At a poetry reading Wednesday night, award-winning poet and author Martha Collins said people have asked her what it’s like writing about African American history as a white person.
“[African American] history is all of our history,” Collins said.
Collins talked about her poetry after reading some of her work Wednesday night to a full audience at the co-op bookstore in Storrs Center. Collins is the author of six books of poetry, including “The Catastrophe of Rainbows,” “White Papers” and “Blue Front.”
Collins began her reading with excerpts from “Blue Front,” which she says she was inspired to write after a trip to a New York museum where she saw postcards depicting African Americans being lynched. She added that she wanted to write about what her father saw as a five–year-old boy selling fruit in front of the Blue Front Restaurant in Cairo, Illinois during the early 1900s.
There, her father witnessed a lynching attended by 10,000 participants, Martha said. Her poetry is a narrative of the days leading to the lynching and the lynching itself.
“You dog, you black brute! Kill him! Burn him!” Martha read, imitating a member of the lynch mob.
She continued with imagery of brutality and lack of humanity as African Americans were killed, slaughtered and thrown away.
“To shoot, to kill, to more than kill,” Martha read.
Seventh semester English major Carla Calandra said the readings gave her chills and that her favorite poems came from “Blue Front.”
One interesting part of Collins’ poetry is that it does not depict racism or brutality in the South. Collins said that because she never grew up in the south, where racial issues were most intense, she decided not to write about places she had never been and instead chose to write about racial issues in New England.
“Like many white people, I took race for granted,” Collins said. “I realized I couldn’t continue thinking about myself without race.”
With the help of poetry, Collins said she was able to explore these issues as well as the lives of her parents. An important creative motivator was poetic form.
“Form is a friend,” Martha said. “It pushes poets to write something when they don’t know what to write.”
In addition to her poetic works, Martha has translated Vietnamese poetry. She said translating has greatly improved what she writes in her poetry.
Many of her works involve research into places, events and people through documents like newspapers, Martha said. But without her experience as a translator, it would have been difficult making poetry out of that information.
In “Blue Front,” repetition is used to stimulate emotion, Martha said. By interrupting thoughts, she tries to get a hold of what she wants to say.
Martha’s poetry reading was followed by questions from the audience about her experience writing about racial issues and the process of writing poetry.
“Her perspective was really interesting,” third semester elementary education and urban studies major, Eva Maher, said. “The part where she was talking about the African American people on display was shocking, especially imagining it through her poetry.”
Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.