Getting to Know Martha Collins and her New Book Admit One: An American Scrapbook

Martha Collins’ most recent book of poetry is Admit One: An American Scrapbook (Pittsburgh, 2016).  She has also published seven earlier collections, including Day Unto Day, White Papers, and the book-length poem Blue Front, as well as four volumes of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. Collinshas won numerous awards for her work, including an Anisfield-Wolf Award, two Ohioana Awards, the Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. Founder of the creative writing program at UMass-Boston, she served as Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College for ten years, and is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine.

Martha Collins’ most recent book of poetry is Admit One: An American Scrapbook (Pittsburgh, 2016).  She has also published seven earlier collections, including Day Unto Day, White Papers, and the book-length poem Blue Front, as well as four volumes of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. Collinshas won numerous awards for her work, including an Anisfield-Wolf Award, two Ohioana Awards, the Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. Founder of the creative writing program at UMass-Boston, she served as Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College for ten years, and is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine.

Available now on Amazon

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I’m not sure which came first, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses or the Psalms. My mother read both to me, before I could read or write.

I wrote my first poem when I was in second grade. Although I didn’t write poems in college, I became a serious lover of poetry when I read Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” for a literature class. Stevens and other writers got me to graduate school in English, but I didn’t seriously commit to writing poetry until I began writing a thesis on Henry James and realized that I didn’t want to write about writers—I wanted to be one.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I began writing in the morning when I had a particularly difficult work schedule.  Worried that I wouldn’t be able to write at all, I promised myself that I would spend an hour a day writing or at least thinking about poetry. I soon found that the only time I could do this was first thing in the morning, before the business of work took over. The habit has stayed with me: ideally, I get up, make coffee, go to work.  As for place, I’m fortunate right now to have an office away from home, but I’ve been known to write almost anywhere. 

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Individual poems, or sections of poems, usually begin with some language, the significance of which may or may not be clear to me. Recently I’ve been writing long poems, even book-length poems, with either a thematic or a formal center. But even then, individual sections begin, almost always, with language that presents itself as potential poetry. 

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?My earliest serious influence was the Bible, which was the central text of my childhood; it’s still important to me, still in the King James Version. In college I discovered Wallace Stevens, as noted, and Emily Dickinson. Since then the influences have been too numerous to mention, or for me to even recognize. But I know that Muriel Rukeyser and Peter Klappert nudged me toward the “documentary” poetry I’ve been writing recently, as well as toward the book-length poem or sequence, for which Gwendolyn Brooks and C.D. Wright (Deepstep Come Shining) were also influences.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
Admit One: An American Scrapbook focuses on the scientific racism of the early twentieth century, including the eugenics movement. The book began when I discovered that the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which my grandparents had attended, included not only fake marble palaces extolling the virtues of progress, but also 3,000 human “exhibits” designed to show “scientific” distinctions between races. From then on, one discovery led to another: one of the Fair “exhibits” was later displayed in the Bronx Zoo, which was founded by a man who became central to the eugenics movement, and whose work culminated in anti-immigration, anti-miscegenation, and eugenic sterilization laws in 1924. Among the book’s recurring elements are evolving portraits of the “exhibited” African Ota Benga, the sterilization victim Carrie Buck, and the eugenicist Madison Grant, whose reach extended to Nazi Germany.

The book uses a wide variety of documentary sources, including my Illinois grandfather’s newspaper, resulting in a “scrapbook” of fragments, quotations, narrative passages, and lyrical riffs. The “Admit One” part of the title references many of the book’s central concerns: the Fair and the Zoo, which would have required a ticket for entry; immigration policy, which determined who was and who was not admitted to the country; and institutions to which the victims of eugenic segregation and sterlization were admitted.

Read and view a sample poem from Admit One: An American Scrapbook here:

Fitter Families

Yea, I have a goodly heritage my mother
said her sister said the Bible said
and it does and they did we do but

that was also the motto of Fitter Families
for Future Firesides, contests featured
at state fairs using anthropometric

measurements medical dental vision
exams intelligence tests personality
evaluations of families some

with several generations as well
as eugenic family histories. The forms
had a blank for race (which could be Nordic)

and charts were posted with literacy rates
for NATIVE-BORN FOREIGN-BORN NEGROES
as well as birth rates for NATIVE-BORN ALIEN

There were also displays with flashing lights

This light flashes every 15 seconds
                                       O
Every 15 seconds $100 of your money
goes for the care of persons with bad
heredity such as the insane, feeble-
minded, criminals & other defectives.

—and medals awarded to winners, which read:

               YEA, I HAVE A GOODLY HERITAGE