Against Oblivion

Martín Espada on his life in poetry.
Black and white photo of the poet Martín Espada.

I was a tenant organizer in Brooklyn in the early 2000s when I first read “Imagine the Angels of Bread,” Martín Espada’s stirring poem of radical optimism. Much of my time was spent in housing court, a perch from which I watched entire neighborhoods swept away in the name of progress. The poem’s first lines hooked me: “This is the year that squatters evict / landlords, / gazing like admirals from the rail / of the roofdeck.” I started to take Espada’s book, also titled Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), into housing court—where there was a lot of waiting around—and to share his poems with tenants. I learned that he had been a tenant lawyer and had grown up in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, not far from where I worked. At some point, I emailed Espada to ask if we could print “Imagine the Angels of Bread” in our newsletter, which he graciously allowed. The following week, tenant leaders read the poem—in Spanish and in English—at our community meeting, which sparked a lengthy discussion. All of this is to say his poems are beautiful, but they are not just to be admired. 

Espada has written more than a dozen poetry collections and several books of essays; his most recent collection of poems is Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016). He is the recipient of numerous prizes, including 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. We spoke by phone from Espada’s home in Leverett, Massachusetts, just outside Amherst, where he is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The following interview was edited and condensed.

In the preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes, “The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.” Those are words you’ve taken to heart. Part of your project seems to be to recall the forgotten histories and possibilities that surround us. 

That is a pattern—you might call it an obsession—present in my work. I’ve been influenced by people who not only envisioned a different history but also made that history. It starts with my father, Frank Espada, a photographer and community organizer in the East New York section of Brooklyn. He imagined a different world and set about to create it. That began when he was arrested for refusing to go to the back of the bus. 

Your poem “Sleeping on the Bus” is about that.

That’s right. In 1949, my father was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He boarded a Trailways Bus to spend Christmas furlough with his family in New York City. In Biloxi, Mississippi, a new driver boarded the bus and told my father to sit at the back. My father uttered an obscenity, pushed his cap over his eyes, and went back to sleep. The driver returned with two state troopers, who escorted him to jail. The following day, the judge asked, “Boy, how many days you got on that furlough?” My father told him, “Seven.” And the judge said, “I hereby sentence you to seven days in the county jail.” My father said it was the best week of his life because he figured out what to do with the rest of it. 

At the same time, it can be hard to remember forgotten moments of heroism. In “Sleeping on the Bus,” you write, “How he told me / And still I forget.” It’s so easy to forget, to be overwhelmed, to feel hopeless. 

Yes, and sometimes the forgetting is accidental, and sometimes it’s deliberate. There is the quotidian form of forgetting, where we forget simply because we are bombarded with the realities of being alive. We are overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed right now. 

There’s also the deliberate form of forgetting, the willful obscuring of history. There’s a great poem by Sterling Brown called “Remembering Nat Turner.” It's really about forgetting Nat Turner. Brown goes to Virginia and discovers that the local African American tenant farmers have taken a marker that indicated the place where the uprising occurred and split it up for kindling. It’s absolutely devastating. There’s also an elderly white woman in the poem, a racist who misremembers and buries the real history of Nat Turner. Brown drives away knowing that there is no shrine or monument or marker. So the poem becomes the monument. If Sterling Brown did not remember Nat Turner, at that moment in history, no one else would. One of my projects as a poet is to rescue the dead from oblivion.

Your most recent book, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, rescues a particular strike from oblivion, in Paterson, New Jersey.

Oftentimes I write poems on deadline or for occasions. Or I may write a poem when someone says, “Write a poem about Paterson.” 

In Paterson, back in 1913, the strikers lost, so we forgot about that strike. But it was a major part of the struggle for the eight-hour day that we now take for granted. It was Whitman who wrote, “Vivas to those who have failed.” Whitman wants to redefine failure. He wants to redefine history. This is when poetry becomes an antidote to despair.

Poetry isn’t just about history, of course. It’s also about whatever we need to address right now. My most recent poem is “A Letter to My Father,” about the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the aftermath of the hurricane, followed by more devastation in the form of government neglect, fueled by a racist, colonial mentality. 

Have you been to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria?

