An Interview with Martín Espada

An interview with Martín Espada (b. 1957) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review in 2012.

Martín Espada is not one of those frail, pale poets writing with an air of cynical detachment.

No, Espada’s poems reach out, grab readers by their throats, press them up against the walls and demand, “What are you gonna do about it?”

A self-described Puerto Rican teenage “thug” who grew up in Brooklyn, Espada is an imposing figure with a booming voice that can drop to a singsong whisper at readings. His poetry speaks for the victims of history, the resistors to despots, for the “shadow army” that picks the tomatoes, cleans the toilets, diapers the babies.

For many years, he was part of a mostly invisible class of service workers in America; he pumped gas, scrubbed pots, swept floors, fed monkeys (really), kneaded dough, tossed drunks. He and his compatriots did the jobs that many won’t do. Then he went to law school and became a tenant lawyer. While he worked all those jobs, he also wrote poems.

Espada’s first book of poetry came out in 1987, when he was 30. Since then, he has published eleven other poetry collections, two poetry anthologies, two books of essays and an audio compilation of poetry. His The Republic of Poetry won the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and his Imagine the Angels of Bread won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Espada is a professor in the English department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His latest book of poetry is The Trouble Ball.

When he won the PEN/Revson Foundation Fellowship, judges praised his work: “The greatness of Espada’s art, like all great arts, is that it gives dignity to the insulted and the injured of the earth.”

Espada, whose last name means sword in Spanish, is a poet of advocacy. He springs from a long tradition, including Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman, who speak for those who are voiceless. Espada abides by a line from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” “through me many long dumb voices.”

One of his most beloved and requested poems, “Alabanza: In Praise of the Local 100,” laments and celebrates the 43 restaurant and hotel employees who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. The poem’s title, which is the Spanish word for praise, repeats throughout the stanzas. During readings, Espada almost sings the word, and sometimes waits for audiences to echo it back to him.

Espada’s poems repeat and remember what many are trying to forget.

“We do not write such poems because we necessarily believe that our side will win, and that conditions will change; we write them because there is an ethical compulsion to do so,” he wrote in his essay, “Speaking of the Unspoken Places in Poetry.”


Susan Thornton Hobby: You have talked about writing poems as an undergraduate – could you talk about your early writing and readings?

Martín Espada: I wrote my first poem when I was 15 years old. I was in the tenth grade. I wrote this poem for an English class as part of an assignment. I should add parenthetically that I was a really bad student. I failed eighth-grade English. And now I’m a professor of English, which just gives you some idea of the strange reversals of fortune one can have in one’s life. So anyway there I was sitting in the back of the room, trying not to be seen; I was pretty good at not being seen in those days.

And our teacher, Mr. Vellecca, approached the group of us in the back row. He said, "I have an assignment for you." He knew he was dealing with the young thugs of the room. He said, "I would like you to make your own magazine" and he waved a copy of the New Yorker in front of us. Now we were all New Yorkers, but this was a different New York. The magazine was passed down the hierarchy of thuggery until it finally came to me at the bottom of the food chain and the only thing left was to write a poem. I was very concerned. I said to myself, “Oh man, a poem???” With three question marks. But I did not want to fail English again.

So I went and sat by the window and it was raining, so I wrote a poem about rain. Of course, I don’t have that poem any more. I don’t remember anything about the poem, except for one line: “tiny silver hammers pounding the Earth” to describe rain. I just created my first metaphor at the age of 15. I did not know what a metaphor was. Someone told me a couple of weeks later and I went strutting down the hall.

But I discovered something else that day: I discovered how much I loved words. I loved banging words into each other and watching them fly around the room and sometimes hop out the window into the rain. And from the beginning I had something to say with those words. I began writing about the world around me, family, friends, the community around me, my home. That has proven to be a rich vein to mine ever since.

STH: You’ve worked an amazing range of jobs – you once said that it made you like a “poet spy” – almost invisible. Have all those professions helped your poetry?

