An Interview with Martín Espada, by Carmel Mawle

Martín Espada (photo by David González)

Martín Espada is a poet, essayist, translator, and an English professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. A former tenant lawyer, Espada has represented immigrants and others who would have been defenseless in the face of systemic racism and oppression. As a poet activist, he sees his role as speaking for those who otherwise may not be heard.

Espada has generously agreed to talk with us and share some work from his upcoming book of poems, Floaters, published by W. W. Norton.

Carmel Mawle: You began writing poetry when you were 15. Do you remember what you wrote about? What moved you to poetics when you were a teen?

Martín Espada: Yes, I wrote my first poem when I was fifteen. I should preface this by saying that I was a terrible student. I flunked English in the eighth grade. One day, I was sitting at the back of the classroom with all the other young thugs, trying not to be noticed. Our 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Vellecca, approached and said: “Young thugs! I have an assignment for you.” He held up a copy of The New Yorker magazine and declared: “I want you to make your own version of this magazine. Everybody take a part.” So we passed the magazine, hand-to-hand, down the hierarchy of thuggery, dividing up the sections, till, at last, it came to me. The only thing left, unclaimed, was a poem. I thought: “Oh man! A poem?” But I didn’t want to fail English again. I sat by the window. It was raining that day, so I wrote a poem about rain. I don’t have the poem anymore—I didn’t think it would be historically significant—and I only remember one line: “Tiny silver hammers pounding the earth,” to describe rain. I had just invented my first metaphor, not that I had any idea what the word “metaphor” meant. (I found out a few days later and went strutting down the hallway.) I also discovered something else: I discovered that I loved words. I loved slamming words into each other and watching them spin around the room, or jump out the window into the rain. From the beginning, I had something to say with all those words. I wrote about friends, family, community, self and society. Coda: many years later, I had two poems published in the The New Yorker.

Mawle: Which poets have influenced or inspired your own work? Were there certain poets who were especially meaningful to you at different times in your life? Do you have a list of poets you would recommend all of our young writers read as they hone their craft and find their voices?

Espada: I could recommend the usual suspects. Instead, I will recall a mentor, an anthology, and many poets. I was twenty years old, had dropped out of college, stopped writing poetry, and was well on my way to becoming a professional dishwasher. A friend of the family, the activist Luis Garden Acosta, handed me a book. As he did, Luis said: “You’re going to be a poet.” The book was Latin American Revolutionary Poetry, from Monthly Review Press, edited by Roberto Márquez. I opened the book to a poem by Ernesto Cardenal, the great poet-priest of Nicaragua, called “Zero Hour,” about dictatorship and rebellion in his country. And so it went, page after page: the Afro-Cuban poets Nicolás Guillén and Nancy Morejón, the Salvadoran guerilla-poet Roque Dalton, the Puerto Rican poet Pedro Pietri. I was an amnesiac who had just learned his name. I realized that I was part of a long tradition of political poetry and struggle with its roots in Latin America, continuing with those who migrated to this country. I started writing again, and never looked back. Later, I would meet Roberto Márquez, a Puerto Rican from New York like me, and thank him personally. We went on to become compañeros, too.

Mawle: You have said that you view your tenant and immigrant legal advocacy and poetry in the same light, as giving voice to the voiceless. In your forthcoming book, Floaters, we are immersed in the crisis at our southern border⁠— racism, and the administration’s internment of immigrant children and their families. What advice do you have for activist writers and artists who hope to spark change through their work?

Espada: I would say that writing poetry of social change is, paradoxically, an act of faith. We have no idea, when we write a poem in isolation, what the impact of that poem might be. We cannot quantify it. We cannot weigh it or measure it. We toss it up into the atmosphere, and we rarely know where it lands. Yet, a professor of mine at the University of Wisconsin, Herbert Hill, the former National Labor Director of the NAACP, would say: “Ideas have consequences.” We must believe that our ideas, as expressed in poetry, have consequences in the world we want to change.

Mawle: Do you have advice for our writers who are currently protesting with their feet and pens against police brutality, the separation of children from their parents, inhumane conditions in the detention centers, and immigration policies written to discriminate against asylum seekers with brown or black skin, and the myriad other injustices of increasingly nationalistic governments?

Espada: In the midst of earthshaking social cataclysm, the mind blurs. Try to stay focused. If you’re a writer, write. Write what you know and write well. We owe that much both to the dead and the living. In the process, build coalitions, making common cause between communities with causes in common. Make the connections in your writing and activism, between police brutality, family separation, incarceration in detention centers, and the end of asylum, the crushing authority of the state wielded by authoritarians in the White House and in the street, especially against Black and Brown communities. Agents of ICE have shown up at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and hauled off undocumented immigrant protestors. That about sums it up.

Mawle: You were good friends with Sam Hamill, our first Writing for Peace Adviser, and involved with his call for Poets Against The War in 2003. Your powerful statement graces the cover of Sam’s “Habitation” collection. We lost Sam in April of 2018. Can you talk about your friendship with Sam? When did you first meet? Are there ways his work influenced yours?

Espada: Sam and I met at a poetry festival in Key West, Florida, in January 2003. He was organizing against the war we all knew was coming in Iraq. He circulated a petition, and every poet at this conference signed it. He held a press conference and we made our case to the media. He heard me read the poem “Alabanza,” and that was ultimately the poem he published in his landmark anthology, Poets Against the War.  Sam would invite me to sit on the board of Poets Against the War.  I admired Sam’s stubborn integrity, his gritty determination, his sense of principle, his ability to channel anger into activism as well as art, his loyalty as a friend. And Hayden Carruth was right: “No one—I mean no one—has done the momentous work of presenting poetry better than Sam Hamill. His editing and publishing, his criticism and translations, his own very strong and beautiful poems have been making a difference in American culture for many years. What a wealth of accomplishment!” Everyone should read Sam’s introduction to Poets Against the War, a call to action that still rings true today: “A government is a government of words, and when those words are used to mislead, to instill fear or to invite silence, it is the duty of every poet to speak fearlessly and clearly.” Sam influenced me in countless ways. I aspire to Sam’s burning clarity of thought and expression, poetically and politically. This is from his “Ars Poetica:”

We go down to the sea and set sail
For a world beyond war,
knowing we will never find it.
            We are not heroes.
We sail The Justice and The Mercy
because these boats need rowing.

Mawle: Do you have other thoughts you would like to share with our young writers and writers for peace?

Espada: Keep rowing.

Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His forthcoming book of poems from Norton is called Floaters. Other books of poems include Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006), Alabanza (2003), A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (2000), Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993) and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990). He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (2019). His many honors include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, an American Book Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His book of essays and poems, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona, and reissued by Northwestern University Press. A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Carmel Mawle is founder of the nonprofit literary organization, Writing for Peace, and has served as Editor-in-Chief of DoveTales, An International Journal of the Arts since 2013. A Pushcart Nominee, her short stories, essays, and poetry have been published in literary journals and anthologies, including Smokelong Quarterly, Shake The Tree, and KNOTS Literary Magazine.


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