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Give Politics a Human Face: An Interview with Lawyer-Poet-Professor Martín Espada

Sarah Browning

DSS Dream

I dreamed
the Department of Social Services
came to the door and said:
"We understand
you have a baby,
a goat, and a pig living here
in a two-room apartment.
This is illegal.
We have to take the baby away,
unless you eat the goat."

"The pig's OK?" I asked.
"The pig's OK," they said.

-- Martín Espada

He's been a tenant lawyer in Chelsea, a bouncer, a factory worker and the desk clerk on the night shift at a transient hotel. But he's always been a poet.

And today, Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada is a rising star on the literary landscape, celebrating the publication by W.W. Norton of his fourth book of poems, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. This fall, he ended six years as a tenant lawyer in Chelsea to teach creative writing at UMass.

But Espada continues his community outreach, spending a day at Holyoke Community College last week lecturing, giving a reading, signing books and encouraging poets and readers -- some young, some Puerto Rican, some on food stamps, as Espada himself once was. He reads again at the Montague Book Mill on December 10 with a jazz ensemble led by Michael Marcus.

He spoke with the Advocate about writing political poetry: "Resistance as an act of celebration."

When did you begin writing and thinking of yourself as a poet?

I started writing poetry around the age of 16. I had left the place I was originally from, Brooklyn, New York, and relocated with my family to a community that was frankly hostile, racist… I began writing as a way of defining myself, as a way of discovering myself… Pretty soon I began to write about more than myself and to understand my writing as being outside of myself. That I was, in effect, an advocate.

In college I found for the first time this thing called the canon, with one "n," and I found this creature called the creative writing workshop… [My] professor considered me to be a literary wild child, I suppose. I was referred to in class as hostile, aggressive.

The canon was presented as basically the only alternative. And suddenly, looking at the work of Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, Crane, I began to question whether what I was doing was poetry at all. Whatever I was writing was not like this in any way. I wasn't presented with any alternative, not so much as Langston Hughes. There wasn't even that sort of obligatory tokenism.

And so I dropped out and I had no intentions of going back to college. Then one day, a good friend of mine gave me a book called Latin American Revolutionary Poetry. [ It contained] a phenomenal array of Latin American poets engaged in the sort of social struggle that I had written about from my perspective as a U.S. Latino. But I never before understood that I was part of a history, part of a tradition. And I was rejuvenated. I began to write again and I never looked back.

What do you think is the political function of poetry?

The very same people who are lamenting the loss of literacy in this society oftentimes turn around and embrace the very sort of poetry which seems guaranteed to render poetry irrelevant… To embrace that which is least likely to bring an audience to poetry. There are many critics, for example, who insist that poetry and politics are incompatible… If you examine the reasoning behind that argument, what you see basically is the position that it's difficult to do well. Well, poetry in general is difficult to do well. Love poetry is particularly difficult to do well, yet I do not hear anyone suggesting that therefore love and poetry are incompatible…

I think that a poem can and should have political content, that it doesn't therefore mean that it will be propagandistic or polemic… When I write a political poem, I do so from the intimate vantage point of individual human beings. When I write these political poems, I'm writing about people I know or people they know. I am writing about family, friends, lovers, community, clients. The notion is to give politics or history a human face.

I noticed that in the press release Norton did for the new book, they talked about "White Birch" as a personal poem, and yet there seem to be a lot of political elements to it.

Yes. I was present at the birth of my son on December 28, 1991. It was a difficult birth, which the poem states pretty clearly. My wife had endured a cycle of violence in her family which had produced one incident of real horror. She was kicked down a flight of stairs and in the process had her coccyx broken.

It healed badly… As far as we can tell, what caused problems [in the delivery] was that indeed the child was caught on the bone that was pointing the wrong way. [The bone] did break again and it healed properly. It set properly. And so, after many years of this constant pain she stood up one day and was amazed to find that it was gone.

So that's a personal poem, of course. But it's also a poem that addresses political questions of domestic violence, of alcoholism, of the mistreatment of women in this society… a very intimate perspective.

What advice do you give to a young writer?

Write… Writers do everything else. They teach, give readings, drink, have affairs, commit suicide. But rarely, relatively speaking, do we write. And, there are many reasons for that… economic pressure.

But there's also personal pressure. It's hard sometimes to sit down and face your typewriter… that what you write may tear you apart emotionally, knowing that what you write is the equivalent of lowering yourself into an ocean of memory.

What are your thoughts on the debate over so-called "political correctness" on campus?

I think it's an interesting coincidence that the phrase "PC" began to fall into common usage around the same time the Berlin Wall came down and it was no longer viable to call anyone a communist.

So, when you could no longer red bait someone, it became necessary to come up with another catch phrase which would smear someone politically without ever addressing the merits of that person's argument… If you call a book PC you never have to open the book, much less open your mind. Suffice it to say I think there's a hysterical overreaction to the new movement for multiculturalism in this country. The major news weeklies with these bizarre headlines, "Multiculturalism, has it gone too far?" Has it gone too far? Multiculturalism isn't even in control of the cafeteria, much less the campus. When we are in power, let me know.

In the recent past there was almost nothing on this nation's campuses for people to study in terms of the true diversity of this society. Now, we're seeing that start to change. It looks like a lot relative to nothing, but it's really only a beginning.

It's about time that the true diversity of this country is acknowledged, instead of us all pretending we actually come from England. As Amiri Baraka is fond of saying, ' "Hey, George Washington actually won the war."


On his first visit to Puerto Rico,
island of family folklore,
the fat boy wandered
from table to table
with his mouth open.
At every table, some great-aunt
would steer him with cool spotted hands
to a glass of Coca-Cola.
One even sang to him, in all the English
she could remember, a Coca-Cola jingle
from the forties. He drank obediently, though
he was bored with his portion, familiar
from soda fountains in Brooklyn

Then, at a roadside stand off the beach, the fat boy
opened his mouth to coco frío, a coconut
chilled, then scalped by machete
so that a straw could inhale the clear milk.
The boy tilted the green shell overhead
and drooled coconut milk down his chin;
suddenly, Puerto Rico was not Coca-Cola
or Brooklyn, and neither was he.

For years afterward, the boy marveled at an island
where the people drank Coca-Cola
and sang jingles from World War II
in a language they did not speak,
while so many coconuts in the trees
sagged heavy with milk, swollen
and unsuckled.

-- Martín Espada

from Valley Advocate   (Nov. 18, 1993). Copyright © 1998 by New Media, Inc. Online Source

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