Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16!
Now, let’s say hello to Martín Espada.
When did you first discover poetry?
I wrote my first poem at the age of fifteen. I was a terrible student. I once failed English, in the eighth grade. I was sitting in the back of my tenth grade English classroom, with all the other young thugs, when our teacher, Mr. Vellecca, approached us. He said, “Young thugs, I have an assignment for you.” He held up a copy of The New Yorker magazine. He said, “I want you to make your own version of this magazine.” He left the magazine with us, and we passed it, hand-to-hand, down the hierarchy of thuggery. The biggest, toughest guy saw the movie reviews in at the front of the magazine and proclaimed, “Movies! I like movies!” He became our film critic. So it went, till it came to me, at the bottom of the food chain. The only thing left, at the back of the magazine, was a poem. I was very upset. I grumbled, “Oh man! A poem!” However, I didn’t want to fail English again, so I sat by the window and wrote a poem. It was raining that day, so I wrote a poem about rain. I don’t have the poem today, and I don’t remember anything about it except for one line—“tiny silver hammers pounding the earth”—to describe rain. I had just invented my first metaphor. (I didn’t know what a metaphor was.) I discovered something else that day: I discovered that I loved words. I loved banging words into each other and watching them spin around the room. I loved watching them leap out the window into the rain.
What is the role of poetry in the twenty first century?
We live in an age of hyper-euphemism, where language increasingly divorces itself from meaning, where “collateral damage” refers to civilians killed by bombardment and “enhanced interrogation” sanitizes torture. These phrases bleed language of their meaning; they drain the blood from words. Poets have the opportunity—the responsibility—to reconcile language with meaning and put the blood back in the words. Our language is powerful precisely because it is not the language of power. This society as a whole craves meaning. I have been called upon, many times, to speak at memorials, as if I were a preacher, to say the unsayable, to articulate what cannot be articulated in the face of grief or anger, to go beyond those infuriating words: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
I once did a reading at a boxing gym in Willimantic, Connecticut, for a team of young amateur boxers, mostly Puerto Rican. The coach, Juan Pérez, loved poetry, and arranged for me to read there. When I arrived, everybody stopped training and sat down on metal folding chairs. I read between two punching bags. I had written two poems about boxing, so I started there. As I read, many of the young men wrapped their hands in gauze, as a kind of meditative activity, the way others might knit at a reading. Afterwards, they posed for photographs with me, fists upraised. At the end of the year, the boxing team sent me a Christmas card. The card said: Peace on Earth.
What is the funniest/strangest response you’ve ever gotten to telling someone you are a poet?
I was returning from the Festival of Literature and Free Speech in Stavanger, Norway, back in September 2007. I had to make a connecting flight from Amsterdam to Boston. Every passenger on this flight was screened outside the gate. My screener might have been the last Nazi left in Holland. During his overzealous interrogation, he asked me what I was doing at this festival in Stavanger. “I’m a poet,” I said. He rolled his eyes to the back of his head like a shark taking a bite out of a swimmer and roared, “A poet? Like Edgar Allen Poe????” The thought crossed my mind that I didn’t want to end up like Poe, dead of mysterious causes at age forty, and I almost blurted that out. Despite my uncharacteristically polite “yes” in response to his inquiry, he tried to keep me off the flight, but was overruled by his supervisor.
When was the moment that you thought, “I can do this,” about poetry?
It was August 3, 1986, four days before my twenty-ninth birthday. I took part in an improvised reading with Clemente Soto Vélez, a poet and former political prisoner with long white hair, who spent six years incarcerated for his advocacy of independence for Puerto Rico. Clemente read from his book Caballo de palo (The Wooden Horse). He then inscribed the book to me, in his crooked hand, as a “revolutionary poet.” He meant this not in the sense of picking up the gun, but in the sense of passing the torch. This small ceremony grounded my identity as a poet in a history and a tradition. He would go on to be my first poetic mentor; I would go on to translate his work (with Camilo Pérez-Bustillo) for a book entitled The Blood That Keeps Singing. When Clemente died, I wrote an elegy for him. My son bears his name.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
My father died in February 2014. I knew I had to write something for his memorial service at El Puente, a community center in Brooklyn. I wrote a poem about his life and death, “El Moriviví,” and shared it with that audience, including people who had known my father for seventy years. That wasn’t the scary part. A week later, I flew to San Francisco and shared the poem with my eighty-three year old mother across her dining room table. Just as I opened my mouth, she said, “Don’t perform the way you usually do. Just read it to me.” I caught my breath, then read the poem. When I finished, she nodded and said, “You got him. You really got him.” Tough crowd.
Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published almost twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His new collection of poems from Norton is called 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), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993) and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990). His many honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, an American Book Award, the 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. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona, and will be issued in a new edition by Northwestern University Press. A former tenant lawyer in Greater Boston’s Latino community, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Stay updated on the 2016 Dodge Poetry Festival as information becomes available!