Some Thoughts on Martín Espada's The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive

[As a Filipino American author, one of my ongoing complaints is that it feels like Filipino American literary scholars are behind on the community's literary output. Something I've been experiencing frequently when educators teach Poeta en San Francisco, as a local Filipina educator did for her Filipino American narratives course in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley a couple of years ago — she noted to me there was little to no available criticism on my book, to aid her and her undergrads in reading my book. Now, another thing that Rigoberto González discussed in his CantoMundo talk on literary activism was calling out the community's academics and critics to take on writing about our work, take risks on new or obscured work, rather than falling back on reliable, already abundantly written about books and authors.]

I wanted to say a few things about Martín Espada‘s The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive: Essays and Commentary. I think this is one thing poets are taking on in a big way; in addition to the work of writing poetry, we're reviewing books, and writing about other poets' historical and cultural importance. I don't think this is specific to poets and authors of color, but I do believe books such as this one fills that gap I mention above. (I also believe poetry students are turning to poet blogs for this reason. Indeed, that's where I start writing book reviews and essays for publication. So below, I'll share some of my writing on Espada from my blog.)

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. I want to be clear on the difference between this advocacy, versus being a voice for the voiceless. Our work as poets can empower the silenced to speak. Our work as poets can be transformative such that we all prioritize resisting systems and institutions which engage in silencing others. Some examples of poets negating silence: Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Jack Agüeros, Sonnets from the Puerto Rican. Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Diana García, When Living Was a Labor Camp.

The language of the official story, the master narrative, if you will, is not the truth of the people. The role of the poet is to write the truth of the people, to document, to tell the truth of the people; hence, Espada’s assertion in “Blessed Be the Truth-Tellers: In Praise of Jack Agüeros,” that “if Public Enemy is ‘the CNN of the ghetto,’ then Jack Agüeros is the PBS of the barrio.” In this essay, in addition to discussing the poetry’s necessary political themes, the telling of the people’s truths, Espada engages Agüeros’s use and manipulation of poetic form.

These are some issues I’m constantly thinking about in terms of my own work, as a poet and advocate. Surely, poetic form and political content must be balanced in order to execute a successful poem. Somewhere, for the people, there must be “a way into” the poem.

Are “political poetry” and “literary activism” more palatable to those who find the political in the arts distasteful (which, by the way, is ahistorical), when these things are instead called “advocacy?"

I won’t enumerate upon the extensive history of Puerto Rican poets resisting empire, occupation, and military state brutality which Espada has provided in the book’s titular essay, “The Lover of a Subversive Is Also a Subversive.” What I want to point out is that while in this country today, there's a kind of hysteria about our relevance as poets. “Does Poetry Matter,” “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen,” “Is Poetry Still Relevant,” types of opinion pieces and e-gripes are rampant, and so Espada lays out this history, in rejection of that contemporary and privileged gripe. Poets have indeed throughout history resisted empire, dictatorships, war, and continue to do so. There is a courage and resolve there I can only admire and aspire to, in poets who speak and who disseminate the word which is the truth of the people, when the consequences of speaking are incarceration, torture, and execution.

Espada does not romanticize the existence of the poet dissident, and neither should we; we should recognize this as the power of the word, a potential all of us poets have when we take pen to paper, indeed why we come to poetry in the first place. Perhaps poets who bitch and moan that poetry makes nothing happen, that poetry is no longer relevant, prefer nothing to happen, and prefer irrelevance over recognizing our capabilities and responsibilities. We know which option Espada prefers; he recognizes this tradition of Puerto Rican resistance poetry as the lineage from which he’s emerged, and so the question that comes to my mind, again, is that of advocacy.

Originally Published: April 16th, 2011

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of...