The Sunday Poem : Martha Collins


Poet Martha Collins (Photo by Doug Macomber)


As a five-year-old boy, Martha Collins’ father sold fruit in front of the Blue Front Restaurant in Cairo, Illinois. One November day in 1909, he was lifted onto a relative’s shoulders to watch a bloodthirsty mob of 10,000 people kill a black man, and then hang an accused white murderer. In her critically acclaimed book, Blue Front (Graywolf 2006), Collins carefully examines the horrific event and its aftermath, especially the effect on her father, who later seeks a home in an all-white community. She then extends her thoughtful scrutiny to incorporate newspaper accounts, photographs, personal accounts, and history to expose the way racism permeates all layers of society.

Martha Collins’ latest collection, White Papers (Pitt Poetry 2012), is the perfect follow-up to Blue Front. In a series of experimental, narrative, untitled poems, she explores race from a number of personal, historical, and cultural perspectives. What does it mean to be “white” in a multi-racial society with a deeply racist past?

Collins’ writing style is restrained, and she makes brilliant use of white space in the book, even going so far as to leave some pages intentionally blank. “These fierce, beautiful poems not only confront the illimitable issue of “whiteness” itself,” says Gail Mazur, “they are a breakthrough in the conversation we, with our fractured thinking about race, have yet to have. They defy the silences and insist nothing is unspeakable.”

White Papers is that difficult beginning, the one beneath traditional poetic confessions of written Whiteness,” writes Thomas Sayers Ellis. “Martha Collins transforms the history of America’s troubled racial roots and, most importantly, her own into a slide show of non-capitalized flesh. This book is the one we knew was out there but had rarely read. It is an honest and powerful half-portrait, leaning into its own brave profile.”

With Tuesday’s election fast approaching, Martha Collins’ poem “

[white paper #46] seemed like the perfect choice for today’s Sunday Poem. Enjoy your weekend and don’t forget to vote!




[white paper #46]


Obama Waffles Mix
sold at Values Voter
Summit September

2008 in a yellow
box with an Aunt
Jemima version

of the candidate
on the front wide
eyes thick lips and on

the top flap the candidate
in Muslim dress and on
the back the candidate

in Mexican sombrero
with a recipe for Open
Border waffles to serve

illegal aliens all
the same African
American terrorist

immigrant not
white like the stuff
in the box

which cannot be
eaten and enjoyed
until mixed and browned




About Martha Collins

Martha Collins (Photo by Doug Macomber)

Martha Collins is the author of White Papers (Pitt Poetry Series, 2012), as well as Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), a book-length poem based on a lynching her father witnessed when he was five years old. Collins has also published four earlier collections of poems, two books of co-translations from the Vietnamese, and two chapbooks.

Blue Front won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006” by the New York Public Library. Collins’ other awards include fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Witter Bynner 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. In spring 2010, she served as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University.

Two books are forthcoming from Milkweed: Black Stars: Poems by Ngo Tu Lap (co-translated with the author, 2013) and Day Unto Day (poems, 2014).

For more information about Martha’s work and her upcoming events in New York, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Connecticut,  please visit her website.



Note: “[white paper #46]” appears in The Plume Anthology, a new publication from editor Daniel Lawless and Plume, the popular online journal of contemporary international poetry. Almost seventy poets are represented in this inaugural volume, often with several poems, representing  a broad range of the best work by the best U.S. and international poets working today —  the latter with both originals and English translations. You can purchase a copy of The Plume Anthology on the Plume website or from Amazon. You can sign up for the Plume newsletter here or follow Plume on Facebook. Thanks to Martha Collins and Daniel Lawless for permission to reprint this poem. 


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“[white paper #46]” © Martha Collins. All Rights Reserved. This poems appears in White Papers (Pitt Poetry Series, 2012) and was published with permission from the author.


By | 2016-11-11T21:52:17+00:00 11.04.12|The Sunday Poem, Words|Comments Off on The Sunday Poem : Martha Collins

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.