Introduction to Martha Collins’ Poetry

Praised by Peter Kappert for her “subtle inter-connections,” by Sandra M. Gilbert for “the fierce purity of her language,” and by Denise Levertov for her poems’ “dense, interwoven texture, as of tapestry,” Martha Collins is one of the most courageous poets writing today. With seven full-length collections of poems to her credit, two chapbooks, and three collections of co-translations of poems by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quang Thieu, Collins has written more directly about American cultural problems, particularly race, than any white poet I know. Over and over, she has refused to ignore the (white?) elephant in the room. As Afaa Michael Weaver puts it, “Martha Collins has laid bare the more complex dangers of America’s central trauma.”

In an interview with Cervena Barva Press, Collins explained that “about twenty years ago, when I was visiting Cairo [Illinois] with my father, my father told me he had seen a man hanged there when he was a boy. But it wasn’t until I saw an exhibit of lynching postcards that I learned he had seen a lynching that 10,000 people attended; that he had been five years old when he saw it; and that the primary victim was an African-American man, accused of rape and murder, who had been brutally hanged, shot, and burned.”

Collins’ subsequent research, involving museum and library archives and newspaper accounts, led to the publication of her fifth book, Blue Front, a gripping, provocative, utterly original book that explores, as Collins puts it, “several layers of wondering” about an event her father had only mentioned.

Yet the range of Collins’ poetry sweeps even beyond the enormous questions of race in the United States, as she touches on cultural attitudes, actions, and behaviors along with their repercussions not only nationally but also globally. For instance, in her recent collection White Papers, she brilliantly shows the links between the cruelty of ivory hunting and the polished piano keys played by middle-class women in the American Midwest. The poems here, says Gail Mazur, “insist nothing is unspeakable.”

Praised as a “dazzling poet” by the Writer’s Chronicle, Collins has received numerous awards. Her books Blue Front and White Papers won Ohioana awards; Blue Front received an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006” by the New York Public Library. She has also received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, as well as three Pushcart Prizes, the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, a Lannan residency grant, and the Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize.

Collins founded the Creative Writing Program at UMass-Boston, and for ten years was Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and one of the editors of the Oberlin College Press. Her poems – risky, innovative, and startling – can’t help but work their way beneath our pink or brown, light or dark flesh, into all our white bones, the dark of their marrow.