February 14, 2010

Sure Questions

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Poet Martha Collins kicked off the English Department’s Reading Series this past Thursday with readings from her book-length poem Blue Front, as well as some new works. The Reading Series has an impressive list of readers scheduled for this semester, and Martha Collins, who is currently serving as the “Distinguished Visiting Writer” to Cornell University, was a great way to get started. Collins has authored four collections of poetry, as well as Blue Front, two chapbooks (a pocket-sized book), and co-translated two books from Vietnamese.

Collins began by giving the audience some background on what she would be reading. About half of her reading was from Blue Front, a book-length poem about a lynching her father witnessed as a five-year-old boy in Cairo (pronounced care-oh), Illinois. Collins described the book as a collage of three things — a narrative of the lynching, a description of her father’s life and several lyrical sections that use a single word as a starting-off point.

She read a couple of these single-word sections, one that began with the word HANG, and another that started off with SHOOT, written and read in such a way as to have three, even four, different interpretations and connotations. These two words, in between flowing stanzas stand prominently in the forefront in the book as well as the recitation. Collins read lyrically, musically — almost reminiscent of spoken song and in a constantly-altering tone. Her voice rose, fell, sped up, slowed down and then stopped sharply on these powerful single words — SHOOT — jarring the reader from a poetic journey into a sudden, life-changing and shocking event.

Blue Front is largely an exploration of race-relations in the United States, though it is, like all excellent poetry, chock full of so much more, so much depth, so much life. Collins told us that as she was doing research on the lynching and the town of Cairo she came to focus heavily on working through how her father would have been affected by witnessing a violent public death as a young boy. But, even more, how the event affected her as a white woman almost 100 years later. The book is a constant interplay between color, between black and white and the multiple ways in which everything not white is automatically “othered” in our country: “white, an other owing what it is to what it thinks it isn’t.”

For the second half of the afternoon, Collins read to us from a new project, entitled White Papers, which draws heavily on what she started in Blue Front. Having gotten questions about “writing black history as a white woman” often since the release of Blue Front, Collins wanted to look back at this question and reflect on the ways in which the story of an Illinois lynching is both black history and white history. In White Papers she draws this out even further, focusing on the “five colors by which people identify themselves” telling stories of every different sort of American you can imagine. The stories are interwoven throughout with a contemplation of the “five colors” — white, red, yellow, brown, black — and the inseparable nature of these colors in the U.S., however much we might want to distinguish acting white from acting black. Again, like Blue Front, White Papers, explores whiteness as an inherently othering concept: as white, “whatever we are, they are other than it.”

White Papers, unlike Blue Front, does not situate itself in a specific place or a specific time, jumping from place to year with poetic impunity. In one selection she steps into the contemporary arena, incorporating a definition of “white money” (“your paycheck when it’s written by a white man”) from Urban Dictionary. In another piece, she is in Africa during the height of the illegal ivory trade, and then back to a young American girl playing the piano: “White keys that I played, starting with middle C and going up and down.”

Collins’ reading was a joy to listen to, as it explored a subject that is always prominent, but never enough reflected on. Her reading was smooth and fluid, her voice seeming to question everything, but to do so with absolute certainty that questioning was the right thing to do. In the Q&A session following the reading Collins remarked, “I would love to live in a world where this [my poems] doesn’t make sense,” but, in a world where we know what she is talking about, Collins is helping us to make sense of the why.

Original Author: Julia Woodward