On Standing at Neruda’s Tomb

An interview with Martín Espada about his influences, his trip to Chile, and his new book The Republic of Poetry.
Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published thirteen books in all as a poet, editor and translator. His eighth book of poems is called The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006). A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he teaches creative writing and the work of Pablo Neruda.

Luis Urrea: I recall hearing you read “Mrs. Báez Serves Coffee on the Third Floor” when you and I were both living in Boston in the early 1980s. I never forgot it—not so much the exact lines, but the tone and feeling of the poem. Other Latino writers and poets living there then used to joke that you were “the most famous unknown poet in Boston” because you seemed certain of your destiny. I don’t want to sound as if you sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus, but you appeared with a remarkable maturity of voice and presence, even then. Were you always a poet?

Martín Espada: If I did spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, I’m quite sure I would’ve tripped and broken my ankle. I was never certain of my destiny, but I was certain that I wanted to be a poet. I wrote my first poem when I was 15, as a result of a classroom assignment, and my first book was published in 1982, when I was 24 years old—a relatively early start. Before I arrived in Boston, I spent some time working in radio, broadcasting music, news, and public affairs on WORT-FM in Madison, Wisconsin. My experience in radio influenced how I presented my work at readings. What you heard was my experience.

I wasn’t always a poet. In fact, I was a terrible student, not unlike a certain chief executive I could mention. I flunked English one semester in the eighth grade, and now I’m a professor of English, which only demonstrates how one life can zig and zag.

In Boston you were working as a tenant lawyer. Did your encounters with evildoers in the Chelsea housing world and the trenches of the law shape your poetic vision?

Yes, I was the supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, a project of Suffolk University Law School. [Chelsea is a tough little town right across the Tobin Bridge from Boston. It’s a gateway city, a city of immigrants, and it always has been.] We did eviction defense, obtained court orders to exterminate rats or fix the heat in winter, and trained law students to do the same.

The term “evildoers” sounds ironic or hyperbolic, but in fact there were some evildoers in Chelsea District Court among the landlords, attorneys, and judges I encountered. Ultimately, however, the system was more evil than any one individual. It was a system that valued property over people and rewarded the well-crafted untruth. This was a place for the exercise of raw political and economic power.

Working in the “legal trenches” definitely affected my poetry. I wrote poems about Chelsea and the law—many of them appear in a book called City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. As a lawyer and a poet, I was an advocate, speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard. Therefore, as a poet, my advocacy could go well beyond the law or that particular community.

There were lawyer-poets long before me. Edgar Lee Masters and Charles Reznikoff come to mind as two of my favorites. As a poet and a lawyer, I appreciate Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Reznikoff’s Testimony. There are also contemporary lawyer-poets I admire, like Sam Allen, Ilya Kaminsky, and Lawrence Joseph.

Do you recall a night in Boston when a group of Latino writer/poets hunched over a small table in a bistro? I’m not sure if it was an epochal meeting of great talents or a conglomeration of degenerates. But I do remember it was you, Tino Villanueva, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and me. We have spoken before about that night, and the vibrant atmosphere in Boston (and America in general) in those days. What was happening, and—ahem—what happened? Where did everybody go?

I remember that night of talented degenerates—and those times—very well. There was a Latino cultural renaissance in Boston during the 1980s. A number of writers emerged in the Boston Latino community at that time: you and me, Tino Villanueva, Marjorie Agosín, Rosario Morales, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Alan West Durán. There was a magazine of literature and the arts called Imagine: International Poetry Journal, as you well know, since you and Tino were the editors. There was a vibrant cultural center in the South End, called El Portón, that hosted local readings, and a bigger reading series in Harvard Square that enabled us to bring in visiting writers such as Jimmy Santiago Baca and Sandra Cisneros. There were conferences and festivals dedicated to the work of major Puerto Rican poets like Juan Antonio Corretjer and Clemente Soto Vélez. These events never could have happened without energetic cultural organizers, primarily a young civil rights lawyer by the name of Camilo Pérez-Bustillo.

What happened? Many of us left Boston because we couldn’t find teaching jobs or other work. A few of us stayed and were marginalized. When I first arrived in Boston, an older African-American poet named Sam Allen took me aside and explained that Brahminism still dominated Boston—not the Cabots and the Lowells, but a kind of cultural and literary Brahminism which perpetuated patterns of exclusion and segregation, particularly in the academic world.

