Monday, February 29, 2016

Split This Rock Interview with Dawn Lundy Martin

Fifth in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 14-17, 2016. Pre-registration is open now until March 31st.

By Nancy K. Pearson
Photo by Max Freeman.

Dawn Lundy Martin received her MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her PhD in literature at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst with a dissertation on experimentalism and subjectivity in contemporary poetry. She is the author of A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press 2007), winner of the Cave Canem Prize; DISCIPLINE (Nightboat Books 2011), which was selected by Fanny Howe for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize and a finalist for both Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Award; Candy, a limited edition letterpress chapbook (Albion Books 2011); The Main Cause of the Exodus (O’clock Press 2014); and The Morning Hour, selected by C.D. Wright for the 2003 Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship. Her latest collection, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, was published by Nightboat Books in 2015. She is at work on a new book titled Good Stock, forthcoming from Coffee House Press

With Vivien Labaton, she also co-edited The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism (Anchor Books, 2004), which uses a gender lens to describe and theorize young activist work in the U.S. She is the co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation (New York), an organization, which was for 15 years the only young activist feminist foundation in the U.S.

Martin is currently at work, with poet/scholar Erica Hunt, on an anthology of experimental writing by black women in North America and the Caribbean (Kore Press). She has written a libretto for a video installation opera, titled "Good Stock on the Dimension Floor," featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and is collaborating with architect Mitch McEwen on Detroit Opera House, “a project which stages an opera as a house, the house and its dramas of occupancy, vacancy, demolition, and re-purposing as an opera.” Martin is also a co-founder of the Black Took Collective, an experimental performance art/poetry group of three.


Nancy K. Pearson (NKP): Dawn, your poems expose themes such as suffering and injustice in a wide variety of forms. In A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering you write lyric poems as well prose poems; Discipline is a book of mostly prose poems and your most recent book, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life, combines prose, short lyrics and found text, just to name a few. You write about, among many things, racial injustice using these various forms. Can you tell us how different forms of poetry change the reader’s experience of racial inequality, as one example?

Dawn Lundy Martin (DLM): The form usually comes first for me; it’s what compels the particular language I end up using to attempt to speak a thing. The question, of course, is how does one speak “race” in the first place? What does it mean for a body to be “raced” as a development across time and in this historical moment. When we say, “black” what is it that we mean? I am always in the mode of trying to attend to how complicated that racialization is. And, when I am riding a formal engagement—let’s say the fragment—I might perform this complexity. When we try to nail it down, make it uncomplicated, we do ourselves as racialized people, a harmful injustice, I think. We make ourselves overly recognizable and thereby seeable in racial context. We collude in manifesting racial interior selves, when those interiors are fictions. 

What is more namable, of course, but not absolutely nameable is the experience of inequity, discrimination, or inequality. We can look at a dead black person in the street and say, there is a dead black person in the street. We can look at videotape and see that that person had no weapon and was killed because of something as small, perhaps, as disobedience. The prose poem, or sentences, which are obviously more complete utterances than the fragment and also are dictating by grammar, can speak to these moments of the seen and the experienced. But, those sentences necessarily limp too. Sometimes an eruption occurs in the middle of them, or a stammer. Why? Because what is complete about an unarmed black person murdered by police?

NKP: Yes, there’s nothing complete about that. I recently read your 1994 book, The Fire This Time, and found it very inspiring. Twelve years after its publication, your book is more relevant than ever. In one chapter, you quote Jerome Miller, an activist who revolutionized the juvenile justice system. He says, “It will be possible only when we begin handling most criminalizable situations outside the criminal justice system all together.” For those who haven’t read your book, will you expand on the relevance of this quote or what “will be possible?” Now? In the future?

DLM: Hmmmm. I have to say that you might be more familiar with that book than I am at this point, as it’s been a few years since I’ve looked at it closely. What I want to say about what I know about the criminal justice system now, as it affects young people, especially young people of color, is that the situation has gotten worse instead of better. The activist you quote above was talking about restructuring the criminal justice system so that when young people committed crimes they wouldn’t be necessarily put in the system, because young people do all kinds of stupid stuff (I know I did) and shouldn’t in some cases be criminalized, but dealt with in other ways. 