No. What I wrote arose from a sense of utter frustration and heartbreak. I began seeing images of the hurricane, and I noticed that image after image came from the town of Utuado. Jon Lee Anderson wrote in the New Yorker that “the municipality of Utuado…has become a byword for the island’s devastation.” This was chilling because my father was born in Utuado in 1930. My grandmother was born there. My great-grandfather was the mayor. This was the cradle of my family. I saw it washed away and then abandoned, utterly. 

Donald Trump is a New Yorker born in 1946, raised with the stereotypes of Puerto Ricans endemic in the generation that followed World War II. The primary stereotype was the myth of Puerto Ricans on welfare. I grew up with the same stereotypes, at the same time, in the same city. The difference is that he internalized the stereotypes, and I saw them refuted everywhere, including in my own activist household. When he tweeted that Puerto Ricans want everything done for them, this is what he meant. Now, however, this stereotype has lethal consequences.

That is all motivation for the poem. Trump makes his appearance in the poem, tossing paper towels into a crowd of hurricane survivors. A poem has to start with something in your hands, something you can taste or see, touch or smell. That poem begins with me talking to my father’s ashes. The response is political, of course, but the response is also deeply personal. It doesn’t get much more intimate than talking to your father’s ashes. That’s a roundabout way of saying that this is where poems come from.

Many places.

I've compared it to a bird feathering a nest. A bird will get twigs from here, cellophane from a cigarette there. Poetry is the same way. There are always poems wandering around in my head, bumping into my skull. Sometimes I have time for them, and I say, “Sit down, poem.” Other times, I just have to let them go. There is a constant clamor. 

Last night, I was talking with my partner, the poet Lauren Marie Schmidt. She teaches high school in Springfield, Massachusetts, a hardscrabble city about 50 minutes away. She’s constantly dealing with students in crisis. One particular student has been through hell this year. She had an abortion, was thrown out of the house, ended up homeless for a time. Then her ex-boyfriend tried to reach her at 2 a.m., and she refused to pick up. He was murdered an hour later. She told Lauren that she couldn’t sleep for days because of the terrible guilt. 

Lauren handed her a journal. On the cover of the journal was the word Dream. Lauren said, “Open this book. Write in it. You don’t have to show me. You don’t have to show anyone. Write about this and see how you feel.” The student sat down and wrote all day. She stayed at Lauren’s desk; she didn’t go to any classes. And then Lauren looked over and the student was passed out, face down, in the pages of the journal: Asleep at last. That’s a poem. 

Wow, that is a poem. Let me jump back a bit. You were raised in East New York and at 13 moved to an all-white suburb on Long Island. How did those two places shape you? 

East New York is where my political awareness began. At the 1964 World’s Fair, in New York City, my father took part in a protest against Schaefer Beer, one of the corporate sponsors who refused to engage in fair hiring practices. My father and his friends, affiliated with Brooklyn CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], figured out how to get inside the Schaefer pavilion and decided this would be an excellent opportunity to raise hell. They were arrested, of course. My father disappeared, and my mother had no idea of his whereabouts. I knew even less, being seven years old, and drew the conclusion that my father must be dead. I sat there with his picture. I cried every morning before I went to school. I cried every afternoon when I came back. I was engaged in this ritual one day when he walked through the door. I said, “I thought you were dead.” He laughed. He must have realized, then, that he had to explain himself in terms that a seven-year-old might understand. He tried to do that. I understood whatever I could and came to understand more with time. What I understood, above all, was that this was something I needed to understand. I wanted more. I sometimes accompanied my father to meetings and drew on the backs of leaflets announcing some demonstration somewhere. Ultimately, we ended up leaving East New York and moving to Valley Stream, Long Island. Valley Stream was not interested in receiving Puerto Ricans with open arms, nor African Americans. When the first African Americans moved there later, crosses were burned. I heard the word spic more than my own name. I recall some of this in a poem called “Beloved Spic.” The word was spray-painted on my locker, even written in the icing on a cake. I had my head shoved into a water fountain as I bent over it, which resulted in a cracked tooth. I was dealing with people who fled Brooklyn to get away from the likes of me. I didn't know that. Neither did my parents. Surprise! 

At what point did you start writing poetry?

It was in tenth grade. I was sitting at the back of the room, trying not to be noticed, with all the other young thugs. My teacher, Mr. Velleca, said, “Young thugs, I have an assignment for you.” He held up a copy of the New Yorker and announced, “I want you to make your own edition of this magazine.”

