Into the Deep
When bad things happen to a good poet
She remembers long summer road trips with her parents and brother, traveling from the family’s home in Hartford, Conn., to visit relatives in central Florida. Unable to afford a motel during the 1,200-mile journey, the family would park by the roadside and sleep in the car. Those stops were often fraught with a fear of all the things that could go wrong in the night, especially for a Black family alone in the Deep South. Each time, they wondered: Would they be safe?
Years later, on a crisp afternoon, Dawn Lundy Martin—a poet and Pitt English professor—sits in her sixth-floor office in the Cathedral of Learning describing this bittersweet memory and others that influence her writing. She first fell in love with verse as a child, when her mother read her works by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a prolific Black author who won acclaim for his work during the late 1800s.
Martin has spent much of her life connecting language to the themes that occupy her imagination—themes that often involve traumatic events from her personal history or disturbing situations connected to race and gender politics. “The events that compel me to write are the ones that make me angry,” she says, but then smiles. “Writing is a kind of purging for me. It allows me to get the anger out.”
Her first watershed poem, she says, originated from an event that made national news in 1989. The incident stirred up her own deep-rooted feelings of vulnerability and fear. Responding to a used-car ad, a Black 16-year-old named Yusuf Hawkins ventured into a White working-class Brooklyn community called Bensonhurst, where he was chased by a mob of 30 young men, some wielding baseball bats. Hawkins was killed. The tragedy ignited a national debate about racism; it also inspired the poem that Martin now considers her breakthrough work, her first really successful poem. She titled it “Poem Unearthed by Regression,” and she dedicated it to Hawkins.
She arrived at Pitt last year after teaching at the University of Massachusetts and Bard College. “Teaching poetry is one of the most pleasurable things a poet can do,” she says. At Pitt, she’s teaching graduate and undergraduate students. At the same time, she is focused on her own work: “You have to create the habit of writing something every day. If you write every day you really can surprise yourself.”
Martin’s dedication to her craft has brought her to a good place. The University of Georgia Press recently published a volume of her poetry: A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering. Before publication, while still a manuscript, that collection earned her the 2006 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a prestigious annual award honoring exceptional works by African American poets. She also is the author of The Morning Hour, for which she received the Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship in 2003. In addition, she recently coedited a collection of feminist essays.
Now, she’s working on another poetry collection, inspired by her father. She’s also collaborating with other poets on a book about the writing process. “Poets have a hard time talking about what it is we do,” she says. “It’s not enough to simply say you’re ‘inspired by the muse.’” Martin knows, instead, that sometimes poems are born in a harrowing dark on the edge of the unknown.
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