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]
Obama Waffles Mix
sold at Values Voter
2008 in a yellow
box with an Aunt
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
white like the stuff
in the box
which cannot be
eaten and enjoyed
until mixed and browned
About Martha Collins
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,
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