Martín Espada on Framing the Present Through the Lens of the Past

For the next installment in his series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Martín Espada. Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist, and translator, including Vivas to Those Who Have Failed and Pulitzer finalist The Republic of Poetry. His many honors include the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Born in Brooklyn, he now lives in western Massachusetts.

Espada’s latest collection of poems, Floaters, is available now from W.W. Norton & Company.


Peter Mishler: Could we begin by talking about the first poem in Floaters, “Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin Bridge”? In what way do you see this poem as an introduction to this new collection?

Martín Espada: I was a tenant lawyer. From 1987 to 1993, I served as Supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Chelsea is a town right across the Tobin Bridge from Boston. It’s a gateway city, a city of immigrants. Many of my clients came from El Salvador and Guatemala, fleeing the wars sponsored by the Reagan administration, and the wreckage of those societies that smoldered for so many years afterward. Flash forward three decades: immigrants are crossing our southern border from the same countries—still fleeing those wars and that smoldering wreckage. There is an excellent article about these root causes by Cole Kazdin in VICE. 

What I’m doing in the poem is framing the present through the lens of the past, the crisis on the border in light of my own experiences as a lawyer in the courtrooms of Chelsea. There is more to the poem: the Chuck Stuart case. Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart, in Boston, blamed the killing on an invented African-American carjacker, then committed suicide when his brother Matthew confessed his complicity and identified Chuck as the killer. Again, I am framing the present in the lens of the past—here, the insidious legacy of racism, the perception of dangerousness that is, itself, dangerous. This poem serves, in turn, to frame what follows in the collection, in terms of themes such as migration or racism and the narratives bringing those themes to life, and also in terms of my position as an advocate, as a lawyer then and a poet now.

PM: In the first section of the book there are several instances in which you imagine an afterlife, an imagined justice, particularly for the white subjects of this section. Would you be willing to make an observation regarding poetic imagination and its relationship with truth, fact, and lived political, social reality?

ME: I see the poetic imagination as essential to the political poem. For poetry, truth is necessary but not sufficient. The imagination you cite in your question—that imagined afterlife, that imagined justice—goes to the heart of the poem as vision. William Blake wrote: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” We must imagine justice, even the impossible, even if this requires leaps that some might call surreal. (I have been accused of having a surrealist streak.) We must imagine justice in another world for Óscar and Valeria, the Salvadoran migrant father and daughter drowned in the Río Grande, since justice was denied them in this world. It’s too late for them. It may not be too late for another Óscar and another Valeria, crossing the southern border one day, if we as a society can recover our collective vision and deepest sense of justice.

Keep in mind, too, that we only know about the drowning of Óscar and Valeria because of a photograph that went viral. Imagine if certain members of the Border Patrol, who called the bodies of these migrants or other drowned bodies “floaters,” ascended to the heavens upon their own demise, then plunged back to earth in the form of hailstones landing in the Río Grande—on the Mexican side of the river. Savor that moment, if you can.

PM: Are there poets who were guides for you in the confluence of your poetic as well as social, ethical, or political imagination? What did you learn from them?

ME: There are many such poets I could name. Among the first was Clemente Soto Vélez of Puerto Rico. Soto Vélez was a surrealist poet, socialist, organizer, and political prisoner, who advocated the independence of Puerto Rico from the United States. He was also an early mentor of mine. I’d say his influence was more political than poetic.

I see the poetic imagination as essential to the political poem. For poetry, truth is necessary but not sufficient.

Unlike Soto Vélez, I am not a surrealist—in fact, I strive for an aesthetic of clarity. I’m a storyteller. On the other hand, there are those dreamlike images in the last, “afterlife” stanza of “Floaters.” And anyone who writes a love poem in the voice of Lonesome George, a Galápagos tortoise who despises Darwin, has felt the back of his head slapped by the hand of surrealism.

