The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts May 4, 2007

Collins Captures Cultural Award
Diversity in Poetry: Professor Collins won a prize for her book of poems.

Last week, Professor of Creative Writing Martha Collins’s work, Blue Front, a book-length poem, was announced as a winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards in the category of fiction. Cleveland poet and civic activist Edith Anisfield-Wolf established the awards in 1935 to honor “works that contribute to society’s understanding of racism and foster an appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures.” It is the only juried literary award of its kind.

Collins’s book, which falls into the fiction category due to the award’s submission guidelines, not by any fluke of miscategorization, is a collage of history, poetry, interview, myth and speculation. It focuses on the lynching of a black man falsely accused of murder in Cairo, Illinois in 1909. The reader’s historical periscope is Collins’s father at age five, then employed selling fruit on the street, who witnessed the event alongside an enthusiastic crowd of 10,000. Collins makes use of newspaper clippings from the era, meditations on the meanings and uses of words, conversations with her father and historical archives to create an incomplete but stirring testimony.

Collins, on sabbatical this year, has spent her time giving readings and promoting Blue Front. She is also the author of four previous collections of poems. She is “very pleased” about the prize, and finds its terms particularly relevant to her recent work.

“It certainly seems apt to me,” she said. “Some people have asked me why a white person would want to write about [racism and lynching]...[The answer is that] it’s the history of white people. The interesting thing for me was writing about race as a white person.”

Collins shares this year’s fiction honors with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the novel Half of a Yellow Sun. The nonfiction award went to Scott Reynolds Nelson for his book on John Henry, Steel Drivin’ Man. Historian Taylor Branch also received recognition for lifetime achievement. Past winners of awards in various genres have included Ralph Ellison, Jonathan Kozol, Lucille Clifton and Chang-Rae Lee.

The winners will be honored in Cleveland in a ceremony on September 6, 2007.


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