Interview with Herbert Woodward Martin


It’s national poetry month, so no one is better suited for an April Dayton Reads feature than Herbert Woodward Martin.

Herb, as friends, family and colleagues know him, is a beloved figure in Dayton — and beyond. A nationally known prize-winning poet and performer, he is also a generous teacher. Professor Emeritus in English at University of Dayton, Herb continues to offer supportive guidance to poets through conferences such as the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (Yellow Springs).

Born in Alabama in 1933, Herb — an only child— moved with his parents to Toledo, Ohio, when he was, he says, “12 and a half.” He graduated from University of Toledo with a B.A. in 1964, a Masters of Art at the State University of New York, Buffalo in 1967, a Masters in Literature at Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College in 1972, and a Doctorate in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1979. In addition, Herbert received an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Wright State University (2010) and was named the Paul Laurence Dunbar Poet for Dayton by former Dayton Mayor Mike Turner.

The latter honor is especially fitting because in addition to being a highly-regarded poet in his own right, Herb is an expert on Dayton native Paul Laurence Dunbar, (1872-1906), one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition. Herbert has bolstered the understanding of Dunbar’s significance through readings of Dunbar’s work, performances as Dunbar, and as a scholarly expert on and editor of collections of Dunbar’s work.

Herb came to University of Dayton in the fall of 1970, and spent most of his academic career at the institution with the exception of appointments in 1973 as a distinguished visiting professor at Central Michigan University, and in 1990 as a Fulbright Scholar in Hungary. In 1999, Herb received the Mellen Poetry Prize for his epic poem “Log of the Vigilante” and in 2002 he was the recipient of the Ohio Governor’s Award

Herb is editor of “The Complete Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar,” (Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 2010); “Selected Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar,” (Penguin/Putnam, 2004); and “In His Own Voice: Dramatic & Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar” (Ohio University Press, 2002).

His own works of collected poems include “On the Flyleaf” (Bottom Dog Press, 2013); “Inscribing My Name: Selected Poems” (Kent State University Press, 2007); “Escape To The Promised Land” (Bottom Dog Press, 2005), “A Rock Against the Wind” (Berkley Books, 1996)

His books are available through area bookstores and online vendors; his collection “Inscribing My Name” is also featured on the Sharon Recommends display at the Dayton Barnes & Noble (2619 Miamisburg-Centerville Road) during April, 2016.

The documentary “Jump Back, Honey,” which takes its title from a Dunbar poem, chronicles Herb’s life; learn more about the documentary at www.udayton.edu/news/articles/2009/01/jump_back_honey.php or view clips at http://www.jumpbackhoney.com/

You can also listen to a fascinating lecture Herb gave at Ohio University on “The African American Oral Tradition” at http://www.wiredforbooks.org/herbertmartin/

Recently, I had the joy of meeting Herb at a local coffee shop and chatting with him about his life as a poet.

Q. How did you first discover your interest in writing and in poetry?

A. I was one of those nerdy people, chosen last in team sports, and I finally admitted that I much didn’t enjoy sports. I began to read more and more, found that I liked that, and also I found that I liked singing more and more.

As a youth in Toledo, I even went to audition for Ted Mack’s “The Original Amateur Hour.” It really was an original — a radio and then a television show that was the forerunner to shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice.” I’d been taking voice lessons, and I came close to winning. But as I progressed in the competition, the producers wanted me to sing the “Bazooka Bubble Gum” song — you know that one?

Q. No…

A. (Singing): “My momma/She gave me a dollar/She told me to buy a collar/But I didn’t buy no collar

Instead I bought some bubblegum/BAZOOKA, ZOOKA bubble gum…”

Well, I didn’t want to spend a career singing songs like that. I wanted to sing operatic arias. So, I purposefully didn’t sing as well as I could have.

Q. Wait… you threw the competition against yourself?

A. (Laughing): You could say that! Well, I was something like 14 or 16. A singer named Teresa Brewer won, and she went on to have a very nice career. Later, as an adult, I realized I could have just won singing about bubble gum and then used the win as a launching point to sing anything I wanted. So I do have a bit of regret about what could have been in terms of singing.

Q. Well, this explains your beautiful singing voice, and your ease in including singing at your readings. How has your experience in singing influenced your life as a poet?

A. Singing helped me develop my appreciation for meter and rhythm. Later, it helped me as a reader. I do feel a little flighty before I give a reading, but then, as I move toward the stage, I feel an internal shift. There’s now no time for foolishness! I need to present the work well and be as effective as possible, and do what I’ve promised to do for the reading organizers and for the audience. I shift to being in the moment and being focused. Afterward, I can go back to being flighty if I want!