He was right. We were in Harvard Square, but we were not of Harvard Square. The Latino cultural boom in Boston did nothing to integrate us into the mainstream that controlled most of the resources. We were told, in effect, to go away, and we did.

There can be no doubt that your father had a profound influence on your vision, or at least on The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, your first book. Can you talk about him?

My father, Frank Espada, was a political activist and leader of the New York Puerto Rican community in the 1960s. He was, and is, a documentary photographer who directed the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, a photo-documentary and oral history of the Puerto Rican migration from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. Thus his influence was personal, cultural, political, and artistic. He not only provided an activist example but also taught me something about the visual image which is, I think, reflected in my work. My first book, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, published in 1982, combines my poems with his photographs. He also did the covers for four subsequent books.

In 1949, when my father was 19 and serving in the U.S. Air Force, he was arrested in Biloxi, Mississippi, for refusing to go to the back of the bus. He spent a week in jail; that was his political awakening. In 1964, he was arrested and jailed again. This time he was protesting against the racially discriminatory hiring practices of the Schaefer Brewing Company. There was a demonstration organized by the Congress of Racial Equality at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion during the New York World’s Fair, and my father was one of many arrested there who simply disappeared into the legal machinery.

Being seven years old in 1964, and with no other explanation forthcoming, I concluded that my father must be dead. I would hold a snapshot of him in my hands and cry. One day, to my amazement, he walked in the door. Once he established that he was not dead, he realized that he had to explain his absence. That was, you might say, my political awakening. I wrote a poem about it 30 years later:
The Sign in My Father’s Hands
For Frank Espada

The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.

In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.

Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that “boycott”
is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.

That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands
for a sign of the miracle.
Since we are looking at father figures now, can you also say a few words about how Clemente Soto Vélez, a major Puerto Rican poet and a leader of the independence movement in Puerto Rico, influenced you?

Clemente Soto Vélez was a dear friend of mine. As a poet, he was a revolutionary surrealist comparable to César Vallejo of Perú. I co-translated a selection of his work called La sangre que sigue cantando, or The Blood That Keeps Singing, published by Curbstone Press.

As a militant independentista—that is, an advocate of independence for the island—he was convicted of seditious conspiracy and served six years in federal prison from 1936 to 1942. Upon his release, he settled in New York, where he mentored generations of poets, artists, and activists in the Puerto Rican community, myself included. I knew him in the last decade of his life; my wife and I named our son for him, and they met once, on Columbus Day 1992, when my son was nine months old and the elder Clemente was 87. When Soto Vélez died the next year, I wrote an elegy for him called “Hands Without Irons Become Dragonflies.”

In July 2004, you were part of a small U.S. delegation invited to participate in the commemoration of the Pablo Neruda Centenary in Chile. Can you share some impressions of your visit?

This experience was a revelation. Consider the context: We poets are told in this country, over and over, that we do not matter. We internalize the rhetoric of irrelevance. In this mercantile culture, poetry is quantified in terms of dollars and found lacking.

I hear the same dirge about poetry everybody else hears.

Then I went to Chile. I never imagined that a nation could celebrate a poet, or poetry in general, with such fervor. Restaurants used Neruda’s odes for recipes. There were séances to commune with the spirits of dead poets. In a taxicab I heard a radio call-in show on poetry. A security guard at the airport wouldn’t let me leave the country—literally—until I declaimed a poem for her. At Neruda’s Isla Negra home, I saw poetry put to a hundred uses by thousands of celebrants singing, dancing, painting, reading, and performing his poems.

I found myself in the middle of two remarkable scenes at Isla Negra, one public and one personal. The families of the desaparecidos—those people who were disappeared, tortured, imprisoned, or murdered under the Pinochet regime—staged a silent demonstration at the tomb of Neruda. To them it made perfect sense to make their appeal for justice at the grave of a poet. To them there was an unbreakable nexus between justice and poetry.

When they found out I was a poet, they broke their silence. For my part, I promised that I would tell their story. And I did.

