Acclaimed writer and poet Martha Collins visited Wheaton to present a reading from her newest book, White Papers, this past Thursday, Sept. 26 in the May Room of Mary Lyon Hall. Published in 2012, White Papers explores racial diversity from a variety of perspectives and, according to Collins, questions what it means to be “white” in a multiracial society.
As students and professors alike slowly filled the seats of one of the oldest rooms on campus, Collins began by reading a poem from one of her books, Blue Front, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006.” Blue Front is based on a lynching that her father witnessed when he was five years old, and she said it combines “my own personal history as well as many events that are often erased from our history books.”
Collins began with the poem, “Tiny Women,” which meditated on the role of women in society. The poem finished, “the tiny women do not walk on air; they tread light,” a line that lingered in the room throughout the rest of the reading.
She then continued the reading with a poem describing her father’s life as a boy working outside a corner shop at the young age of five. As Collins put it, “he was known around town for how good he was at making change.” Blue Front progressed into a collection of poems focused on the lynching itself, with titles such as “Hang,” “Victim,” and “Shoot.”
The last few poems come back to her father, ending with a line that tied the book together and questioned society as a whole: “May I help you please make change?”
Collins was born in Nebraska and grew up in a predominantly white town. She later attended Stanford University and the University of Iowa. She founded the Creative Writing Program at UMass Boston, and was Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College for ten years. As current editor-at-large for FIELD magazine as well as an editor of the Oberlin College Press, she described coming across the term “white papers” in search of a name for her latest book.
“White Papers immediately had racial significance to me,” she said. “The book itself focuses particularly on what it means to be white.” The poems in White Papers address issues and racial topics, with references to Obama and topics, with references to Obama and Martin Luther King in “the capital largely built by slaves.” Collins focuses on our history as a society, stating that much of it is made up to hide our true past. “History leaves us nothing but ‘not’,” Collins read from White Papers. “We made—we keep making, our ‘whatness’ up.”
To close, she discussed her thought process in whether or not to capitalize White and Black throughout the book, and ended up dedicating the last poem in the book to this debate. The poem states, “You wonder, whether someday, we might capitalize no one—nothing at all” and she finishes the book with “Yes. Yes.”
When asked how she continues to find inspiration to write and publish so frequently, Collins said, “Eventually you’re living in the world for awhile and you just can’t stop.”