The situation now is that young people of color are being criminalized for very small incidents that historically have not been crimes. When I was in high school, two teenagers getting into a fist fight did not mean that the police were called and students arrested. In 2016, this is a regular thing. Certainly disobedient elementary school children weren’t arrested. And, they are now. The school-to-prison pipeline is real, and I don’t believe this is some kind of accident of random occurrences, but instead, a strategic systematic machinery at work to put as many black and brown people in jail as possible. 

The Fire This Time was really about using a gender lens and if I do that, now, on this criminal justice I can tell you the machine is actively at work imprisoning more and more young women and trans women. The statistics from Kimberle Crenshaw’s study on black girls are startling as they show how black girls are disciplined at rates significantly higher than anyone else—only 2% of white girls are disciplined at school compared to 12% of black girls—and that discipline is far harsher for black girls on whom the police are often called. Can you even imagine a society in which schools call the police on teenage white girls at school?! We need to shed light on the problems of the prison industrial complex, and its impact on black and brown people, particularly young women.

NKP: The statistics are startling. How can a poet begin to express such injustice and pain? As you’ve said in several interviews, the poems in your second book, A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering and in Disciple, concern the inability of language to express pain. And yet, poetry is language. Can you explain how poetry gives voice to experience when other forms of language fail us?

DLM: I think that poetry has a radical revolutionary possibility in that often, but not always, its language operates outside of linguistic conventions like the grammatical correct sentence or normative ways of speaking. That’s where, for me, its power lies, in that power not to give voice to, but imagine, in language new possibilities for attending to reality and what it means to be a human. When Alice Notley in “At Night the States” attends to loss, I tear up every time I read it because I can feel the limp in that sentence and the overwhelming sense of absence through the naming of an object held:

my love for you & that for me
deep down in the Purple Plant the oldest
of it is sweetest but states no longer
          how I
would feel. Shirt
that shirt has been in your arms
          And I have
that shirt is how I feel

I’m forever awed by these lines that never seem to settle. So, yeah, language has its limits, but it’s also really stretchy and can be manipulated to better approach the thing that wants to be said. Myung Mi Kim, who mentored me as a young poet, helped me figure that out.

NKP: Myung Mi Kim, oh! Tell me a little more about her influence.

DLM:  I love talking about Myung Mi Kim because I feel like she is truly one of the most under appreciated American writers of our time. And, she is like my fairy godmother. She came to me when I was struggling to refigure out who I was as a poet. I had recently moved to the west coast and begun graduate school. It was a radical adventure all around. I’d never been away from the East Coast and to get to California, I’d taken a $69 one-way Greyhound Bus. The experience of riding across country with most of my earthly belongings and all the money I had in the world was truly one of the happiest moments in my life. California was also radical disjuncture, radical re-contextualization, and the opportunity for a radical reinvention of selfhood. I had gotten very good at a kind of narrative lyric poetry as an undergraduate. 

In this new context, on what felt like the edge of the earth, that narrative began to unravel. In my body, it felt like clothes that fit a little too snug. This was happening before I met Myung, before I was accepted into the Poetry program at San Francisco State, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. Taking my first class with Myung Mi Kim was like walking into a room configured in a shape I had never seen before. She’d ask truly confounding questions about our work, but I would take those questions with me throughout the week and meditate on them. My mind was brightly enlivened by her courses—a whole course on “Silence”! — I felt tremendously awake. It was there I began to develop a poetics inspired or brought into being by her own. I believe myself to be true disciple. Without her, my poetics simply would not exist as they currently do. Working closely with her, I began to think about “unspeakability” and began to link it with trauma, and later with racial identity. I began to look very closely at theories of language and to really think about this tool I was using, this medium. I also began to want the poems to raise things that they did not necessarily set down by the poem’s end. This work continues to activate my imagination.

