Afflict the Comfortable
Before he started teaching literature at the University of Massachusetts in 1993, Martín Espada worked as a tenant lawyer in a poor community outside of Boston.
As he writes in his new essay collection, The Lover of a Subversive Is Also a Subversive, when he wasn’t working on “eviction defense, conditions cases, injunctions to fix the heat or exterminate rats,” Espada would often pass the time with pen in hand: “While waiting for my cases to be called, I would sit on a staircase in the courthouse, scratching poems on a yellow legal pad.”
In a sense, this anecdote encapsulates Espada’s poetry career. Over the course of almost 20 collections of poetry, essays and translations, Espada—a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2006 collection The Republic of Poetry—has proved to be the voice of the underdog, a resourceful writer motivated by both personal and political concerns.
“In many of my poems that go beyond the law, I see myself as an advocate, speaking on behalf of those who don’t have an opportunity to be heard,” he says, from his home in Amherst. “Whereas this is a somewhat controversial position to take in the poetry world, in the world I come from as an attorney it was a very natural thing to do.”
For example, “Imagine the Angels of Bread,” from his 1996 book of the same title, is characteristic of Espada’s poetic ethos. In it, he conjures a working-class uprising in which “squatters evict landlords” and
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners
Subversive, which collects Espada’s provocative essays on everything from Pablo Neruda (whose poems he teaches at UMass) to Vietnam War poetry, evinces concerns that echo those found over the years in his verse.
“There’s an old journalistic axiom that applies: the duty of the journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” says Espada, 53, relating the idea to his work. “I still believe as a matter of purpose that that’s what I should try to do.
This notion is represented in the new book’s title piece, which is subtitled “Colonialism and the Poetry of Rebellion in Puerto Rico.” The essay tells of his “mentor (and) friend” Clemente Soto Vélez, the late Puerto Rican poet, who wrote about the island’s relationship with America: “The poets of Puerto Rico have often articulated the vision of independence, creating an alternative to the official history of the kind propagated by occupiers everywhere. They have been imprisoned for their words and ideas, despite the rhetoric of free expression favored by the United States.”
I asked Espada if the piece might be more broadly read as a roadmap for artists of all sorts looking for their political voice. He said, “I would hope that the essay you’re referring to has ramifications beyond the matter of independence for the island of Puerto Rico. [. . .] There are common denominators and common ground between us that I’m always looking for. As you can see from the scope of the essays, and for that matter the scope of the poetry, I left the block a while ago. I draw very broad analogies, and I try to cast as wide a net as I possibly can.”
In another essay that blends the personal and the political, “Blessed Be the Truth-tellers: In Praise of Jack Agũeros,” Espada celebrates the work of a man who, like Espada himself, was born in New York City to a father who migrated from Puerto Rico. He writes with admiration of Agũeros’s devotion to sonnets and psalms. And, alluding to the greatest political hip-hop group of them all, he declares, “If Public Enemy is ‘the CNN of the ghetto,’ then Jack Agũeros is the PBS of the barrio.” But he argues that Agũeros’s relative obscurity is linked to his heritage.
He expands on the idea in our interview: “I think [the marginalization of Agũeros] has everything to do with his not only being a Puerto Rican poet but a Puerto Rican poet who writes political poems. In a way that is a violation of literary etiquette, twice over. It’s a combination that’s almost lethal, in terms of that level of neglect.”
And in “The Unacknowledged Legislator: A Rebuttal,” Espada reflects on the marginalization of poetry. Poets, he writes, “grouse about being ignored, about paltry attendance at readings and royalty statements that would cause most novelists to jump off a bridge. Yet poets also contribute to their marginalization by producing hermetic verse and living insular lives, confined to the academy or to circles of other poets.”
As a literature professor working within a state university system, Espada might also be described as a writer “confined to the academy.” Asked if he worries about staying as connected to his core concerns as he was during his days as a tenant lawyer, Espada says, “It can be a struggle. On the other hand, I think it depends to a great extent on the content of your own work. If I was writing poems about European vacations, or if I was writing poems that made no sense to anybody at all, then I would be isolated from my community. I’d be isolated from every community except the community of poets. Yet because of the nature of what I write, I don’t have any problem connecting to the community reflected in those writings.”
