Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a politically engaged Puerto Rican family. He studied history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned his JD from Northeastern University. For many years Espada was a tenant lawyer and legal advocate; his first book of poetry, The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero (1982), included photographs taken by his father, Frank Espada. Espada’s subsequent books, including Trumpets from the Island of Their Eviction (1987), Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), and Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), won significant critical attention. Often concerned with socially, economically, and racially marginalized individuals, Espada’s early work is full of highly wrought, heart-wrenching narratives. Espada’s book, Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands, won the 1990 PEN/Revson Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Though defiantly and insistently political, Espada’s work is also known for its gentle humor. Leslie Ullman concluded in the Kenyon Review that Espada's poems "tell their stories and flesh out their characters deftly, without shrillness or rhetoric, and vividly enough to invite the reader into a shared sense of loss."
Espada’s other collections of poetry include A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (2000), Alabanza: New and Selected Poems, 1982–2002 (2003), The Republic of Poetry (2006), and The Trouble Ball (2011). Espada won the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement with the publication of Alabanza; the book was also named an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. The Republic of Poetry, which deals with the political power and efficacy of poetry, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Taking cues from documentary poetics as well as formal argumentation and Espada’s ongoing fascination with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the volume interrogates the role of poetry in the public and private spheres: poems range from odes to poets like Yusef Komunyakaa and Robert Creeley, to treatments of the Chilean revolution, to anti-war polemics, to ironically sage instruction poems for young poets.
Espada has edited two important anthologies of Latino and Chicano poetry: El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry (1997) and Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination (2000). The poets across these two anthologies hail from all areas of North and South America, bringing an important yet under-represented group of poets into English translation. In addition to his work as a translator and editor, Espada has also published two volumes of essays and criticism, Zapata’s Disciple (1998) and The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive (2010). In the Progressive, poet Rafael Campo commended Espada's courage in Zapata’s Disciple, maintaining that he is one of only a few poets who "take[s] on the life-and-death issues of American society at large." The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive considers the role of poetry in political movements. According to poet Barbara Jane Reyes, “To be a poet, Espada asserts throughout this series of essays, is to be an advocate, to advocate for those who have been silenced, and for places that are unspoken…Our work as poets can empower the silenced to speak.” Espada himself has never wavered in his commitment to poetry as a source of political and personal power. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Espada spoke to the impact of poetry on the lives of second-generation immigrants who discover the power of their own experiences through the form: “Poetry will help them to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think…poetry makes a practical contribution.”
- The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero, with photographs by father, Frank Espada, Ghost Pony Press (Madison, WI), 1982.
- Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction (includes "Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction," "Tiburon," "The Policeman's Ball," and "From an Island You Cannot Name"), Bilingual Press (Tempe, AZ), 1987, expanded edition, 1994.
- Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands (includes "Portrait of a Real Hijo de Puta," "The Savior Is Abducted in Puerto Rico," "Jorge the Janitor Finally Quits," and "Cusin and Tata"), Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1990.
- City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (includes "Coca-Cola and Coco Frio," "The Skull Beneath the Skin," and "When Songs Become Water"), Norton (New York City), 1993.
- Imagine the Angels of Bread: Poems, Norton (New York), 1996.
- A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen: Poems, Norton (New York), 2000.
- Alabanza: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2002, Norton (New York), 2003.
- The Republic of Poetry, Norton (New York), 2006.
- Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas, Smokestack Books (Middlesbrough, UK), 2008.
- The Trouble Ball: Poems, Norton (New York), 2011.
- (Translator with Camilo Perez-Bustillo) The Blood that Keeps Singing: Selected Poems of Clemente Soto Velez, Curbstone Press, 1991.
- (Editor) Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press, Curbstone Press, 1994, New and expanded ed., 2000.
- (Editor and contributor) El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst), 1997.
- Zapata's Disciple (essays and some poetry), South End Press, 1998.
- The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive: Essays and Commentaries, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor), 2010.
Also contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, Progressive, Nation, and Ploughshares.
- American Book Review, March/May, 1995, p. 9.
- Americas, summer, 1990, pp. 119-21.
- Bloomsbury Review, March, 1991, p. 5.
- Boston Review, October, 1991, p. 29.
- Kenyon Review, summer, 1992, pp. 174-87.
- Library Journal, June 1, 1996, p. 112; October 15, 1997, p. 65; July, 1998, p. 90.
- Minnesota Review, fall, 1991, pp. 129-35.
- MultiCultural Review, March, 1994, p. 74.
- National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 1996, p. 28; May 23, 1997, p. 5.
- Partisan Review, winter, 1994, pp. 180-86.
- Poets & Writers, March-April, 1995, pp. 51-52, 53, 54-55.
- Progressive, January, 1997, p. 39; January, 1998, p. 4; April, 1999, p. 43.
- Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1990, p. 57; September 28, 1998, p. 83.
- Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1994, p. 16.
Poems By MARTíN ESPADA
Audio & PodcastsPoetry Off the Shelf
The Mutilated World
Poems that captured the mood of the moment in the wake of 9/11.
LIFE SPAN 1957–