NKP: This is somewhat related to the question about “unspeakability” and the limits of language. As mentioned in The Fire This Time, the DSM-V (or the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, which is like the OED of psychiatric disorders), no longer inclused the diagnosis “Gender Identification Disorder.” Being gay isn’t a psychiatric disorder anymore. Do you think simplification makes us tractable? How does poetry question systems of categorization, such as the diagnosis of mental and physical illnesses, especially related to women’s health? Do you think diagnosis is ever useful?

DLM: That’s an interesting question regarding tractability. I obviously think it’s better not to be thought of as a disease, but what I’ve witnessed in my lifetime is a normalization of both gender and sexual orientation. It’s fine. I just find it boring. Queer people live lives that look just straight people’s lives. Gender is increasingly reified, though there are more radical enactments of gender than sexual orientation probably. That’s an oversimplification, I know. But, it speaks to our tendency—as poets and non-poets alike—to want to exist in pre-made categories. We tend to like them. It’s easier to glom onto something made for you than to invent something new. Inventing something new and living inside of it can be socially isolating. 

As far is illness is concerned, I think that the categorizations of “sick” and “well” can be deeply problematic because they carry with them certain capitalist assumptions around labor and productivity. I’m unfamiliar with poetry that challenges this dichotomy. Diagnosis, can be useful, I think—like if you have cancer or schizophrenia—but, like the attachment we have to identity categories, the medical establishment is too attached to diagnosis, which prevents them from looking outside of those ready-made categories.

NKP: I’m going to move on now to your book, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life. What a title! The poems in this book are in conversation with the artist Carrie Mae Weems. Your first poem engages her photographic triptych “Framed by Modernism.” Tell us a little more about your artistic relationship with Weems and other artists. What expectations are placed on black female poets and artists like Weems or Kara Walker? You quote Walker in your epigraph: “What strikes me is how easy it is to commit atrocities.” 

DLM: I just love these two artists. I can’t get enough of them. I love how they are both—in radically different way—interrogating race and the lived experience racialized bodies. I like to think of poetry as in conversation with everything! Visual art, critical theory, architecture, film, philosophy, psychology, etc., and those conversations make their way into the poetry too, in more oblique ways.  Being a black female artist or poet means that people have a certain idea of you and what you think. Sometimes there’s a racial party line to tow. In Walker’s case, of course, she’s never towed it. But for me what she has to say is more exciting because of that refusal to be coerced into perception that isn’t hers. That epigraph is from an interview that Walker did and for me it gets to the awful condition of humanness that we force ourselves to look away from in order to stay alive. Walker is not afraid of looking. I love the complication in both Weems’ and Walker’s works; you have to actively engage it. I like things like that in general. When something is readily knowable, I find it derivative and/or just too easy or reductive to engage my interest.

NKP: Yes! I like the idea that poetry is in conversation with everything. Dawn, somehow life is worth living. Yes? How does suffering and destruction, loneliness and doubt in your poems instill in the reader a sense of hope? I think your poems do.

DLM: I mean, is it? Just kidding. I guess it is. I don’t know the answer to this question, though. I don’t write from that place of hope, usually, or I don’t know that I do.

NKP: Yes, that makes sense. Of course this is a question you can’t answer! But when I read your work I feel more hopeful because, I guess, people like you really change the way we look at pain and dislocation, and engaging in a conversation about say, racial injustice is, in my opinion, the only way to make change. Anyway, that’s a reader’s perspective, not a writer’s.

OK, let’s talk about your beautiful essay, “The Long Rod to Angela Davis’s Library,” which was published in the New Yorker in Dec. 2014. I read this as soon as it was published. God it’s good. In this essay, you talk about your parents, your past, poverty and activism, coming out, and so much more. When you were 22 you moved from Hartford, CT to San Francisco where you canvased for an environmental organization. I think the advertisement on the flyer back in CT said, “Spend Your Summer Changing the World.” And how you’ve changed the world since then! In San Francisco, you came out as a lesbian; you were “bottles girl” at Club Q, and then, you met Angela Davis. But you didn’t just meet her. 

