Poet Collins Explores America’s Racist Past

Leah Robinson

Stacks of Martha Collins’s poem “Blue Front” lay piled alongside chatting groups of English professors and students at Colgate’s second installment of its Spring Poetry Series last Thursday, March 21. Packed into the Robert Ho lecture room, members of the Colgate community greeted the famous contemporary poet with a warm round of applause. Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities, Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Peter Balakian, who assists in running the annual poetry series, introduced Collins by describing the way in which she collides the past and present through her discussion of racism’s previous and present existence in America.

Collins, who earned a B.A. at Stanford University and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, is best known for her book-length poem “Blue Front” and other works of poetry, including “Some Things Words Can Do,” “A History of a Small Life on a Windy Planet,” “The Arrangement of Space” and “The White Papers,” to name a few. The poet has won numerous awards and competitions with her work, including fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has also been involved in translating Vietnamese works by a variety of authors. Collins established the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and holds the Pauline Delaney Chair in Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She is also the editor of Field magazine.

Collins showcased “Blue Front” and “White Papers” at her reading here at Colgate, sharing snippets from her poems that conveyed aspects of both the personal and social history of American racism. “Blue Front,” Collins explained, came about from a collection of postcards she found that featured various lynchings in Cairo, Illinois in the early 1900s. The fact that such a picture had been printed onto a postcard shocked Collins and drew her to find out more about the town’s violent past. Using her father’s childhood experiences of growing up in the violently racist town, “Blue Front” intertwines her father’s youth with stories of lynching and artifacts from Jim Crow America. Indeed, the stanzas that Collins read aloud revealed the book-length poem to be more of a collage than a narrative, pairing descriptions of Collins’s father as a young boy witnessing a lynching outside his family store to poems that obsessed over words such as, “lynch,” “drag” and “shoot.” Collins explained that focusing on these individual words was a kind of meditation for her, helping her to try and understand on what went into such a violent act.

While “Blue Front” represented the author’s search for her family’s presence in the Jim Crow era and her own contemporary relationship to America’s racist past, “White Papers” explores what it means to be white in a multicultural society. The poet’s upbringing in a white neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa inspired her to use her writing to explore a world of whiteness devoid of any mention of black. Her cleverly written poems do not all overtly discuss race but rather overuse or leave out the words “white” and “black” in order to play with questions of identity. The poet explained that these poems try to convey the idea that white, as a skin tone, does not exist and that this series of poems helped her understand human identity and race to be social constructions.

Collins ended the Poetry Series’ Q&A by expressing her gratitude to poetry for helping her to make this historical and deeply personal exploration. Indeed, it is the balance of historical material and her family’s own connection to America deeply racist past that makes Collins’s writing both viscerally powerful and also historically sound. Hearing Collins discuss her struggle to understand her father’s brief involvement in the Ku Klux Klan makes it clear why she believes that she did not choose the subject of racism but that the subject chose her. She sees her work as fulfilling her father’s last words to her: to make the world a better place.