Thus, the New Yorker went hand-to-hand down the hierarchy of thuggery. I was last, and the only thing unclaimed was a poem, so I sat by the window and wrote a poem. It was raining that day, so I wrote a poem about rain. I remember one line: “Tiny silver hammers pounding the earth.” I was 15 years old and had just invented my first metaphor. I didn’t know what a metaphor was. Somebody told me, and I went swaggering down the hallway.

A thug with a metaphor. (laughs)

I swaggered down that hallway: I made a metaphor, I'm bad. That discovery stayed with me: I loved words. 

You’ve also worked a lot of jobs while writing poetry. 

In high school, I worked at a printing plant in Silver Springs, Maryland. We made legal pads by hand. I would slice my hands with paper cuts, and then the glue would get into the cuts and sting like hell. Ten years later, I ended up in law school, surrounded by legal pads—and by people who had no idea how the legal pads had been made. I wrote a poem called “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper.” Work has been a theme for me. 

Your experience as a tenant lawyer certainly shows up in your poetry. Did you at one point think you were going to be a lawyer your whole life?

I had some choices to make when I graduated from the University of Wisconsin. I thought of law school as a way of honoring a commitment to my community. I was also writing poetry at a rapid clip. My intention was to be a poet-lawyer. I always identified it that way: poet dash lawyer. The poet came first. 

I ended up serving as a supervisor at Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts. It’s a gateway city, a city of immigrants. Many were refugees from war. Some were undocumented. We didn’t ask about status. I represented them in housing cases and trained law students to do the same: eviction defense, no heat, rats and roaches, crazy landlords, on and on. I did that for six years. 

I was “discovered” by the local media. They focused on this strange creature, the poet-lawyer, like something out of Greek mythology. “Poet-lawyer” was considered a contradiction in terms. I tried to explain that in both roles I was an advocate. 

I also taught while practicing law—at a middle school, at a jail, at adjunct jobs. In 1993, because of funding cuts, my position was consolidated with that of another lawyer, Nelson Azócar, who was from Chile. He had come here, following the Pinochet coup, after he had talked his way out of being shot by a firing squad. Anybody who that can do that has the gift of gab; he should be a lawyer. By happenstance, at that time I noticed a listing for a position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and they hired me. I still think like a lawyer. That training never leaves you. 

When students come in to poetry classes, are there common misconceptions, from your perspective, of what poetry is? 

If their previous instructor was enamored of poets who sling word salad as a form of self-expression, then the students will write that way. My response to poems that are not intended to communicate is to make it clear that I don’t understand them. I might say, “I don’t get it; tell me again.” At other times, students come into the classroom with a story yet don't understand the essential elements of narrative. 

What I stress is that the poems should be grounded in the senses, in the image. It doesn't have to be a linear narrative; it could be surreal or dreamlike, as long as the images are startling and arresting. I don't need to necessarily grasp everything. I encourage students to take chances, emotionally or aesthetically. We’re a community, all trying to accomplish the same thing. We’re rooting for each other. It’s important to convince people that their lives are the stuff of poetry. It’s not something that happens to somebody else. It’s something that happens to you, your family and friends and community. It’s all worthy of poetry. Once people figure that out, it’s like finding the right combination on the lock. 

You’ve had a long and winding career, and I mean that in the best sense. What does receiving this prize mean to you?

When I got the call, I basically felt numb. I realized this was a life-changing event. It’s recognition for all those years spent scribbling in a corner somewhere on a train, in a bus station, sitting on the steps of the courthouse waiting for my cases to be called. It’s not a first-book award or an award based on promise or even an award given at mid-career. It’s a lifetime achievement award, so that makes me, of course, thankful and grateful—and also contemplative. 

It makes me think of all the poets who have come and gone without ever catching a break. A whole generation of poets was lost to us because of McCarthyism and the Cold War, poets who were blacklisted. I think about them. I think about the African American poets or Mexican American poets or Puerto Rican poets who never got their shot. I’m standing on their shoulders. It’s a moment of reflection. I am a poet of advocacy, a poet who speaks for those who haven't had an opportunity to speak for themselves. In my voice, there are many voices. In my history, there are many histories. That’s who this award recognizes. 

Originally Published: May 1st, 2018

Gabriel Thompson has written for the New York Times, Mother Jones, Harper's, New York, and the Nation. He is the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media Award, and a Sidney Award. His most recent book is Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Farmworkers in California Agriculture.