feelings, and, to a lesser extent, my life. I had always responded, occasionally, to social and political issues; but my third book took a deliberate turn in that direction, even as the work became somewhat more fragmented and experimental. Blue Front continues both of these trends, but in fact utilizes techniques that I’ve used throughout my writing career. I had written long sequences of poems before (my second book is comprised of three of them), but Blue Front of course extends that process.

3.You've described BLUE FRONT as a book-length poem rather than a collection of poems. What reasons do you have for making this distinction?

Partly because I was writing before my research was finished, many of the sections give only partial accounts of what I was thinking, or what I was thinking might have happened (the point of view throughout the book is one of wondering, speculating). Many of the sections were therefore necessarily incomplete from the outset: they made no sense out of context. The more I wrote, though, the more I realized that the whole work was a process, and that I really had no interest in creating poems that would make sense on their own; I was interested in something much more like a fragmented novel—and the process of writing actually reminded me of writing a novel, which is something I once did.

4. BLUE FRONT is a fusion of the historical and the personal. In your work, how do you think that these two modes complement, inform, or struggle with one another?

I like your description of that fusion: it’s really what the book was about, from the moment I held the catalog of lynching postcards in one metaphorical hand and a scrapbook of my father’s childhood in the other. Of course there’s a great deal of tension—struggle, in your word—between the two: the horror of the event on the one hand, the tenderness I felt toward my five-year-old father on the other. But the fusion of the two modes is the book’s reason for being: one would simply not be there without the other.

5.. BLUE FRONT raises difficult questions about discrimination and the silenced, radicalized "other" in US history. As a white woman, what fears (if any) did you have in writing and publishing this work? What have been the outcomes of publishing a book of poems that is so socially charged?

Initially, the voices in my mind that I call the “censors” told me that I simply couldn’t write poetry about a lynching—and that I certainly shouldn’t be doing so as a white person. But I’ve learned to treat those censors as muses in disguise: when they start talking to me, I think I must be on to something. Ever since the book’s publication, I know there have been actual readers (or refusers to read) who echo those voices, though they have only rarely spoken to me. Several white people have asked me what it felt like to be writing African-American history as a white person—and I know their question reflects the doubts and objections of some black people as well. My short answer has been something like this: Okay, if you were to film the lynching part of this book, how many black actors would you have to hire, and how many white actors and extras? The long answer has taken me into the book-length project of untitled poems I’ve just finished, called White Papers. It continues to affect both my work and my life.

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers is a MFA student at Cornell University. Her poems have appeared in Chautauqua Literary Journal, StorySouth, The Comstock Review, The Asheville Review, on Poetry Daily, and others. She has been a finalist for several chapbook competitions and for Mid-American Review’s James Wright poetry prize.

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