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Martín Espada Awarded 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

Author Liesl Olson receives the Poetry Foundation Criticism Award.
June 12, 2018

CHICAGO—Last night, the Poetry Foundation presented Martín Espada with the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which honors a living US poet for outstanding lifetime achievement. Martín Espada was awarded the prize in recognition of his contribution to poetry. He is the first Latinx poet to win this award since its inception in 1986.

The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize is presented annually to a living US poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant singular recognition. It is one of the most prestigious awards given to American poets and, with a prize of $100,000, one of the nation’s largest literary prizes. The award is sponsored and administered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. 

“Martín Espada’s work and life tell the real and lived story of America, in which the importance of poems and legal rights go hand in hand,” said Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine. “A tenants’ rights attorney before he became a celebrated and cherished poet, Espada’s passions are as compelling and apt as his precisions—both now more timely than ever.”

Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957. He earned a BA in history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a JD from Northeastern University. As an attorney, he served as supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts, outside Boston. As a poet, an essayist, an editor, and a translator, he has dedicated himself to the pursuit of social justice, fighting for the rights of Latinx communities and reclaiming the historical record from oblivion. His greatest influence is his father, Frank Espada, a community organizer, civil rights activist, and documentary photographer who created the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project.

“To receive a lifetime achievement award in the form of the Ruth Lilly Prize is a great honor that causes me to reflect: on my father, as artist and activist, who died four years ago; on Jack Agüeros, the first poet I ever met; on the days I sat outside the courtroom, scribbling poems on legal pads; on the people in the poems I write, Whitman’s ‘numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known.’”

Espada’s latest collection of poems from Norton is Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016). Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006), Alabanza (2003), A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (2000), Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996), and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990). He has received a Shelley Memorial Award, a Robert Creeley Award, a National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, a PEN/Revson Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. Collections of Espada’s poems have been published in Puerto Rico, Spain, Chile, France, Germany, England, and Turkey. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of a Mexican American studies program outlawed by the state of Arizona and has been issued in a new edition by Northwestern University Press. Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Examples of Espada’s poetry are available on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Also honored at the event was acclaimed author Liesl Olson who was named the 2018 Criticism Award winner for her most recent book, Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (Yale, 2017). 

Olson is director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry Library and author of Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford University Press, 2009). She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the Newberry Library, where she also directed the Scholl Center for American History and Culture. She is currently on a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and is a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library. From 2004–2009, she taught at the University of Chicago as a Harper-Schmidt Fellow in the Humanities Division. She earned a BA from Stanford University and a PhD from Columbia University.

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