Here’s a quote from your essay: “The insight I gained during the informal teach-ins at Angela’s took place in the small crack between recognizing injustice and recognizing that the institutions created to protect us often end up repressing us.” Tell me, if you don’t mind, more about this and how you, as an activist and poet, have changed since meeting Davis. I realize this is a big question.

DLM: It was such a long time ago! Everything is different. I was just coming into my activist self back then and figuring out what really matters to me. I had to give myself an education in black radical activism and Angela’s library opened the door for that. I read as much as I could when I was there dog-sitting and took the rest of the books out from the university library or purchased more books at one of the many amazing bookstores San Francisco and Berkeley used to have. I was just being born. I was alive with this newness and writing to the poet Marilyn Nelson about it (I studied with her as an undergraduate)—about how I was on the one hand reading Charles Olson for grad school and Huey Newton and Bettina Aptheker on the other and also learning all this stuff about COINTELPRO. My mind was seriously blown. 

I’m all jaded and shit now. LOL. I mean, I still do activist work sometimes, but I am admittedly less optimistic about systemic social change. If we are over here working on reforming the prison industrial complex something really evil is probably happening someplace on the other side of our attention. And also, there’s so much in fighting amongst people who are and should be on the same side. We do our selves in. We seem incapable of conversation. It’s all about critique. And while the feminists and the POC activists are at each other’s throats, Ted Cruz is building a little evil army.  

NKP: And then, there’s poetry, beauty, creation. I sound like an optimist! I’m not. But your poetry energizes me. I’m interested in something personal—What is your creative process and how has it changed? 

DLM: I’m a laboratory writer. I experiment a lot and invent a lot of processes by which to write. When writing DISCIPLINE, for example, I was listening to lots of readings and lectures on UbuWeb and Penn Sound, sometimes in languages I don’t understand. I had constant sound in my ears to see what that would produce for me in terms of writing. My imagination is most engaged and opens up more widely when I am in playful creative processes of trying things out. I like when I’m learning something new. Essay writing is difficult to me but I love it because I’m figuring it out. That said, I write best when I have money in the bank and all the dishes are done and the house is spotless or when I’m at a writing residency. Tasks make me crazy and stressed out and I have a hard time focusing when there are tasks to do. This includes answering emails. If I’m at an artist’s residency where the Wi-Fi is a little shabby, that’s the best.

NKP: UbuWeb is an excellent resource. I find it interesting that the creative process is playful even when you’re writing from a place that’s not hopeful or optimistic. So, what’s your next project?

DLM: I’m writing a new book of poems for Coffee House Press, currently titled Good Stock. I’m also working on essays and a related memoir.

NKP: I can’t wait to read your new work. By the way, what are you reading right now, poetry, fiction, essays?

DLM: I just bought Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty and Jane: A Murder because I haven’t read these books by her and I’m obsessed with her writing. I’m finishing Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me and poet Sara Jane Stoner’s Experience in the Medium of Destruction. I’ve just started reading the young poet, Aziza Barnes’s book i be but i ain’t and Autoportrait by Edouard Levé.

NKP: I’ll put those on my list. I’d also like to teach one of your books if I get the chance. So tell me, in theory, if you had to teach one of your books of poems to undergraduates, which book would you teach and where would you start?

DML: I’d probably teach DISCIPLINE and Life in a Box is a Pretty Life together because for me DISCIPLINE kind of gave birth to Life in a Box. It’s DISCIPLINE’s bastard spawn.

NKP: I love that answer. Dawn, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I admire you so much. I’m looking forward to reading your new book of poems, Good Stock, and seeing you at Split This Rock Festival. It’s going to be an exciting event.

DLM: Thank you so much for chatting! It’s been a true pleasure.