The personal scene happened just after I finished an interview with the national Chilean television station. It attracted a circle of onlookers, and this poem describes what happened next:
Black Islands
For Darío

At Isla Negra,
between Neruda’s tomb
and the anchor in the garden,
a man with stonecutter’s hands
lifted up his boy of five
so the boy’s eyes could search mine.
The boy’s eyes were black olives.
Son, the father said, this is a poet,
like Pablo Neruda.

The boy’s eyes were black glass.
My son is called Darío,
for the poet of Nicaragua,

the father said.
The boy’s eyes were black stones.
The boy said nothing,
searching my face for poetry,
searching my eyes for his own eyes.
The boy’s eyes were black islands.
This experience was deeply moving for me, and it offered a kind of challenge here: How do I live up to these expectations? On the other hand, I was glad to be far away from the pose of detached, hip cynicism that characterizes so much poetry in the United States. Poetry doesn’t have to be an absurd, meaningless gesture, a finger up the nose at the dinner table. Poetry can be a matter of faith, trust, justice.

So what do you think about the giant standing on the horizon—Neruda.

I teach a whole course on the life and work of Neruda at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Gabriel García Márquez said that Neruda was the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language. He may have been right.

There are many Nerudas, of course: the love poet, the surrealist poet, the political poet, the poet of historical epic, the poet of the sea, the poet of everyday things. The common denominator is the image. Neruda is grounded in the senses, and his imagery never loses the wildness of those early surrealist days, though at the same time he manages a startling clarity. He has a passionate appreciation for the fact of being alive, a great empathy that expresses itself in poems like “The Great Tablecloth”:
Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten:
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we all can eat.

For now I ask no more
Than the justice of eating.

(Thanks to Alastair Reid for the translation.)

Aside from Neruda, who are your other influences? Do you see yourself as a member of any movement or “school”?

I am part of a tradition that goes back to Whitman. I mentioned before the concept of the poet-advocate. It was Whitman, in #24 of Song of Myself, who wrote: “Through me many long-dumb voices.” It was Whitman in Leaves of Grass who constantly spoke for slaves, prisoners, and prostitutes, “the rights of them the others are down upon.” Whitman’s greatest disciple, Neruda, stood at the heights of Macchu Picchu and said, “I come to speak for your dead mouths.” They were poet-advocates, and I follow their example.

When Whitman writes, in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, that the duty of the poet is “to cheer up slaves and horrify despots,” he is laying the foundation for a tradition of political poetry in the generations to come. (We can only imagine what Whitman would make of this administration, but he is the guy who coined the term “filthy Presidentiad.”)

In addition to Neruda, many other major poets working throughout the 20th century in this Whitmanesque vein influenced me, including Hughes, Sandburg, Masters, Ginsberg, Hikmet, Cardenal. Sterling Brown was an important early influence.

Many other contemporary poets have influenced me to one degree or another, including Forché, Rich, Piercy, Komunyakaa, Clifton, Olds, not to mention Latino and Latina poets such as Gary Soto, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Tino Villanueva and Jack Agüeros.

Beyond influence, I have had mentors. There was Clemente Soto Vélez, but also Robert Creeley, Sam Cornish, Andrew Salkey, and Sandy Taylor. In London last year I met the writer and activist Adrian Mitchell, the “Shadow Poet Laureate” of England. I want to be him when I grow up.

And are you comfortable with being seen as a poet of witness?

I am perfectly comfortable with the idea of being identified as a “poet of witness.” This concept of witness, as articulated by Carolyn Forché and others, is closely linked to the Latin American testimonio. All it means is that we see and we speak. As I’ve said elsewhere, how could I know what I know and not tell what I know?

Here’s a simple, complicated question: Latino, Hispanic, or what?

Everybody’s working their little label-making-machines, trying to find one that will help make a handy bundle of us for general consumption. What flavor are you, Martín? Are you and I different flavors? And how do you think auto-determination varies from our culture’s definitions of us? This is important both personally and aesthetically.

If I were ice cream, I’d be mango beef flavor. Something exotic.

As for your simple, complicated question: Personally, I prefer “Latino” over “Hispanic.” “Latino” is a term that emerged organically from the community. The word is Spanish, being shorthand for “Latinoamericano.” As such, it includes all those of Latin American origin or descent living in the U.S. The term has always been associated with the more politically progressive sectors of the community.

