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USM faculty member wins $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

Martín Espada

Martín Espada, a faculty member in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing, has won one of nation’s most prestigious and financially rewarding literary prizes.

The honor is the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, recognizing the lifetime achievement of a living poet.

The award is sponsored and administered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, and will be presented to Espada at a ceremony at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago on June 11.

“This award recognizes Martín's lifelong contributions to the world of poetry,” said Justin Tussing, Stonecoast’s director. “For more than 35 years, Martín's poems have offered a voice to the unheard and the overlooked. By extension, this award also highlights Stonecoast's faculty, which is renowned in all genres.”

Earlier this year, Stonecoast alumna and former faculty member Patricia Smith won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award at Claremont Graduate University. It was also accompanied by a $100,000 prize. Smith earned the prize for her eighth book, “Incendiary Art,” a collection of poems combined prose poems, ghazals, sestinas and sonnets around a theme of racial prejudice.

Espada’s work spans nearly four decades and more than a dozen poetry collections. He has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, an American Book Award winner and a National Book Critics Circle nominee.

Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a law degree 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 Latino/a 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 said in a release by the Poetry Foundation.

On July 12 at 7 p.m., Martín Espada and poet Lauren Marie Schmidt will hold a public reading in Portland’s Space Gallery to benefit Stonecoast's Writing for Social Justice Scholarship.

“Stonecoast knows that writers voices are one of the essential forces shaping our world; our Social Justice Scholarship will ensure that economically disadvantaged students have a space to create important work,” Tussing said.