There were many other guides: Jack Agüeros, Andrew Salkey, Gary Soto, Marge Piercy, Adrian Mitchell, Julia Alvarez, on and on. What I learned from all of them, to one degree or another, is that there is no contradiction between writing driven by the political imagination and writing well.

PM: Is there a moment, an image, a memory, a feeling from childhood that you think in some way presages or predicts that you’d ultimately find yourself writing poetry, becoming a poet?

ME: In a word: no. My first art was, well, art. I loved to draw as a child, but an art teacher beat it out of me. Another teacher would call me “slowpoke, chimney smoke” and yank my hair. I took my revenge by vomiting cheese popcorn on her. I once failed English in the eighth grade. (To be fair, I also failed typing and gym.) By that point, I was more interested in what I have called elsewhere “the amateur exploration of pharmaceuticals in the parking lot.” My first exposure to poetry came from an English teacher who forced me to recite the lyrics of “The Mikado.” Not until tenth grade, at age fifteen, when I wrote a poem in response to a writing assignment from another English teacher—mostly because I didn’t want to fail English again—did I awaken to the possibilities of poetry. It was raining that day, so I wrote a poem about rain. I only remember one line: “tiny silver hammers pounding the earth,” to describe rain. But that’s another story, as they say. The moral of this story is that we should look for the poets in the high school parking lot.

PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?

ME: Poetry has the intangible, almost inexplicable power to make something happen, to move people, to console the inconsolable. This calls to mind José “JoeGo” Gouveia. Joe was a Portuguese-American poet from Cape Cod. He was a roofer, a carpenter, and a biker, who edited the only anthology of biker poetry. He organized readings, hosted a radio program, and wrote a column for a local newspaper called “The Meter Man.” He did it all without a poet’s ego. (Imagine that.) He loved poets and loved poetry. He was lucky that way, lucky in every way but one.

I am not a surrealist—in fact, I strive for an aesthetic of clarity. I’m a storyteller.

When the cancer came back for the last time, I wrote a poem for him, called “Here I Am.” In the poem, I describe Joe making a miraculous appearance at a gathering of poets in Boston, swaggering into the room like a gunslinger, once again defying his death sentence. Joe read that poem to everyone he knew, even from his bed in hospice. Then he asked me for something unprecedented. He told me that his first book was coming out, and he wanted to use my poem as the foreword. I said yes. The book came out in April 2014. Joe died in May, at age 49. He stayed alive long enough to see that book come out. Don’t tell me that poetry makes nothing happen.

PM: Is it your experience that this sentiment from Auden remains true in American poetry today?

ME: That Auden quote has been taken out of context to justify apathy and indifference. Intellectuals are very energetic in defense of their apathy. They mount the most creative defenses of indifference. I’d say that this sentiment is still a palpable presence in the poetry of this country today, even with more gestures towards social justice in recent years. The majority of poets do not engage with justice in their poetry, regardless of how they vote. There are still poets who embrace the poet stereotype: flaky, quirky, eccentric. They couldn’t change a light bulb, much less the world. For some, it’s a deft maneuver to sidestep responsibility. In so doing, they embrace their own marginality and the marginality of poetry.

We as poets have a much greater impact on the world than even we would care to admit. Can we quantify that impact on the world? Ordinarily no. Poetry cannot be so weighed, measured, boxed and labeled. On the other hand, when someone like Joe Gouveia says, “poetry saved my life,” I believe him. When someone like Joe says, “your poetry saved my life,” I have to take him at his word. Poetry made something happen for him.

PM: The shift from the first section of the book to the second is a startling and powerful one, in that there is a shift toward personal poems about your family, your father. I wonder if you could talk about the relationship between these two sections of the book as well as what may have emerged in the writing that is new for you regarding certain subjects and concerns related to family, your parents?

