Issue 96 |
Spring 2005

About Martín Espada

When Martín Espada turned twenty, a family friend gave him a copy of the anthology Latin American Revolutionary Poetry. Along with the gift, the friend ventured some words of prophecy: "Tú también serás poeta," he told Espada—"You will also become a poet." The book had been edited by Roberto Márquez, a Nuyorican (New York–born Puerto Rican) professor of working-class roots. It collected translations of political poems by Latin American authors whose radicalism had been newly galvanized in the wake of Pinochet's U.S.-supported coup of Allende's socialist government in Chile.

Espada had previously toyed with the idea of becoming a writer when he'd attended the University of Maryland for one year. He dropped out after one professor reprimanded him for admiring Allen Ginsberg and another chided his work as "too hostile." Even so, the poems in Márquez's book had a deep, transforming impact on Espada. They revealed a rich literary heritage, one from which he did not, for once, feel excluded. "I was thunderstruck," he recalls. "I was no longer a poetic amnesiac. All of a sudden I found a tradition to identify with, I found a place where I could sit . . . You think you are standing on the street all by yourself with a picket sign and then you hear a noise and you turn around and you see a demonstration four blocks long." The image of the picket line as a sudden, uplifting apparition reflects some key values in Espada's poetry: building communal solidarity as a way to confront social alienation and exploitation, maintaining an unwavering political commitment against great odds, and perceiving designios (prophetic signs) in everyday circumstances.

Raised in the blighted East New York section of Brooklyn as the son of a Puerto Rican community organizer, Martín Espada began participating in political demonstrations at a young age; they were the subjects of his earliest childhood drawings. Upon discovering the deep social concerns in the writings of Pablo Neruda, Nicolás Guillén, Ernesto Cardenal, Pedro Pietri, and others featured in Márquez's book, Espada saw the picket line he had drawn as a child morph suddenly into an international chorus of activist poets from a never-dying Hispanic tradition. Nurtured by this legacy, Espada went back to college in Madison, Wisconsin. He eked out money for tuition and rent by working in a bar, a ballpark, a gas station, a primate lab, and a transient hotel. He majored in History, focusing on Latin America, and traveled to Nicaragua to witness the Sandinista Revolution up close. Then he got a law degree at Northeastern University in Boston and represented Spanish-speaking immigrants as a tenant lawyer in Chelsea, Massachusetts, until 1993. He wrote poetry throughout these years: "I started writing again and never looked back."

Before leaving Madison for Boston, Espada published The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero (1982). The book's mixing of assertive urban poems with striking photos of dilapidated barrio life (taken by Espada's father) paid homage to the anthology Nuyorican Poetry, which had established the Nuyorican socio-aesthetic agenda. Following these poets' lead, the work in Espada's first book documents the institutional neglect suffered by Latinos in rundown inner cities and crop fields. Each poem is also a paean to the persistence and dignity with which immigrants survive abuse and uncertainty: "fishermen wading into the North American gloom" who could pull out "a fierce gasping life / from the polluted current."

The Boston scene boosted Espada's career as a poet in unexpected ways. While working as a legal intern at the Migrant Legal Action Program, Espada applied for a writing fellowship, sending some poems on a whim; he received $5,000, for once making "more money as a poet than as a legal worker." Espada thus became a regular presence at poetry readings in Boston's community centers and university campuses, finding enough breathing room to finish his second book, Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction (1987), shortly after earning his law degree. Here he puts forth what he has called his "poetry of advocacy," zeroing in on the many legal subterfuges that complicate and worsen the immigrant's plight in North America. The poet-now-lawyer moves from the streets into the courtroom, where he unveils the mistreatment of minorities throughout U.S. legal history. The eviction in the title not only names the state-enforced homelessness that afflicts many immigrants; it is Espada's metaphor for the colonial underpinnings of diaspora itself, of the displacements that expanding empires force upon the populations they occupy after supplanting their native system of rights.

In his third book, Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands (1990), winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize and the PEN/Revson Fellowship, Espada takes leave of many idiosyncrasies in Nuyorican poetry to engage in methodical historical reflection and cement himself in his own style and trade. He avoids compulsive "Spanglish" wordplay and composes a rigorous bilingual collection; the poems in English on the left page are rendered meticulously into Spanish on the right. An intricate and calculated verse construction sets Espada's work apart from the spontaneous gestural and oral inflections, the slang and swagger, that are the trademarks of the Nuyorican street poet's performance. Espada's disregard for the improvisational qualities in Nuyorican poetry comes from his commitment to fashion through his poems a type of "verbal monument" that can bear witness to Puerto Rico's and other Latino nations' struggle under U.S. neocolonial hegemony.