Q. Your singing experience was in Toledo… but you moved there when you were 12?

A. Twelve-and-a-half, really. Yes, I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. My dad was a foundry worker, and my mother a domestic. Dad had gone through, I think, sixth grade, and mom through third. My aunt wrote to my dad and told him he could do the same work in the north for five dollars a day instead of five dollars a week. So, we became part of the Great Migration. My parents were strongly committed that I would go to high school and university.

Q. Tell me about your educational experience.

A. I went to the University of Toledo. The summer before I went, I mowed lawns to pay for my first semester’s tuition — that was back when it was possible to do that. I lived at home my first year to save on room and board. Then for my second semester, I worked in snow removal. One day I was so cold, I called my mother up and complained. After a few moments of silence, she said, “Well, what do you expect me to do about it?”

(Herb laughs.)

Well, I found myself getting hotter and hotter at that. But I understood my mother’s point.

I stayed through my junior year and then I decided I’d had enough and that I’d move to New York City! I did—with five dollars in my pocket. I took a room for a week at the 34th Street YMCA and … with three dollars left … I found a job at World Publishing. I started out cataloging manuscripts and mail.

But I’d already been writing poetry, even back in high school, so spending three years in New York was a great education for me, because I found a coffee house on the East Side where I could listen to other poets — including well-known poets like Allan Ginsberg. (NOTE: Ginsberg, best known for “Howl,” was a leading figure of the Beat poets in the 1950s.) I began reading my own work, and enjoyed many great discussions about what worked in the poems shared, and what could make them better. I did a lot of writing in New York City.

Q. Tell me a little more about your early writing.

A. I had some success in high school; as a senior, one of my poems was accepted into an anthology for college-aged writers. But then I began writing to try to emulate the greats — T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, for example. That didn’t work for me. Now, I admit I wrote some pretty terrible poetry then! But at the time, I couldn’t understand why, after that early success, I kept piling up rejection slips. One was from a magazine edited by Robert Bly— though the rejection slip was from his assistant. Well, I decided I needed more feedback than a rejection slip, so I was bold: I wrote back and demanded to know why!

Much to my surprise, the great Robert Bly himself wrote back and explained that that I needed to hear the voices of my characters, hear the voices of my neighborhood, and write in those voices. The clouds parted for me; his advice was a Godsend. Of course my poetry was bad — I wasn’t writing authentically or in my own voice.

Q. And when was this?

A. My junior year of college.

Q. So not long after that, you went to New York — and it sounds like you learned a lot while there. Why did you return to University of Toledo?

A. A colleague at the publishing house and I began discussing poetry. She finally told me that I knew a great deal about poetry, but that I needed to finish college. So I went back to Toledo, and did just that. My career, in education and as a poet, began to come together bit by bit after that. I’ve been very fortunate in the people I’ve run into who have taken the time to give me advice, or read my work and offer help.

Q. You’re well known for your own work, of course, but tell me a bit about how you became so connected to Paul Laurence Dunbar and his work?

A. When I was a child in Alabama, our instructor insisted we memorize and recite Dunbar’s poems. I was teased that I looked like him!

But then, after we moved north, I discovered that though the north was integrated, black poets had disappeared from the textbooks. In the south, you see, there were at the time two sets of textbooks — one for black children in black schools, and one for white children in white schools. So in the south, my textbooks featured many black poets. In the north, everyone worked from the same textbooks—but black poets were left out.

When I went to college, I’ll never forget opening my college text, which happened to be written by my professor, who happened to be white… and who did I see in that book but Langston Hughes. [Note: Hughes was a leader of jazz poetry and the Harlem Renaissance.] I exclaimed my surprise and delight, and my professor — very kindly but pragmatically — stated that Hughes and other African American poets deserved to be in text books.

Years later, after a reading tour, I had four institutions to which I could go as a college professor—Deloitte, Auburn, Cincinnati or Dayton. I admit that I was so tired after that reading, that in order to make my choice, I opened up a map, closed my eyes, and decided that I’d go to the place closest to where my fingertip landed. I pointed to Dayton.

In some ways, I think I was destined to come here.

Of course, once I was in Dayton, I quickly reconnected with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work. I organized a symposium around his work, and poets from all over the country came. I think that began, and secured, my connection with Dunbar. Plus, I once received the advice that at a reading, one should not just read their own work, but should include the work of poets who came before them. Dunbar was — and is — a great fit for me.


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