3 Questions for Martha Collins

1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.

For me, the poetic line is a musical element. This is of course most obvious in formal verse, where we can hear the underlying rhythm—the bass line, so to speak—without the words. But central to all poetry written in lines is a counterpoint, or tension, between syntax and line. Sometimes the tension is minimal, as in Hebrew prosody, or Walt Whitman, with his insistently end-stopped lines. Lately I’ve been writing some poems in which each line is a complete syntactic unit, often a sentence. The poetic tension, here, is created by the space between the sentences—not just a line break, in this case, but a stanza break as well.

More often, though, I’m interested in a more overt tension that arises from enjambment, caesurae, varied line length, and attention to each line as a unit in itself. Denise Levertov speaks of a line break having the value of half a comma, and describes the use of line as a way of “scoring” the poem, as in music, so that the reader will know how to hear it. Not all poets use the line in this way, of course: some lines and line breaks are more visual than aural, and some have other functions. But for me, the line creates both musical effects and subtle nuances which may either imitate a speaking voice or push against it. The line break is central, of course: words are emphasized and/or anticipated by their placement at the end or the beginning of the line. But the line as container, as a small unit in itself, is also important to me—like a musical phrase, often, to be heard without a breath.

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?

Breath, of course, and mouth and tongue to speak and ears to hear: I can’t write without directly engaging these aspects of my body. Beyond that, when words are making music for me, they’re also becoming, themselves, almost corporeal, reverberating within me until they take on the almost physical weight of additional meaning and nuance, crossing the borders of definition to dance with other words and sounds. John Hollander has written of how poetry takes us back to our pre-literate years, when we babbled as babies, loving sound for its own sake: words like things in our mouths. And from there to the rest of the body: tinglings, rushes, tremblings.

Much of my recent poetry focuses on race. This has made me think a lot about skin, which I, like many white people, had tended to take for granted. Thinking about has to some extent led to thinking through my skin (which is not of course white at all, but rather pinkish).

3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?

Well, there’s not a whole lot of money in it! Which in some ways is good: unlike fiction writers, for instance, or painters, poets can’t even dream about compromising for the sake of money. Which of course doesn’t prevent the oxymoronic Poetry Business, aka Po Biz, from being a factor in most of our lives. That’s certainly what I dislike most about being a poet—but again, there’s the good part, which is being in contact and dialogue with other poets. Sometimes I envy Emily Dickinson her solitude; most days, I don’t.

[white paper #2]

the skin under
all skin is all
white seen skin
is skin deep none

is white pink
is blood showing
through almost
transparent thin

skin blood as in
on our hands
protected by gloves
laws guns while

brown tan to almost
black protects from
sun that burns
us red-handed us

first published in The Journal (Spring-summer 2011)
forthcoming in White Papers (Pittsburgh, 2012)

Martha Collins is the author of the forthcoming White Papers (Pittsburgh, 2012), and of the book-length poem Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), which won an Anisfield-Wolf Award. Collins has also published four earlier collections of poems and two collections of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College until 2007, Collins served as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University in 2010, and is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine.

Her website is http://www.marthacollinspoet.com