Espada's reputation has been on a meteoric rise ever since. In 1990, Earl Shorris predicted in The New York Times that Martín Espada would become " the Latino poet of his generation." In a 2002 blurb, Sandra Cisneros thought of him as a potential U.S. Poet Laureate, calling him "the Pablo Neruda of North American authors." Controversy has only helped increase his stature. When National Public Radio commissioned Espada to create a poem inspired by current news events, he wrote about the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row for a hotly disputed murder conviction. Apparently, the network thought the poem's polemical topic would compromise government or private funding and chose not to air it; many rallied to Espada's side when he interpreted the network's decision as a form of censorship. He also made headlines when he turned down Nike's offer to write a poem for an Olympic advertising campaign in a public letter, rebuking Nike's brutal, exploitative labor practices in Asia. Few poets, Latino or mainstream, have raised the temperature of political and literary debate with such visibility and topicality.

Although well-deserved, all this attention is somewhat ironic, as it recognizes the expression of a poet who, following Neruda, often hushes his own voice so that those of the long-silenced and marginalized can be heard through his poems. It gives center stage to someone whose visionary breadth brings to mind Walt Whitman's ebullient American outlook, yet identifies strongly with the periphery of "minority" and "Third World" subjects and sharply criticizes the multicultural deficits of the current academic canon. It seeks U.S. Poet Laureate status for a writer who captures the changing rhythms of the American vernacular as ably and scrupulously as William Carlos Williams, yet remains stubbornly Puerto Rican, another independentista in the island's forceful lineage of politically minded, anti-colonial poets such as Clemente Soto Vélez and Juan Antonio Corretjer, and Caribbean cadence-masters such as Luis Palés Matos.

That Espada's work stands at the crossroads of many non-literary fields and concerns—law, ethnicity, colonialism, history, public memory, urban and diaspora studies, language politics—is proof of how poetry can become more politically efficacious with superior craft; the better its aesthetic and cognitive makeup, the greater its potential social relevance and impact. The new poems in Espada's latest book, Alabanza, which means praise, are a case in point. Each piece is a carefully engineered capsule of political epiphany in which a richly suggestive, often elaborate, riddle-like title helps the reader navigate the symbolic dimensions of a concrete social story.

In 1993, Espada's wish to be part of an English university program finally came to fruition. His literary accomplishments helped him secure a faculty position in English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he now teaches creative writing workshops and seminars on the life and works of Pablo Neruda and on Latino poetry. Full-time employment as a professor has let him branch out into new literary endeavors as an anthologist and essayist. For Curbstone Press, he edited a collection of works by the publisher's political poets, Poetry Like Bread (1994). For the University of Massachusetts Press, he put together El Coro (1997), a compilation of recent Latino and Latina poetry, which received the Gustavo Myers Outstanding Book Award. His collection of essays, Zapata's Disciple (1990), published by South End Press, won the Independent Publisher Book Award.

In the last fifteen years, Espada has kept a busy schedule of readings nationwide that has earned him a visibility unequaled among Latino poets. He has also increased the rhythm of his poetic output and expanded the range of his themes and concerns. Since joining the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, he has published three new poetry collections with W.W. Norton: City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), and A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen (2000). Imagine won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle Award. In 2003, Norton published a comprehensive anthology of Espada's work, Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982–2002, an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year and the recipient of the Paterson Award for Sustained Achievement. The book ends with a postscript of seventeen new poems written in 2002 in the light of significant personal and national events: a first trip to Ireland, health problems in his family, and the anniversary of the 9/11 Twin Towers attack.

The poems explore new directions that broaden even more the geopolitical horizons within Espada's poetic reach. The Chelsea courtroom, the Brooklyn projects, the Puerto Rican cemetery, and the New England woods no longer act as the main setting for a poem, but as one among many wider frames of reference that go well beyond Neruda's own New World hemispheric boundaries. Alabanza coalesces a new array of ethnoscapes—an Old San Juan street during a strongly Africanized San Sebastián festival; the pastoral yet history-scarred Irish scenery of Achill Island; the Mexican metropolis, heartland, and borderland; the Arab World—to fashion poems that celebrate the overlapping of immigrant, revolutionary, and anti-colonial experience across American and non-American nations. The Puerto Rican cordillera is evoked in an Irish mountain range; blacklisting in post-Zapatista Mexico recalls repression in 1973 post-Allende Chile; Carl Sandburg's bookish shyness as a young Illinois army recruit in the 1898 Spanish-American War is juxtaposed with great-grand-uncle Luis Espada's thespian antics as a colorful cigar factory reader and literature lover; bombed Afghan refugees and Manhattan Latinos address each other in "constellations of smoke." The poems behave no longer as straightforward anecdotes but as novelistic fields of interlocking transnational stories, with lengthier stanzas and verses and a weightier presence of the poet's persona acting as side character, as narrator, as singer, as prophetic seer.

Following the cosmic propensities in Neruda, Soto Vélez, and Corretjer's celebration of the working poor, Espada shows us that poetry exercised as praise for the exploited and the ignored helps us realize the multidirectional interconnectedness of all human experience in space and time. Through such homage, we recognize how the disenfranchised are those who weave the innermost fabric of history.

César A. Salgado is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of From Modernism to Neobaroque: Joyce and Lezama Lima (2001). The profile above draws from previous articles on Espada published by the author.