Nancy K. Pearson is the author of the poetry collections, The Whole By Contemplation Of a Single Bone ("Poets Out Loud Prize," Fordham University Press, 2016) and Two Minutes of Light (Perugia Press, 2008), which won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Two Minutes of Light was also named a  “Must Read Book” at the 2009 Annual Massachusetts Book Awards and was a finalist for The Lambda Literary Award. Pearson's awards include two seven-month writing fellowships at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, two Inprint Fellowships, and others. Her poems appear in journals, magazines and anthologies such as The Iowa Review, The Oxford American Magazine  (forthcoming), The Alaska Review, Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. Ed. Melissa Tuckey (University of Georgia Press, 2016) and Ordinary Genius, A Guide for The Poet Within by Kim Addonizio (Norton, 2009). She currently teaches at 24 Pearl Street, The Fine Arts Work Center's online writing program and at Frederick Community College. Pearson received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University and her MFA in nonfiction from the University of Houston. Native to Chattanooga, TN, she and her partner, Elizabeth Winston, now live in the D.C. area. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Split This Rock Interviews Ocean Vuong

Fourth in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 14-17, 2016. Pre-registration available until March 31 at Split This Rock's website.

by Tanya Olson

(Photo by Peter Bienkowski)
Ocean Vuong is one of the featured poets at the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation and Witness; the festival is held biannually in Washington, DC. This year’s conference runs April 14-17. 

Born in Saigon, poet and editor Vuong was raised in Hartford, Connecticut, earned a BA in Nineteenth Century English Literature at Brooklyn College (CUNY), and is currently completing an MFA at New York University. He is the author of 2 chapbooks, No and Burnings. His honors include fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Poets House, Kundiman, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts as well as an Academy of American Poets Prize, an American Poetry Review Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets, a Pushcart Prize, and a Beloit Poetry Journal Chad Walsh Poetry Prize. In 2014, Vuong was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. diaCRITICS writes that in No “Vuong breaks your heart and puts it back together. In these survival poems, he shows us the human spirit at its most vulnerable as it tries to heal yet never does so completely.”

Vuong’s poetry is notable because of the strength it displays. His isn’t the most recognizable, American version of strength- Whitman’s long line, bluster, and reach- but an interior strength American’s might associate more with Emily Dickinson. When that interiority and steel comes out of the Queens-based poet, it sounds like little else in American poetry today. His first full-length work Night Sky With Exit Wounds is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in April 2016. Ocean and I spoke by email for this interview.


Tanya Olson (TO): Night Sky With Exit Wounds will be available soon. It's your first full-length work. What are 2 things you would like people to know about this book before they open it?

Ocean Vuong (OV): I hope it will be a book that speaks to our American moment by expanding and extrapolating on what it means to be an American. And by American, I don't mean in citizenship, but in the way our lives are experienced under the traumas, joys, and tensions concerning the historic and cultural geography of the United States.
I also hope this book will be carried in someone's backpack or tote bag. That would make me smile.

TO: I'm excited to hear Night Sky explores "our American moment". It's one of the things I think your poems do best--capture perfectly and in full complexity what it is to be in America, in a specific time and place. As someone who has left a country, arrived in a country, stayed in a country, what are your thoughts on the idea of "citizen" right now?

OV: For me, our citizenship is only as valuable as how we treat our most marginalized people. This idea, of course, is not novel--and yet it is so difficult to achieve because the language we use to communicate with one another is often one of distance and hyperbole. The risk is that we end up dismissing or, at worst, shunning the particularities of an idiosyncratic life.
Although not a remedy to this, I think poetry creates a space where we don't have to clear our throats, where we can be as strange and obsessed as we actually feel. And someone can read these thoughts and hopefully recognize their own strangeness and uniqueness as a human being. In this way, poetry is the side door to our inner selves, where we can see one another, without shame, more closely. Because maybe it's these things that make us care for another: when we can recognize each other's fears, vulnerabilities, joys, and histories. Poetry and language, to me, is the DNA of our personhood. What a gift, then, to share that with one another. In this way, poetry achieves something regardless of the employment of superior craft (although that certainly helps), it builds a bridge we can actively cross and, hopefully, value one another better. I know these are lofty, even grandiose intentions. But making good poems is hard. And with a task that demands so much care and attention, and is so fraught with the limitations and impossibilities inherent in language, why not attempt something this embarrassingly ambitious? What do we have to lose when we are losing everything anyway? I think, maybe, this has something to do with citizenship.