This is a recurrent theme in Espada’s writings and public comments. Subversive contains an interview he granted on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which Espada discusses “the MFA universe” and “the movement toward obscurity, toward a trivialization of poetry, where the goal is to adopt a pose of detached, hip cynicism and not to engage with the world.”
In our conversation, Espada says, “There are many reasons why poetry is marginalized in this country. Perhaps the largest reason is the overall decline of literacy. As literacy continues to decline, the readership for poetry will also decline. We can’t forget the big picture.
“Having said that, if you make no attempt to communicate, you can’t be surprised when people don’t care what you have to say. That appears obvious to me. I’m thinking now of my father, a very intelligent man who, it so happens, lacks a college education and has very little patience for any aesthetic obscurity. My father is also a photographer, so he’s an artist as well. Anyway, I remember taking him once to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and letting him wander around through the exhibits. He came upon a little blue cone in the middle of a room, and he looked at this cone. He stared at it very hard, and then he announced in a voice loud enough to be heard across the street, ‘I just wasted 10 seconds of my life looking at that.’ I have a feeling there are a lot of people who feel that way about the poetry of obscurity, that there is a sense of—even if we don’t say it out loud—a great sense of frustration with it.”
Though he doesn’t call out offending poets by name, Espada makes clear—by way of an amusing tale—what sort of writing he’s talking about.
“It’s easy to confuse a reader. That’s not hard,” he says. “I had a friend named Tony who had a huge, terrifying German shepherd by the name of Toro. This dog was 150 pounds, and the dog used to guard a used car lot in Queens, which tells what his qualifications were. Tony would take Toro into a field and then pretend to throw a ball. And Toro would run a hundred yards before he figured out there was no ball in the air. And then Tony would do a dance and he would sing: ‘I’m smarter than Toro.’ Well, that’s how I feel about some of this poetry. It’s easy to fool me if you’re not trying to communicate with me. Anybody can string together a bunch of nouns without a verb, or a bunch of verbs without a noun, and say, ‘Well, that’s art.’ Or my favorite justification these days for this sort of aesthetic: ‘It’s a reflection of the chaos in the world around us.’ To me it’s supremely lazy.”
Espada, though, is glad to see the boom in poetry publication that has been enabled, at least in part, by technology
“One of the things that I think has been a very positive influence in terms of the Internet is that it makes poetry more and more an international forum. I have been translated into a number of languages, but that’s really exploded since the advent of the Internet. Now I regularly correspond with somebody who’s translating me into Russian. And somebody else is translating me into Hindi. And somebody else is translating me into Turkish. That couldn’t happen without the Internet, and so it makes poetry a world art even more than it was before. I think that’s all to the good. Of course I’m old school: I still don’t think of a publication as a publication unless I can hold it in my hands. But I think I’m going to have to get over that.
“I published recently in an online journal in Cork, Ireland. One of the essays [in Subversive] actually appeared there, and the explanation for this was very cogent, which was ‘we used to do this in hard copy, and it makes sense now to do it online.’ They gave me the numbers: we reach thousands more people doing it this way. At a time when not only the economy of the United States but also the world economy is hurting, there has to be a way to reduce the overhead so you can get your message out. How many literary magazines have we seen that, with great pomp and circumstance, publish one issue and then are never heard from again? It doesn’t help that the literary magazine usually has a name like Ellipsis or Ampersand. But the fact is that so much money goes into printing something, and printing it well.”
Though they may be reaching a broader audience than ever before, Espada concedes that his political poems have not often succeeded in toppling despots or righting economic wrongs. But, he says, the socially engaged poet must keep up the fight, regardless of the outcome.
“Some of the greatest poems about love written in the Spanish language have been written by Pablo Neruda, most famously his ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,’ which was published in 1924, when he was all of 20 years old,” he says. “He wrote those poems to two different women, and ultimately both of those relationships failed. We don’t measure those poems based on the success of his relationships. We don’t measure those poems on whether or not they had the desired effect on the women in question. That would be ludicrous. Instead, people read those poems for what they are. We should simply treat political poems the same way.”