ME: There is, indeed, a shift from the first to the second section, though there is common ground. In the first section, there is a series of poems, like “Floaters,” about migrants to this country. In the second section, there are poems having to do with my father. He was a migrant to this country, coming here from Puerto Rico. His early morning protest, the fearful reaction he inspires, and later his quiet death in “Death Rides the Elevator in Brooklyn” parallel the migrant experience in the poems from section one—though it is hardly an exact equivalency. He is also a flawed hero, as his struggles with alcohol demonstrate in “The Cannon on the Hood of My Father’s Car.” There are also poems about my own brushes with racism, including what I call my “moon poem.” (More about that later.) Why take up the subjects of family and parents now? Those subjects have always been there.

In my last book, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (Norton, 2016), there is a sequence of ten poems about my father’s life and death. (He died in 2014.) Of course, at the age of 63, I see him differently now, since I have a clearer view on my own mortality. I can, at last, write about his struggles with alcohol, not because I have finally found the voice to condemn him, but because I finally found the voice to forgive him.

PM: At what point in your writing does the chosen epigraph become a part of the process of making a poem?

ME: I have found epigraphs increasingly useful over the years—and epigraphs should be useful to the reader. There are times when the epigraph is central to the evolution of a poem. One example from this collection would be the poem, “Asking Questions of the Moon.” The epigraph comes from Lorca: “Some blind girls / ask questions of the moon / and spirals of weeping / rise through the air.” The epigraph gives me the title of the poem; then everything flows from there. I’m an adolescent boy, standing in the outfield, punching my glove, watching the moon and wondering why a girl, who I liked and who liked me, had asked me a question, as gently as she could: “Are you a spic?”

Joe was a Portuguese-American poet from Cape Cod. He was a roofer, a carpenter, and a biker, who edited the only anthology of biker poetry.

The moon turns out not to be the moon at all, but a baseball that drops from the sky and smacks me in the eye, causing only slightly less damage than her question. I end up weeping by the end of the poem—like those blind girls in the epigraph—and blaming my rather useless glove. The epigraph is so essential to the poem that I insisted on keeping it even after I found out that I had to pay hundreds of dollars in permissions fees to include those sixteen words in the book—fees not only for the translation, but for the underlying Spanish original. I have not calculated the cost per line of the poem, but the epigraph was well worth it.

PM: Finally, I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk about the standout poem “The Five Horses of Doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances.” Could you talk a little bit about this poem and its composition?

ME: Betances (1827-1898) was one of the great figures of Caribbean history. He was a Puerto Rican revolutionary, abolitionist, writer, diplomat, and physician. Born in Cabo Rojo of partly African descent, he received his medical degree in Paris, returning in 1856 to a cholera epidemic in Puerto Rico that killed 25,000 to 30,000 people, including 10,000 under the yoke of slavery. He played a major role fighting the epidemic in the city of Mayagüez and elsewhere. Simultaneously, he emerged as an organizer of abolitionist “secret societies,” and, ultimately, was forced into exile. Betances orchestrated an insurrection against the Spanish in 1868, called the “Grito de Lares,” or “Battle Cry of Lares.” That insurrection failed, but slavery was abolished five years later.

That’s the history. Now, as to the process: Behind the imagery and musicality of the poem, behind the language galloping like horses, is research and more research. I read about Betances and the legend of his “cinco caballos”—the five horses he exhausted, riding constantly from place to place, fighting cholera and fighting slavery—and knew I had a poem in five movements, from “The First Horse” to “The Fifth Horse.” I had invaluable support from César Salgado, a Puerto Rican professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas-Austin. (At one point, stalled out, I sent him a draft entitled “Four-Fifths of a Poem.”) César kept reading and kept directing me to more sources; he would write a preface to the poem, in Spanish, when it was published in an important Puerto Rican magazine, 80grados. This was the last poem to go into the book, and one of only two written last year. We were dealing with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and institutionalized racial violence. A poem about a cholera epidemic that somehow gave rise to an abolitionist movement in 19th-century Puerto Rico became an allegory for the times in which we live and die today. I believe it’s the first poem about Doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances in the English language. There is no biography of Betances in English, and there are precious few articles. And this history teaches us that we can emerge from the flames into a better world.

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