TO: I find you to be such a dynamic reader in such a unique way. You always manage to build such an intimate space in a reading, almost shrinking the room, so everyone feels like they are being read to personally and intimately. Could you talk a little about yourself as a reader and a performer, what your process or system or goals are in a reading?

OV: Thank you for saying that. I'm glad you like my readings. The truth is, I am a naturally anxious person. Even after so many readings, I still get nervous. I’m just terrible at saying smart and funny things in between poems, so I just read one poem after another, keeping the notes as brief as possible. When I'm before an audience, in the middle the room, with every one's attention on me, I realize the only place I have to hide is actually inside my poem. So I look down at the page and try to go back in my words. I read them carefully, as if for the first time, trying to imagine the images and turns as I go. This way, I can be inside the "world" I've made for a while, instead of the world my body is in. And it just helps me make it through.
I believe the voice to be second page, if you will. It allows the poem to gain different intonations and inflections, silences and hesitations that might not be present in the written word.  It's one more way of experimenting with form--and I like that possibility, even if it is sometimes terrifying. 

TO: I see that ability to just sit in the present, in a moment, in your poetry and I think it's a real strength you offer to American poetry right now. I associate that with your practice of Buddhism- How else do you think your practice of Buddhism and your practice of poetry inform each other?

OV: I am still figuring that out. Somedays I forget that I am Buddhist at all. And of course, some days I forget I am a writer (which can be very nice!). I think what my Zen practice helps me, in relation to writing, to look at the world and its phenomena without immediate judgment. I think we, as humans, are naturally geared to judgment. After all, our ancestors had to decide which fruit to eat, what was poison and what was health. Being judgmental helped us get here, helped us survive. Ironically, in art, I find fast-judgment to be a neglect of possibilities. 
Buddhism is interested in looking at the world by removing the "Self" from it, from attempting to take out the perpetually referential ego, and see things "as they are." Now, I don't know if I have achieved that "seeing", or even if it's possible, to be honest. But I think even the aspiration to do so helps me see the physical and emotional world without quickly deeming it one thing or another. In this way, Buddhism is, to me, a very queer practice, because it privileges otherness and multiplicity, it gazes on one thing and challenges me to ask, "and what else?" Which is the same question I end up asking myself in art. And what else?

TO: If I were a betting woman. I would put down money on you as the Poet Laureate of America in the next 20 years. So 2034 comes around and you are named- what's your agenda going to be? Tell us a little about your main project.

OV: I don't know. I try not to think too much on the future because the only place I have control over is the present, and even here, I'm not very effective. I would just hope to use poetry to communicate with people better. To be more open in how they feel and how they share that feeling. Whatever tools, linguistic or otherwise, that are available to me, I will try to do that. That was my first intention as a poet, even before I knew someone like me could even be a poet: to make a space, thin and feeble as a page, where I can say "Hi, I'm Ocean, this is what I care about" and then someone else could respond in turn. As long as we can keep doing that, no matter where we are in the future, I think we will be okay. And sometimes to be okay is more that I can ask for. 

TO: Split This Rock believes poetry & poets have real, crucial work to do in this world. What is your job as a poet?

VO: For me, writing, if nothing else, is a bridge between two people, a bridge made of language. And language belongs to all of us. If I enjoy a poem, that just means I am recognizing within it something of myself, something I must already possess. Therefore, to love a poem is to love a part of myself revealed to me by another person. It’s kind of like magic, ya know? At the risk of sounding corny, I really believe that writing is the closest thing we have to true magic. Where else, but in words, can we discover each other out of thin air? 


Photo by Ruth Eckles.

Tanya Olson lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is a Lecturer in English at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Her first book, Boyishly, was published by YesYes Books in 2013 and was awarded a 2014 American Book Award. She has also won the Discovery/Boston Review prize and was named a Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow by the Lambda Literary Foundation. Her poem 54 Prince was included in Best American Poetry 2015.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Split This Rock Interviews Martha Collins

Third in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 14-17, 2016. Pre-registration available until March 31 at Split This Rock's website.

