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Martha Collins’s “Again Later” was first published as a part of the Academy of American Poet’s Poem-a-Day series on May 12, 2020. This publication also included Collins’s comments on the origins and composition of the poem, and a recording of Collins reading the poem.
About its composition, Martha Collins writes:
“Again Later” was written some time after I had completed Because What Else Can I Do, a sequence of poems I addressed to my husband following his sudden and shocking death. One day, scrolling through my contacts, I came upon his name and phone numbers—his cell and his landline—and called them. The poem is a collage of what I heard (Collins, Martha. “Again Later.” Poets.org.).
“Again Later” is, therefore, a kind of coda to Because What Else Could I Do. In “Again Later,” a grieving widow listens to the automated recordings that play when she dials the no-longer-in-service phone numbers of her dead husband. The widow cuts and rearranges the recorded messages she hears, but she does not speak.
The poem is short (only 14 lines, and each line is five words or less), but complex in genre. It is part elegy, part sonnet, part cut-up, and part erasure.
Martha Collins was born in 1940 in Omaha, Nebraska. She grew up in Iowa. She earned a BA from Stanford and a PhD from the University of Iowa (“Martha Collins.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/martha-collins). She published her first book of poetry, The Catastrophe of Rainbows, in 1984 and has been publishing steadily ever since. Her many volumes of poetry include stand-alone collections, translations of Vietnamese poetry, anthologies, and a trilogy about race in the United States: Blue Front (2006), White Papers (2012), and Admit One: an American Scrapbook (2016).
Collins was married for almost 30 years. Her husband died suddenly on September 2, 2016. In the weeks preceding his death, he received phone calls from scammers pretending to be IRS agents. The scammers threatened him with arrest for a tax mistake they said he made years ago. Collins’s husband mistook these scam calls for genuine, and they drove him to his death—either by suicide or heart attack. The medical report Collins obtained after her husband’s death suggested that a diseased heart had impaired her husband’s brain function and contributed to him believing the scammers really were IRS agents and really were coming to arrest him. Collins recounts these events in Because What Else Could I Do and describes the six months following his death that she spent grieving (Collins, Martha. Because What Else Could I Do. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019.).
Because What Else Could I Do won the Poetry Society of America’s prestigious William Carlos Williams Award (“Announcing the 2020 William Carlos Williams Award winner, Martha Collins.” Poetry Society of America, 7 May 2020).
Collins has won many other awards for her poetry, including an Ohioana Award and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Blue Front, the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
She founded the creative writing program at UMass Boston and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts (“Martha Collins.” Poetry Foundation.).
Collins, Martha. “Again Later.” 2020. Poets.org.
“Again Later” is 14 very short lines—5 lines are five words long, 7 lines are four words long, and 2 lines are three words long—a total of 59 words. None of these words are the poet’s; instead, they come from the recordings that play when a widow calls her dead husband’s cellphone and landline. Service to both phone numbers has been cancelled, so instead of her husband’s voice on a voicemail box or answering machine, the speaker hears what is known as an “intercept message” or “intercept recording”—that is, a generic pre-recorded message from the phone company letting the caller know that the call has not gone through (Flournoy, Blake. “What Does It Mean When a Phone Says the Number You Have Reached Is Not Accepting Calls at This Time.” Techwalla, 28 November 2018, https://www.techwalla.com/articles/what-does-it-mean-when-a-phone-says-the-number-you-have-reached-is-not-accepting-calls-at-this-time.). Intercept messages vary a bit depending on the phone company and circumstances, but it appears the one the speaker is listening to begins: “The person you are trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time.”
As one might expect from a poem made entirely out of automated messages, “Again Later” repeats. The opening of the poem, “The person you are trying / is not accepting” (Lines 1-2), later becomes, “The person / you are trying is not / in service” (Lines 4-6). The middle, “Your / person is not accepting” (Lines 8-9), becomes “Your person is this / number” (Lines 10-11), then “Your person / is a recording” (Lines 12-13).
The phrase “Is not” repeats four times (twice on Line 2, then again on Line 5 and 9), while “not accepting” repeats three times (Lines 2, 9, 14), “at this time” repeats twice (Lines 3, 14), and the words of the title repeat on Line 13.
As a result, although the poem is 59 words total, it only includes 25 distinct words: the, person, you, are, trying, is, not, accepting, at, this, time, please, again, in, service, check, that, have, your, call, number, correctly, a, recording, later (Lines 1-14).