On the other hand, “Hispanic” is a term coined by the U.S. Census Bureau and picked up by the mainstream media, which is why its usage predominates. It’s an English word which, paradoxically, emphasizes our Spanish heritage at the expense of our African or indigenous roots. Generally, this is the term associated with the more conservative elements of our community. By the way, “Hispanic” includes the word “panic” in it, which is what many right-wing pundits and politicians are doing in response to all those Latin American immigrants coming across the border.

I also like “Latino” better than “Hispanic” because it’s more musical. Maybe that’s just the poet in me. We shouldn’t underestimate the musicality of words; no one says “Puerto Rican–American,” not only because it’s redundant, but because it’s awkward.

In addition to being Latino, I’m Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, and Boricua. “Puerto Rican” is self-explanatory; my father is from Puerto Rico. I’m “Nuyorican” because I’m a Puerto Rican born in New York. I’m “Boricua”—derived from the original word that the indigenous people of the island used to describe themselves and their home—because this is a term that Puerto Ricans use when they are feeling especially, quintessentially Puerto Rican, a feeling that permeates much of my work.

Auto-definition is critical. If I say that I’m Puerto Rican, Nuyorican or Boricua, that should be enough for anybody. We spend too much time inside our respective communities playing the authenticity game. Identity is a collection of experiences, and all of us should have the right to name our experience. We all deserve the benefit of the doubt.

We should all be wary of labels and boxes that confine rather than define us. At the same time, this language can be useful. I believe in useful language, and I am of the opinion that “Latino” is more useful than “Hispanic.”

Having said that, I should also say that I won’t scream and faint if someone calls me “Hispanic” rather than “Latino.” As long as I’m addressed respectfully, the nomenclature is of secondary importance. I’ve been called “spic” too many times in my life to worry about being called “Hispanic.” If you’ve had your head slammed into a wall by a gym coach spitting racial slurs at you, or received racist hate mail because you’ve written an editorial calling for Puerto Rican independence, then these linguistic distinctions start to blur.

One reason I do believe in an umbrella term for us—be it Latino, Hispanic, or whatever—is that I recognize so much common ground in terms of history, culture, religion, politics, music, art, language, and, yes, poetry. We all confront the borders of racism, and transcend those borders. That is common ground too.

I know, for example, that my sensibility as a poet owes a debt to the Mexican muralists, especially Rivera and Orozco. I know that my politics, which are essential to my poetry, have been shaped and inspired by Mexicans from Emiliano Zapata to César Chávez. My book of essays is called Zapata’s Disciple; I once interviewed Chávez for the radio. I am continually gratified by the support of Chicano poets and the response of Chicano audiences to my work. We should be building bridges and coalitions between these communities, and if an umbrella term like “Latino” helps us do that, then so much the better.
Originally Published: March 5th, 2007

Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of several volumes of poetry, as well as nonfiction works The Devil’s Highway, which was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, and Across the Wire. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

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  1. March 23, 2007
     Sandra Lucke

    Chilean-born poet Alejandro Mujica-Oleo is co-founder of World Poetry Reading Series in Vancouver B.C., Canada. It was a pleasure to be invited among other poets to celebrate Neruda's birthday, last July 2006. I read Neruda's Night on the Island... a moving poem, among his many others. We were invited to Vancouver Public Library as part of their City Poets events. A house plant from Isla Negra was on the table as a symbol of Neruda's spirit in the room. Alejandro also visited the centenary in Chile. Enjoyed your article On Standing At Neruda's Tomb by Luis Alberto Urrea. Sandra Lucke

  2. February 29, 2008
     beto cisneros

    Last night at our Poetry Salon, NORAZ (Northern Arizona), Sandra Lucke came and read some of ther poetry and mentioned your Poetry Foundation. I just wanted to know if you publish and accept poems other poets than from BC? If so, will you let me know, I would like to submit a couple for your consideration.

    Beto Cisneros

  3. February 24, 2016
     M. Olivera

    Mr. Urrea did a admirable interview of the poet and activist Mr. Espada. I thank him for allowing Mr. Espada to express his ideas on his art,life and the world... I now have a better understanding of Mr. Espada's personal & social window on the world, and to some extent, the influences on his poetry and other writings. I close with saying, yes,"we share what we know." Thanks.