ME: I think every profession has helped my poetry. I think almost every job I held in one way or another has helped me to see the world in a new light, has helped me to understand better the world around me. There are of course some radical angles in the world depending on your vantage point. If I had a job in which I was, for all intents and purposes, on the bottom, I had a radical angle looking upwards. I had the added advantage of invisibility.

The guy pumping your gas -- that’s who I was -- and I was invisible. And yet I managed to
write a couple of gas station poems coming out of that experience. I don’t think we as poets write enough about work itself. Work is a very rare subject. You can begin with Whitman and his observations of other people at work. We can certainly write about almost any occupation. It depends on the quality of the observations you make.

STH: You’ve used law as political tool and poetry as a political tool – how did studying and practicing the law affect your poetry?

ME: Practicing the law had a very direct affect on my poetry in two ways. First of all, I literally wrote lawyer poems. I wrote poems about my legal experience. Particularly my experience as a tenant lawyer in greater Boston, particularly a town called Chelsea, which is a tough little town across the Tobin [Memorial] Bridge from Boston. It’s a gateway city, a city of immigrants, and always has been. I worked with immigrant tenants doing eviction defense and no-heat cases, rats and roaches, crazy landlords, the whole gamut.

I chronicled those experiences, always keeping an eye out for the confidentiality of clients. … The essential truth of the matter was there in the poems. The other way that working as a lawyer impacted my poetry was that it strengthened my sense of myself as a poet advocate, speaking on behalf of those who didn’t have an opportunity to be heard. As a poet advocate, I was writing lawyer poems, but I went well beyond the arena of the law or my clients, and wrote as an advocate in all sorts of ways.

The poem “Alabanza” that we talked about earlier is a good example. It’s a poem of advocacy; it’s written literally for those who cannot speak for themselves. And not only for those who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center, who were mostly immigrants (many undocumented), but for all immigrants and undocumented people who are now facing what I consider a racist backlash in this country, and one that comes, not by coincidence, at the same time as an economic downturn. That’s usually when it happens.

Being a poet advocate is also to place myself in a very particular tradition of poetry. It goes back to Whitman. In number 24 in “Song of Myself,” he says: “through me many long dumb voices.” That is a statement of advocacy. Pablo Neruda, in Canto 12 of “Heights of Machu Picchu,” speaking to centuries of dead laborers and peasants, says, “I come to speak for your dead mouths.” That is a statement of advocacy. So I am very much a poet in the Whitman/Neruda tradition, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present time, and there have been many poets in that tradition.

STH: You have cited Neruda and Whitman as your main poetic influences. How do you take what you see and research and make something meaningful, rather than just reportage?

ME: The way that poetry transcends reportage is through craft. And by craft I mean, first and foremost, the image. And by the image I mean all five senses on paper, not just the visual. If you ground the poem in the image it becomes a sensory experience. It becomes something that the reader should be able to see and hear and touch and smell and feel. So that’s the first way that you move the poem away from mere reportage and towards poetry.

But you also have to have an ear. There must also be a sense of rhythm, a sense of music in the language. That, for example, is why I make use of anaphora so often, why my poems sometimes sound like chant, why there are key words and phrases that repeat themselves. This is often why the Spanish language crops up in what is otherwise an English language poem. And it has everything to do with that sense of rhythm and timing and music, all of which belong to the realm of poetry. That’s also how you move away from reportage and toward poetry.

I also believe poetry is the art of the concise. I believe in economy of language. I believe in using the right words and no more than what is needed. Now that doesn’t mean that I write little poems like William Carlos Williams or e.e. cummings. I do use long lines like Whitman, I do use images which are complex, metaphor and simile, like Neruda. At the same time, I see that it will take a poet two pages to tell a story that might take a historian 200 pages to tell. You have to find the moment that will stand for a century. You have to find the face that is many faces. That’s because you’re thinking in metaphor. And that is not something that ordinarily a journalist would do. That is another way to move from reportage to poetry.

