CommitmentNow: Your chapbook of poems Gone So Far focuses on your relationship with your aging mother. What about the relationship inspired these poems?
Martha Collins: When my mother was in her nineties, she developed a dementia that was diagnosed as Alzheimer’s. Unlike other Alzheimer’s patients I have known or read about, though, she was astonishingly articulate. She could talk for an hour without stopping, and while her references and time-sense were very confused, her syntax and vocabulary were pretty much intact until a few months before she died, just short of her 100th birthday. We didn’t live in the same city; but when I visited her in her nursing home for extended weekends, I would spend all day with her, eating meals at her table, taking walks with her, and most of all just listening. Sometimes she thought I was her sister, sometimes she thought I was her mother; occasionally I was a college friend—and it was very true that the nursing home, with its residents in single and double rooms, resembled a dormitory in many ways.
At some such point, when her confusion led me to see an important connection that I otherwise would have missed, I realized that there was not only eloquence but also wisdom in what she was saying. I always carry a notebook—it’s an essential writer’s tool for me—and finally I began jotting down some things she said. The way a story would be enhanced as she told it interested me a lot: what started out as an account of a trip to a local park with a few deer and buffalo ended up as a journey not only into the wilderness, but also into a kind of paradise. A few of the poems in Gone So Far are my own meditations on aging, from the “outside”; but most of them use some of my mother’s own words, and the last one is called “Her Poem,” because every one of its fourteen lines is an exact transcription of what she said during an April afternoon a few months before she died. The last line still inspires me: “I am where I am. I wasn’t, but I am now.”
CommitmentNow: Blue Front is a book-length poem based on a lynching your father witnessed when he was five years old. Was this difficult to write?
Martha: It was impossible not to write, after I realized what my father had seen. Some years ago, when I was visiting Cairo, Illinois with my family, my father pointed to an intersection and mentioned that he’d seen a man hanged there when he was a kid. But it wasn’t until I saw an exhibit of lynching postcards that I realized what he had seen: not some sort of public execution, as I’d imagined, but the brutal lynching, witnessed by 10,000 people, of an African-American man (and, as a kind of afterthought, of a white man as well).
I couldn’t stop thinking about this for the next year or so, and finally began to do research—first on the internet, then in the library—to find out more about the incident itself, as well as the town of Cairo and the history of lynching. I visited Cairo several times, and spent several days in the Illinois State Archives looking up newspaper accounts.
The book was of course emotionally difficult to write, but it was rewarding in a number of ways, too. Everything I wrote was based on research, and on one level I was simply trying to find out what had happened. But I was also, and more deeply, wondering how the lynching would have affected my father. He was no longer living, so I couldn’t ask him; but the process of wondering somehow drew me closer to him, much as writing Gone So Far drew me closer to my mother.
Ultimately, writing the book made me think about what all of this had to do with me as a white woman living 100 years later. I’m continuing to explore the implications of that question in a collection I’m working on now, called “White Papers.”
CommitmentNow: Your latest book of poems is Sheer. What are these poems about?
Martha: Most of these poems grew out of the experience of writing Gone So Far. I didn’t quite know it at the time, but the way fragments of different memories entered my mother’s conversation was making me realize that a great deal of all memory, and much thinking in general, occurs in a similarly fragmented and overlapping way. So I began to “listen” to my own thinking more, and to make connections on an emotional and associative basis, rather than a rational and linear one. I’ve always done this to some extent, and there are plenty of poetic models for doing so; but I think my primary influence for these particular poems was my mother.
Several of the most fragmented pieces in the collection are poems of memory; some of them reach rather deeply into consciousness, and all of them, I think, are aware of how “sheer” both life and consciousness are. The book contains several short poems inspired by works of art; one of them, based on a painting by May Stevens, places the darker and less conscious parts of memory in an “undersea,” over which we and our “golden” words travel—“As Boats, Over That Darkness.”
The “darkness” the book confronts extends beyond the personal. My mother’s fragility and our seemingly endless news of war and violence are explicitly connected in a poem called “Like Her Body, the World,” and another poem refers to the Vietnam War that my translating experience had recently brought to my attention again.
