Martha Wallace on What It Means to Be an ‘Incidental Poet’

It’s hard to believe Martha McCray Wallace, recipient of several notable non-fiction and poetry awards, came late to the craft of writing. 

The food memoir author whose quasi cookbook has been touted ‘a mouthwatering read’, said she didn’t know she liked creative writing until well into adulthood.

In high school, she discovered journalism, which appealed to her enough to return to it many decades later — but up until college, Martha did not consider herself to be, as she put it, ‘an ink slinger’.

“I was a return to college student, majoring in journalism at Georgia State Perimeter College. Then I attended and graduated from Agnes Scott College,” said Martha. 

On these campuses, a poet was born.

Writing scenes about her own life, is where Martha particularly shines. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and often uses memories of her grandparents’ home as fodder for storytelling.

Will’s House’, a poem about her grandparents’ garden and the delicious food they reaped from the earth, is one of the best in Martha’s collection.

“My story begins on Grandpa’s front porch,” she said, “my grandma stubbornly refusing to share the family recipe for chow-chow.”

Drawing from these kinds of real life experiences, Martha discovered, she is…an incidental poet. 

“I enjoyed reading poetry from time to time, I had never really delved into writing it. The first writing prompt my professor gave me, I was lost. I didn’t think I had a creative writing bone in my body.”

That changed when she thumbed through old journals, written for her own pleasure. Once she decided they weren’t so sacred, she couldn’t possibly share them with strangers, Martha’s life changed.

She had fans! People couldn’t wait to see the world from her kind, brown eyes. 

Some of what she writes about is sad, disturbing — some of it’s funny and warm. No matter what it is, it’s easy to gobble up.

“Once I had completed the class, I was hooked. I would go out, with a notepad in my pocket, and when I starting writing about my life and everything in it, I fell in love with living, especially travel,” she said. 

Martha’s culinary experiences in Ghana and Spain are a vibrant part of the tapestry in her food memoir, ‘A Sampling of Life One Taste at a Time’.

She said Swallow Publishing is pressing her to write another memoir, or true story from her searingly vivid, poignant, and delicious life.

Here’s an incidental poet’s offering for the first day of National Poetry Month. It’s based on the true (and disturbing) story of someone she knew.

 Captive Innocence
He crouches, crawls, low like a tiger hunting prey, 
 easing into the room where Innocence sleeps.
 His eyes scan the bunk beds, filled with slumbering children,
 Their dreams bring an escape from the cage of abhorrent reality.
 She is huddled against the cold wall, on the lumpy, broken down daybed,
 concealed between her older sister and younger brother.
His fingers deftly and gently brushes over small bodies, 
 until he feels Innocence. 
He knows her smell and salivates at touching his prize
 He takes her petite, pure body, 
  lapping at her flower like a fat cat enjoying rich cream
 She trembles, with doe like wide eyes; terrified, silent.
  Daddy would not hurt her, 
 a child of five.
Mama’s trembling hands, (is it fear, or rage?) pull the curtains closed.
 Her eyes vacant and as dark as the secrets that the walls hold,
Her silent screams echo in her ears. ”Bastard!”
  Swish, swish… her broom brushes out dirt;
  Scrubbing, her hands raw from trying to purify the impure. 
 When innocent eyes are closed, sighs are heard and darkness fills the house.
 Mama’s eyes are closed;but wide open.
No one ever visits them; Daddy won’t allow it.
 He slings open the door to those who dare, with his sawed off shotgun in his hand
  and a .45 stuffed in his waist, handle in clear view. “They aint here!”
 Schoolmates pass the house, wide eyed, curious, looking away if He looks their way.
 Behind him frightened eyes look out, as the door slams.
He sits out back polishing his rifles, working on his  ‘57 ‘dented black Chevy truck,
 Duct tape holding its tail lights, cages holding small animals: raccoons, possums, snakes 
 captive, kept, and toolboxes lie in its filthy bed,
waiting for darkness,humming a tuneless song, forehead creased.
 He is continually scowling, and surly, vile green eyes, piercing, staring,
 causing neck hairs to stand, chicken skin to surface, steps  to quicken.
Daylight brought relief, school a short lived safe haven each day.
Mama, obscure, quietly cooking,tear torched eyes downcast, shut yet wide open.
Satiated, he slinks unrepentantly, back to his bedroom,
 vile, putrid perspiration, clinging to  his body.
 The creak of the bedsprings in the middle of the night, his weight sinking into the mattress,
 Causing Mama to stiffen; she pulls her sparse covers close, 
 mouthing her nightly prayer of hope…
  “Maybe this time he won’t wake up.”


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