Although I try to be as clear and direct as possible, I am aware that there is a particular kind of diction that you use when you write poetry, that it is a form of heightened speech. I don’t know who first said that, but I agree with it. Oftentimes, when we see a political poem or a narrative poem that has to do with an actual incident, there is a knee-jerk criticism leveled: “That is not poetry, it is journalism.” This is a weak, repetitious, hoary argument. Because the argument fails to account for all of the things that I have just said. When those elements are present, it is poetry. The greatest poets of the nineteenth century and twentieth century – from Whitman to Neruda to the present day – are examples that we can point to and see how these subjects can be successfully addressed.

STH: You often write about your family – both living and dead. What does family mean to you?

ME: Family first of all means stories. Where do we hear our first stories? From the family. Where do we tell our first stories? To the family. That’s how it starts. If I have any storytelling skills as a narrative poet, it relates back to the family. Both of my parents are storytellers. That’s where it begins. And then there are the tales that you tell because no one has told them. I’m not merely repeating family legend or family lore. The title poem of the new book [The Trouble Ball] is actually an unusual example of this tendency. My father, who is a wonderful storyteller, waited until very late in life to tell me that particular story. It’s not a story that I heard growing up. I heard bits and pieces. I knew that he had been a baseball player. I knew that he had been a pitcher. I knew that he had been a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I knew that he and my mother had lived in Brooklyn and essentially held their courtship on Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

But the story that lies at the heart of the poem “The Trouble Ball” was not a story that he told me until very, very recently and my father is now 80 years old. Maybe he had to get the story out, and maybe he knew what I would do with it. But it had to do with the fact that, at the age of 11, my father went to his first big-league ball game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, to see the Dodgers and the Cardinals and expecting to see the heroes of the Negro Leagues, like Satchel Paige, because those were the players that he idolized growing up in Puerto Rico. They were permitted, in fact enthusiastically welcomed in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America as a whole, at the same time these African-American players were forbidden to play in the major leagues in the United States. And of course, this would not change until Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947.

People tend to forget; they associate the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field with Jackie Robinson and integration. And yet the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field were just as segregated as everywhere else until 1947. And so the action of the poem begins in 1941. My father goes to his first big-league ball game with his father; he’s expecting to see Satchel Paige. And it suddenly dawned on him that not only does he not see Satchel Paige, but he sees that all the players are white. And he asks his father, very innocently, “Donde están los negros?” “Where are the Negro players?” and his father has to break the news.

This is a shock on two levels: First his realization of racial segregation in the new country, and then the realization, which is instantaneous, that it affects him. As a person of color, as “the only brown boy at Ebbets Field,” it affects him. He was a baseball player, he went on to become a very good baseball player. The poem goes on to chronicle that and some other misfortunes.

And the meaning of the phrase, “The Trouble Ball,” keeps changing throughout (the poem) every time it’s used. On the most literal level, it refers to the changeup that Satchel Paige throws, but on a deeper level it refers to the trouble of race and racism in the United States. The use of the title shifts in various ways coming at the end of each stanza in that poem. But the heart of the poem is a story that my father decided to tell me only a couple of years ago. And so in a sense, what this goes back to is a chronicle of family history, but it is more than that, it is a chronicle of the times. It’s a way of remembering. I think memory is absolutely essential to us as a society, and poets have a role to play in restoring the collective memory and retaining the collective memory.

STH: You once said, “The language of poetry is powerful precisely because it is not the language of power.” Could you explain?

ME: When I use that expression, what I am referring to, first of all, is that the language of power is the language of euphemism. It is by its very nature imprecise; by its very nature it misdirects. We have so many examples in our contemporary vocabulary: civilian casualties become collateral damage, my own personal favorite -- torture becomes enhanced interrogation, like enriched bread. Calling torture “enhanced interrogation,” because it is euphemistic, enables this society to engage in a discussion of torture as tactic. What are the best tortures? The most effective tortures? Who are the ones who could be “legitimately” tortured? What sort of rules should we establish about the uses of torture? We’re missing entirely the ethical dimension, and the example of other societies that have used torture as an instrument of social control, an experiment that always has disastrous results. Look no farther than Chile or Argentina.