By Tiana Trutna

Martha Collins is one of the poets we are honored to feature at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2016, April 14-17, 2016. 

Martha Collins’s eighth book of poetry, Admit One: An American Scrapbook (Pittsburgh, 2016), follows White Papers (2012) and the book-length poem Blue Front (2006) in combining  careful research with innovative poetic techniques to explore disturbing aspects of America’s history, including race and racism. Described by the AWP Chronicle as “a dazzling poet whose poetry is poised at the juncture between the lyric and ethics,” Collins has also published four collections of co-translated Vietnamese poetry and (among other books of poetry) Day Unto Day, a 2014 collection of “calendar” poems.

Her awards include fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, and the Siena Art Institute, as well as three Pushcart Prizes, a 2013 Best American Poetry award, and an Anisfield-Wolf Award. Founder of the creative writing program at UMass-Boston, she served as Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College for ten years and as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University in 2010. She is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and one of the editors of the Oberlin College Press. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To learn more about Collins, visit her website:
Tiana Trutna (TT): What inspired your commitment to write about race issues?

Martha Collins (MC): I wrote several poems that focused on race in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until I saw an exhibit of lynching postcards in 2000 that race began to be central to my thinking, living, and writing. The postcards were shocking in themselves, not least because they were sent to friends and relatives or saved as souvenirs; but what stunned me most was realizing that the hanging my father told me he’d seen as a kid in southern Illinois was actually a lynching witnessed by 10,000 people, its primary victim—predictably—a Black man. I spent several years researching and writing Blue Front, a book-length poem that focuses on the lynching. But the more I wrote, the more I began to ponder what this had to do with me, a white woman living almost 100 years later. That led to White Papers, which, like the earlier book, includes a great deal of research, in this case into the history of race and racism in the Midwest (where I grew up) and New England (where I live), as well as more personal poems about my own privileged white life.

TT: The current climate of high-profile murders of black and brown lives has brought the deeply-embedded realities of racism to mainstream media and our society’s general conscientiousness. Do these stories trigger and influence your poetry?

MC: Although I wrote a poem dedicated to Trayvon Martin just after the Zimmerman verdict, it usually takes awhile for events or other stimuli to make their way into my poetry: I pondered that lynching for almost a year before I began to write about it. But I just finished the last of twelve month-long poems for which I wrote several lines a day on each day of a given month, at the rate of one per year; the first six were published in 2014 as Day Unto Day. Although it wasn’t my intent when I began, issues like these began to make their way into the poems, and became dominant in the last one, which was written in November 2015 and will appear in the Split This Rock issue of Poetry magazine.

TT: When did you first start thinking about language as a means for social change?

MC: I have always thought about language—or maybe “lived consciously in language” is a better way of saying it: even my child-brain enjoyed playing with words. And I first began to think seriously about social change during the Vietnam War, which was also when I began, tentatively, to write poems. But it took me awhile to realize that poetry would be central to my life, and it wasn’t until the 1990s, when I began working with the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, that my political and poetic lives came inseparably together.

TT: What audience(s) do you keep in mind when you write and publish your poetry?

I don’t think about audience at all when I’m writing: thinking about audience can lead, for me, to self-censorship, which can be thoroughly paralyzing. I do think about audience when I consider publication, but only in the sense of trying to make sure that whatever I’ve written will not in some way offend or hurt people I have no intention of offending or hurting.

TT: In an interview for Coal Hill Review with Michael Simms in 2012, you said, “I’ve learned that I have to push past the a whole army of mental censors (based on parents, teachers, critics, the culture at large) that tell me I cannot / should not / must not write what I’m writing, whether for aesthetic or moral or some other reasons. It took me awhile, but I finally learned that I’m usually onto something when I hear the censor’s voice.” Can you tell us when you first came to this realization, and how it has influenced your writing sense?

