Interview by Linda Mahal
Photo by David González
Stonecoast faculty member Martín Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His new book of poems from Norton is called Floaters. Other books of poems include Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006) and Alabanza (2003). He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (2019). He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Espada champions historical memory and utopian possibility as intrinsic to creativity and resistance. Martín’s reflections on poetry and the pandemic, the need for poetry to go everywhere, and what he enjoys about teaching at Stonecoast—as well as how to write a love poem—all figure in our conversation with this celebrated poet, activist, teacher and scholar.
In your 2013 interview with Bill Moyers, you said that you have “faith in history.” Many of your poems, such as “Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass,” collapse time and space to evoke the aliveness of history within the present and as a harbinger of futures once thought impossible. Could you speak about history, faith, and the future in your 2020 poem “The Five Horses of Doctor Ramón Emeterio Betances”? How did this poem arise?
History first: Ramón Emeterio Betances was a 19th century Puerto Rican revolutionary, abolitionist, writer and physician. He was born in Puerto Rico of partly African descent, received his medical degree in Paris, and returned in 1856 to a cholera epidemic that killed approximately 30,000 people, including 10,000 under the yoke of slavery. He played a major role fighting the epidemic and, simultaneously, organized an abolitionist movement. From exile, Betances would go on to direct an insurrection against the Spanish colonizers called the Grito de Lares; though it failed, the abolition of slavery followed a few years afterwards.
The poem speaks to the present by invoking a hidden past, the battle against the twin pandemics of lethal disease and racial oppression, the radicalization of self and society, the vision of justice rising from the ruins. Thus, the poem functions as allegory. I wanted to say something about the profound suffering and equally profound changes happening right now in our society—so, naturally, I wrote a poem about a cholera epidemic in Puerto Rico in 1856. What began as a battle against the epidemic became a battle for the abolition of slavery, which, in turn, became a battle to overthrow an empire. If Betances could see it, why can’t we?
You have said, “One of my projects as a poet is to rescue the dead from oblivion” and “I believe poetry can save us.” Your poem “Floaters,” based on the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos, a migrant father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned while crossing the Río Grande in 2019, is a poignant example of the rescuing power of poetry. Can you talk about what it was like to write this poem and the kinds of reactions to it people have shared with you?
That viral photograph of the drowned migrants not only provoked grief and outrage; it also provoked “trutherism.” A post in the “I’m 10-15” Border Patrol Facebook Group charged that the photograph was faked. The same post referred to the bodies as “floaters,” a term employed by certain members of the Border Patrol to describe those who drown crossing over. Some poems begin life as argument. This poem began as an argument with the “I’m 10-15” Border Patrol Facebook Group. How has it been received? The reactions span the spectrum. A Chicana poet-friend of mine in San Antonio burst into tears when I read her the poem over the phone. On the other hand, a white nationalist website called Counter Currents attacked the poem with a sneer. Not everyone can be a fan. Some fans you don’t want.
Your new book Floaters contains a section of love poems that carve out intimate, sometimes humorous spaces that are nevertheless engaged with social justice concerns, such as “Aubade with Concussion.” Do you remember writing your first love poem?
I do. I was in high school. She liked it. She broke up with me anyway.
Can you share some advice for writing love poems that feel tender and real and avoid the saccharine?
To avoid the pitfalls of love poetry you describe, I recommend having a sense of humor—especially if that sense of humor is self-deprecating. I also recommend writing narratives about your beloved from an unexpected or “unromantic” angle, such as work. Yes, an “aubade” is a French verse form about the parting of lovers at dawn—and did we ever! My wife was commuting to an urban school in Springfield, Massachusetts. She would leave in the dark and came home in the dark. One morning, she slipped on the ice in the driveway, smacked her head, passed out, woke up and, somehow, drove to school, whereupon her colleagues took her to the hospital and I got a call about her concussion. Such was her deep commitment to her mostly Puerto Rican students, one in particular who could not sleep after her boyfriend was shot down in the street. There’s a love poem in there.
What is one of your favorite love poems written by a fellow poet?
The Puerto Rican poet Jack Agüeros wrote some hilarious love poems, like “Parting Since.” He was my second father. He is also the subject of a poem in my new collection, called “Flan.”
What are the most essential things that we, as poets, writers, and lovers of literature, can do to actualize the essence of the visions—such as the one below—expressed in your 2006 poem “The Republic of Poetry”?
In the republic of poetry,
poets rent a helicopter
to bombard the national palace
with poems on bookmarks,
and everyone in the courtyard
rushes to grab a poem
fluttering from the sky,
blinded by weeping.
This is more than a vision. This actually happened. A collective of poets called Casagrande in Chile rented a helicopter and dropped “poetry bookmarks” over La Moneda, the national palace, and the adjacent courtyard. People wept as they snatched the bookmarks from the air or off the ground; what moved them was the great historical irony that the military coup in Chile, on September 11, 1973, began with the bombardment of La Moneda by the Chilean Air Force. What we must do to actualize such visions is to make such visions that tangible and meaningful to people. This goes beyond street theater, though street theater could be part of it. Poetry has to go everywhere, to the places where it is least expected to go. (I’ve done readings in jails, halfway houses, drug and alcohol rehab facilities, an educational center for adolescent mothers, a tortilla factory and a boxing gym.) The so-called non-traditional audiences are the most traditional of all. Poetry has to include everyone, even the people it is least expected to include. The British poet Adrian Mitchell said, “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.”
How have your experiences as a mentor in the Stonecoast MFA program influenced your writing and/or your teaching?
I appreciate the opportunity to teach in a low-residency MFA program, in no small part because it gives me the opportunity to work with older and more experienced students than you would find in a conventional, full-time MFA program. I learn from their experience. The way these poets write about ancestors, family, labor, community and especially mortality in their poems—their courage and eloquence—provides me with lessons in poetry and survival.
What is the one thing you would most like to communicate about writing poetry when you are mentoring poets?
I wouldn’t say there is any one thing, since mentoring of poets is so idiosyncratic. If I could reduce this to one thing, and I said it out loud, I’d put myself out of business.
Any news regarding current or future projects that you’d be willing to share?
My book Floaters was published in January. I spend a good many hours doing virtual readings in the world of Zoom. We bemoan our confinement to the small screen, but the fact is that Zoom has taken me, and will take me, to readings from New Delhi, India, to Cork, Ireland.