Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Martha Collins - Oberlin OH

It may be that the towns of northern Ohio are about the prettiest I've ever seen. Each little town is full of endless green lawns and 1880 houses bright white with crisp green or black roofs. Nobody is scurrying; there's no traffic to speak of. Even the town bank is an architectural beauty. In Norwalk, OH, I get myself caught in the wrong lane for a moment while I try to negotiate my way to a different highway than the one I came into town on. Momentarily I'm blocking three of the four lanes of traffic. Nobody honks. Nobody flips me the bird. A guy on a tractor in front of me, points once, up highway 113, and then once at highway 20, as if to say: "You can do one of these two things." When I pick one, he gives a little wave, traffic continues as it once did, and I'm pushing down yet another road of perfect houses, red flower planters on porches, a fat kid bouncing a ball, and a fire station done up in American flags and a banner saying: "Pancake Breakfast, every Sunday."

Oberlin College is finishing its first day of the new semester when I arrive in town. The campus is bustling, but beautiful. A middle quad of enormous relative size is ringed by benches, large painted rocks, and students of every variety walking back to dorms.

Martha Collins has given me directions to her Rice Hall office, but I stagger around campus a while first, carrying my gigantic bag of cameras and recorders (and batteries, and tapes, and notebooks). Two girls wearing red "Lifeguard" sweatshirts are talking to a young man with a blank look on his face. He's holding a crumpled piece of paper and actually scratching his head. As I pass, I hear a few words, "Professor...across there...need your schedule...going to Akron...those are cute pants."

When I find Martha, she's cheery. I'm tired from the long day and a head full of allergies to some of these gorgeous trees, but once inside her bright basement office, I feel better. Martha's smile is big and welcoming and we get to work. During the conversation she laughs easily. It's clear she's tickled by these discoveries my questions have brought. She talks about her work with real care. She doesn't have a casual relationship to her work like some poets do. I get the feeling from her comments that those poems were written with great care by a precise and exacting woman, and even talking about them years later, she's affording them the same kind of attention.

We go out to a small courtyard between Rice and Professor Halls and shoot some photos. Mosquitoes love me, always have. My wife tells me I'm so sweet, but she always says sweet like it's a four letter word. I get six bites on my bare legs while I'm shooting Martha up against some great looking trees. We say goodbye, and I pack my big bag again. I walk back through campus the other way. Once, as I stand on the corner of College Street, letting a perfectly good walk light go by, a big African American man on a tiny green bicycle asks me if I know where I'm going. "Yep," I say. "Just taking it all in." "Oh," the guy says, and he and his bike ride off.