So the language directly affects the quality of the debate, the outcome of the debate, which is why poets have to insist on using the words that mean exactly what they mean. Torture is torture. We need to speak in a precise language. The language of power, which is designed to confuse and to obscure, drains the blood from words. We as poets must restore the blood to words, to reconcile language and meaning. … And that’s something poets do very well. We can’t afford to worry about, “How many people are going to read this?” “How many people are going to hear this?” Someone is doing to read it, someone is going to hear it. Whatever difference we make, however small, is a difference.

STH: What kind of effect can poetry have on an individual, in the face of all this evil that’s going on in the world?

ME: I know, because so many people have told me, that poetry can save a life. Now that sounds hyperbolic; that sounds like some sort of exaggeration. But so many people have made clear to me that poetry has done exactly that for them. I’ll start with an example. There’s a poem in the new collection, The Trouble Ball, called “Blasphemy,” that begins: “Let the truth be spoken: Poetry can save us.” And not just in the traditional way. It’s not about Jesus. It’s essentially about being given the means to save yourself.

The poem in question is dedicated to Sam Hamill, who had a terrible youth, who was homeless, he was a runaway, he had all kinds of terrible things happen to him. And he was taken in and saved by Kenneth Rexroth and poetry -- right off the streets of San Francisco. Sam Hamill was saved by poetry. [The poem] refers to a prison inmate holding a book and cradling that book gently, turning those pages gently because they’re brittle and they might break, and sobbing.

The fact of the matter is, that not only are the people at the bottom of our society invisible to us; they’re also invisible to themselves. They never see the mirror image. They never see the innate decency or dignity within themselves. What poetry can so often do is hold up that mirror. And by presenting some sort of image of human dignity and human decency, it gives that person in desperate circumstances an opportunity to re-vision the world and to re-vision his or her own life. Then the process of self-salvation can begin.

I had an extraordinary experience in Los Angeles. I gave a reading at a cultural center there. I was approached by a young man who told me about his experience with gangs and prison. He told me he had discovered my poetry and began to write himself. Now he was going to school at UCLA and wanted to get an MFA. He had come a long, long way. He had to tell me all of this. Then he burst into tears and began to sob uncontrollably. I took him and I sat him down. I delayed the reading talking to him for a while until I was sure that he felt all right. It was only then that I proceeded to do the reading. He is one of many people who report, who come back from the front lines, the trenches, from wherever they come from, who say “Poetry saved my life.”

They say it and mean it in all sincerity. They’ve overcome wherever it was they began. They’ve overcome homelessness. They’ve overcome illness. They’ve overcome drug abuse and alcohol abuse. They’ve overcome physical abuse at the hands of family or strangers. They’ve overcome the various forms of dehumanization imposed upon them, because they were able in turn to find poetry. Poetry humanizes. That’s something poetry does better than any other art form. It gives the subject a human face. … We have to get away from this constant sort of cynical, self-mockery that characterizes so many poets and so much poetry today. We can’t expect anyone else to take us seriously if we don’t take ourselves seriously. We can’t make those demands on an audience unless we make certain demands on ourselves.

There’s a pose of detached, hip cynicism, which precludes the open expression of emotion, much less the writing of a political poem. Self-mockery and self-marginalization become part of the persona. At which point, I want to ask, “Why bother? Why aren’t you out gardening? Why aren’t you out horseback-riding or something other than this? Don’t waste your time. If you consider this a waste of your time, then don’t waste my time.” We have to begin to cast off this mantle of self-mockery that we use to conceal our own vulnerabilities. I’m in the opposite camp. I do think poetry matters. I do think poetry is important.