But while the book confronts darkness, it is concerned throughout with moving into whatever light we can find: in life, in love, in vision, in awareness. As the title poem suggests, there’s a sheerness in our lives and perceptions that makes things more beautiful precisely because they are transitory.
The poem from this collection I most like to read is called “From the Sky.” It was recorded for NPR’s Weekend Edition, and can still be found in the archives at NPR.org if you do a search using my name.
CommitmentNow: In addition to writing poetry, you have co-translated two collections of poems from the Vietnamese. How did you learn Vietnamese?
Martha: I actually learned the little Vietnamese I know in order to translate Vietnamese poems. In 1993 I met the Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Quang Thiều when he came to the William Joiner Center at UMass-Boston, where I was teaching. He showed me some of his poems in rough English translations, and I immediately fell in love with them. By the time I went to Vietnam to work with him on a book of his poetry, I’d audited a semester of Vietnamese at Harvard. I dropped out of the second-semester course midway through, but I know enough about the language to work through my own versions of the poems, which I always do, even though I’m completely dependent on my co-translators.
My second co-translated book was a very gratifying collaboration among three women: the Vietnamese poet Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ, my Vietnamese-American co-translator Thuy Dinh, and my American poet self. I’m currently working with Ngô Tự Lập on a collection of his poems; he lives in Hanoi, but has a PhD in English, so the author is once again my co-translator.
CommitmentNow: When did you begin writing poetry?
Martha: I wrote my first poem when I was seven; it was called “April,” and of course it wasn’t very good. After that I wrote poems whenever there was a “creative” option for grade school assignments, and in high school I wrote some sonnets. But I really didn’t write poetry in a serious way until I was in my thirties. I was planning to go to law school, but then I discovered literature and decided to go to graduate school in English instead. That didn’t feel quite right either; but the experience of reading so much convinced me that I didn’t want to write about writers, I wanted to be a writer. Emily Dickinson was one early inspiration.
CommitmentNow: Has your style of poetry and the places/things that inspire you changed over the years?
Martha: Yes—though I think there are consistencies, too. Like many poets, I began writing out of my own experience, but even in the beginning I was interested in making connections with the outside world. I did a lot of looking in my first two books; the first is quite painterly, with a great deal of color, as its title—The Catastrophe of Rainbows—may suggest.
In my third book, I began listening as much as looking, letting more language from the outside world filter into the poems. That movement continued in my fourth book, where I began to address questions of race, class, and gender more directly—and of course it continues in the work I’ve discussed here.
What’s perhaps most consistent, though, is something that others have expressed better than I can, which is that whatever I seem to be writing about, I’m writing out of a woman’s consciousness—not necessarily about “women’s issues,” though I’ve been doing that for a long time, but with the kind of emotional and aesthetic honesty that allows me to use language in ways that don’t necessarily follow the mostly male models I was given in school. I feel very privileged to be writing (and living!) in a time of great opportunity for women.
CommitmentNow: You were The Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College and will be a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University this spring. What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
Martha: The main thing, of course, is to work hard. It’s also important to read a lot—not just poetry that seems appealingly easy, but poetry (including poetry of the past) that’s challenging. This is assuming that people have a deep and serious desire to write: poetry isn’t a very lucrative business, so the desire must be strong. I often cite something I heard the poet Philip Levine say some years ago—that it takes three things to be successful as a poet, in this order: stubbornness, luck, and talent.
Final piece of advice: always carry a notebook!
Martha Collins is the author of five books of poetry: The Catastrophe of Rainbows (1985), The Arrangement of Space (1991), A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet (1993), and Blue Front (2006). She has also published two chapbooks, Gone So Far (2005) and Sheer (2008), and two volumes of co-translations of Vietnamese poems, by Nguyễn Quang Thiều (The Women Carry River Water, 1997) and Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ (Green Rice, 2005). She won an Anisfield-Wolf award for Blue Front, which was also chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the 25 Best Books of the Year, and she has received numerous other awards as well, including fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. She is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and one of the editors of the Oberlin College Press, and in spring 2010 will be serving as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University.
To listen to Martha Collins on NPR, click here.