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A Different History for Us All

On Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize recipient Martín Espada.

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 Martín Espada, winner of the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, has long taken to heart. Channeling Whitman, Espada has said that “It’s the poet’s job to give eyes, ears, and noses, to humanize those on the outskirts.” For him — and this is what makes him not just a devoted follower of Whitman, but a poet who expands the 
ever-widening circles of Whitman’s thinking — this is done by telling a story, especially (as Whitman himself famously did for wounded soldiers) the stories of those unable to express them themselves. Both poets recall, preserve, and embody forgotten histories; they indefatigably express the worlds of possibilities that surround us at every moment, and at every turn. Of such moments, all history is made, and written. Crucially, Espada says that “It’s important to convince people that their lives are the stuff of poetry.” And so they are, for as he observes about his own life: “In my voice, there are many voices. In my history, there are many histories.”

When I say history, I don’t mean something past, passive, or inert, but instead something alive within us, and taking place all around us: something that creates obligations and responsibilities. And it is something that carries us forward with electrifying urgency. Espada says:

I think the deeper the crisis we find ourselves in, the more we need stories. The crazier the times we live in, the more we need the clarity and vision of stories. The more foolishness and stupidity we hear coming from places of power, the more we need the 
wisdom of stories.

Espada has been influenced by people who not only envisioned a different history for us all — but also made that history. It started with his father, Frank Espada, a photographer and community organizer in the East New York section of Brooklyn. “He imagined,” Espada explains, “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.”

You’ll have the idea that Espada is    ...    something of an activist. He is. But don’t be fooled by preconceptions you may have about this. For what is activism but flesh and blood: putting not only syllables and words on the line, but your body and breath as well? And what is activism, in this sense, but a kind of love? When I told Espada that we would need some new poems for Poetry to commemorate the occasion of his being awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, he astonished me by asking, with the gravitas of a field journalist, for his deadline. Sure enough, he and I were at a poetry conference together a short time later. Over dinner, he pulled out an envelope. In the envelope was one of the poems in this portfolio. It is simultaneously a love poem for his partner, the poet Lauren Marie Schmidt, who teaches high school in “hardscrabble” Springfield, Massachusetts, where she is dedicated to working with students who are often in crisis; and also a stunning indictment of the present moment in which we must love and live, which tragically includes, just as Whitman’s Civil War-era writing did, a carnival of corpses — the bodies of those who sleep forever, as we all must, but who have been sent to their sleep too violently, too pointlessly, too soon. We are fortunate to have what Literary Hub calls Espada’s beautiful odes “to America and all of her failures — and triumphs.”

Originally Published: November 1st, 2018

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

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