MC: I realized this a long time ago, when I was writing obliquely personal poems. The mental censors in that case were my parents, and my first solution to the problem was to not try to publish my poems at all. But I’ve also experienced aesthetic self-censorship (is that really a poem?)—and when I realized I was going to write about that lynching, it hit me with full force (is it really okay to a whole book about a lynching, especially as a white person?).  By that time, I had learned to “listen” to the censors, who by now have a place in my brain which I can almost physically locate. When the censors say No, I say Aha! and keep writing.

TT: Your reading from White Papers as a featured poet at Split This Rock 2010 was one of your first public readings from the book. Can you tell us little about that reading and the impact it had on your writing and/or view of poetry as activism?

MC: Giving the reading was fabulous in itself: have I ever had a better audience? But the most inspiring thing about that festival (as well as the ones in 2012 and 2014) was being part of a community of like-minded folks—and such a wonderfully diverse community too, in every sense (including the aesthetic) of the word.

TT: You have now written a trilogy (White Papers, Blue Front, and Admit One: An American Scrapbook). Did you intend to write a trilogy and if so, how did it come about?

MC: Somewhere around 2010, I gave a reading in San Diego, which included both Blue Front and the unpublished White Papers. Afterwards, Ilya Kaminsky (thank you, Ilya!) said something to the effect of: You realize you’re writing a trilogy, don’t you? Well, uh, no—and it took me awhile to realize that the stammerings-on-paper I’d made about the 1904 Worlds Fair were going to lead to another book-length project. The new book is more broadly about race than the other two: it focuses on the eugenics movement, which narrowed the conception of racial superiority and targeted “mental defectives” and immigrants as well as people of color. But I was definitely aware of the trilogy idea as the book began to take shape.

TT: How has your experience as professor of creative writing at University of Massachusetts-Boston and Oberlin influenced your writing, if at all? And how do you feel teaching connects to the process and product of your poetry and community building?

MC: Teaching at U.Mass-Boston was a politically and socially educational experience for me. U.Mass has a large percentage of working-class (and working!) students, and was more racially diverse than any place I’d known; these demographics led me to explore and teach more diverse literature than I’d studied in school, and to interact with a more diverse group of people. Teaching also helped nudge me toward writing poetry in a serious way: the more I taught, the more I realized I wanted to be a writer, not a critic who wrote about writers. Since then, I’ve appreciated my teaching affiliations as a way of extending my work into a community of writers and would-be writers. Writing is a lonely activity; teaching writing is something else.

TT: Does your role as a translator of Vietnamese poetry influence and/or affect your writing? And do you see any commonalities in themes?

MC: When I began translating Vietnamese poetry, I was amazed to think that working on poems could in itself be social activism, in this case as a kind of reparation for the Vietnam War that would bring the work and vision of our former “enemies” to the attention of an American audience. I hadn’t yet thought of my own poetry in that way, but I soon began to do so. It took me awhile to realize that one effect of translating poetry has been to give me a model for the research work I’ve done for my recent books: making a document or a newspaper article into a poem is, I think, not unrelated to the process of translating poetry. It’s also been important to become immersed in a language that is so different from European languages that it shakes up one’s sense of how language “works.”  I’m not quite sure how that awareness has affected my poems, though I imagine it has. I’m not sure about themes, either: maybe somebody else could find some commonalities there.

TT: What are you working on now?

MC: This interview! Seriously: I finished the last of those month-long poems in November, which means that I’ve finished another book; what I’ll write next in the poetry department is not at all clear to me. I’m finishing up several prose pieces, as well as a couple of anthologies—one a collection of multiple translations of poems I’m co-editing with Kevin Prufer, the other an anthology of essays about the poetry of the late Jane Cooper. I’m also working, with Nguyen Ba Chung, on another book of co-translations of Vietnamese poems, this one by Tue Sy, a Buddhist monk. But poetry? Nothing yet except—well, we’ll see.

Tiana Trutna is Split This Rock's part-time Administrative Assistant. As a graduate student in a Masters in Library and Information Sciences program, Tiana is passionate about the power of literature and spoken word to empower individuals and build bridges between communities. She also loves reading in the park with a sky full of big puffy clouds and a slice of homemade blackberry pie.