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Poetry and the Burden of History: An Interview with Martín Espada

Steven Ratiner

Hunched over the podium, Martin Espada is an imposing presence, a grizzly bear of a man with dark eyes that devour the page. His poems are, by turns, ferocious, tender, ardently political, or touchingly biographical. But in between the poems, when he tells stories about his writing and his life, the audience is caught off-guard by his playful and self-deprecating humor. There is a largeness of feeling in the man, and we are willingly snared in the net of his words.

His first two volumes of poetry — "The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero" (with photographs by his father) and "Trumpets from the Islands of their Eviction" — made him a rising star in contemporary Latino writing. But his new collection, "Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover's Hands" (Curbstone Press; Willimantic, CT), is by far his strongest work to date. The book was awarded the first PEN/Revson Foundation Fellowship and is sure to gain for him a larger audience. The judges' citation praised the intensity of the writing by saying, "The greatness of Espada's art, like all great arts, is that it gives dignity to the insulted and the injured of the earth."

Martin Espada is also a full-time tenant lawyer and supervisor of a legal services program. Much has been made of the surprising duality of his poet/lawyer roles, but Espada sees no contradiction. Rather, his social commitment is an energizing force in his writing, "a poetry of advocacy." In our conversations, we discussed three of the larger themes that seem to run through all his work.

Ratiner: So much of our poetry revolves around the personal experience of the individual. But yours has a broader, more communal focus. I'm impressed by the way history seems to be one of the large concerns in your writing.

Espada: First of all, I think that a poet can be a historian, just as a poet can be a sociologist or journalist or teacher or organizer. I see no contradiction there at all. I'm also very aware of a tradition that I come out of, which is the tradition of Latin American poets writing in historical terms. If you look at Ernesto Cardinal's "Zero Hour," for example, that is a history of Nicaragua under Somoza. If you look at many of the poems of Pablo Neruda, likewise you see him writing with his country's history as a focus.

I begin my book with a series of historical poems concerning the island of Puerto Rico — for two basic reasons. First, the need. My sense of the educational system of this country — having been through it myself and also having taught in that system — is that it has in general no sense of history beyond "souvenir history," the kind of history that is commemorated every Fourth of July. A very superficial understanding of history. And that furthermore, there is no sense of the history of Puerto Rico whatsoever — which is not a coincidence. Any time a country is a colony of another ... you can expect that the history of that people will be conveniently forgotten at best, and suppressed at worst. So that is the context in which I operate. But beyond that ... there's also the fact that I really believe that the best stories come out of history. Either the history of ... great events, great people, or the history of one's own community, one's own family.

It's interesting that in your writing — whether you're talking about large events or small — you focus on history in human terms, putting a human face to history.

That's exactly the phrase that I use .... If I were to talk in general terms about the Ponce massacre, where all those [Puerto Rican] pro-independence marchers were killed in that town in 1937 by the government — it would be a mere footnote which would not be retained by the listener or the reader. I think we are in an age when we have to be conscious as artists that our audience is bombarded - that there is a sensory bombardment going on at all times — and that [they] are going to be desensitized to in formation.... So in the case of the Ponce massacre, what I do in the title poem of the book is to focus on the real human impact of that historical tragedy. What does it mean that there was a Ponce massacre? Well, one of the things that it means is that a woman named Nina lost a lover named Pell'in she was about to marry. And yet because our struggle as a people has not abated but simply shifted — so that now we also have a political battle to wage in the streets of Boston or New York, just as we did in the streets of Ponce — what she has to contend with in the later part of the poem is that her son is now out in the street the way Pell'in was, exposed to the same dangers, and she may lose him also.

You've said that "one of a poet's duties is to challenge the official history." You do this in your poetry when you celebrate new heroes — ones our society may not be aware of. "Clemente's Bullets" is a good example.

Indeed. Clemente Soto V'elez is an individual who is unknown in this country for very deliberate reasons. If you consider what the poem tells you about him: that he was thrown in jail, spent six years in various federal penitentiaries ... for thinking, speaking, and writing about independence for Puerto Rico. This is the sort of circumstance when the First Amendment becomes the last amendment. So Clemente goes to prison, an experience which would destroy most of us, which would tur  most of us into bitter self-destructive human beings. Instead, Clemente ... went on to become the founder of the Puerto Rican literary community in New York. He was an organizer, a journalist, and someone who at the age of 86 is still fighting. An extraordinary person. So, yes, I am trying to redefine heroes and heroism when I write about Clemente.

Yours is a strongly political viewpoint. But what I love in your poetry is the absence of strident rhetoric. Take a poem like "Two Mexicanos Lynched in Santa Cruz, California, May 3, 1877" written about an old photograph. It doesn't even overtly criticize; it only seems to describe, to present the cold fact of experience to the reader.

First of all, it's the basic writer's distinction between showing and telling. If my work is based on the image, the image will show and that should be enough. Certainly when you get to the end of that poem and I am describing the faces of the lynching party, how different they all seem to be from one another — there is an explicit condemnation there of the one feature they have in common:

[the faces]

faded as pennies from 1877, a few stunned

in the blur of execution,

a high-collar boy smirking, some peering

from the shade of bowler hats, but all

crowding into the photograph.

I am aware of the pitfalls of political poetry..., but ... this is not a history which gets told. People are not usually aware that not only blacks but Chicanos were lynched in the American Southwest in appalling numbers, and this was a major way of consolidating power over land. When you talk about how the West was won, you have to talk about that too.

The second presence that pervades much of your work is anger. It runs almost like a bass note through all three of your collections. Of course in our society, anger is a taboo — to even feel one's anger, let alone express it. But the danger, as I see it, in having this feeling prominent in so many poems is that, in the end, they might all blend into one extended scream.

I think you're right that there's a danger in having anger overwhelm a poem or group of poems so that it becomes the only thing a reader takes away. But it becomes a matter of tone — that anger can be a recurrent feeling in the poems as long as you vary the tone. I play many different melodies across that bass note. If you flip through the book you'll see poems like "Two Mexicanos," which is a very bitter piece... but you'll also find poems like "Revolutationary Spanish Lesson" or "The New Bathroom Policy at English High School," where the whole thrust is humor. All those poems share anger, and yet they are so different in terms of their realization because of tone, and that's a deliberate choice, to create that variety.

In some ways yours reminds me of the poetry of Kenneth Patchen, who also used humor and satire as a leavening agent for his angry social commentary and anti-war poems. It provides us with a way of thinking freshly about our own experiences.

And I have to agree, parenthetically, that anger is something we're "not supposed to have," in no small part because if you started to examine why you had such anger you would start to figure out who is responsible for it and that might mean challenging the status quo in a way that would change it. So there are political reasons for the suppression of our anger.

Yet it seems as if you've made a conscious choice to take that anger and transform it into something else — partly for your own salvation, but also for the sake of the art.

Well, there are many who share my experiences, who might think my same words, but who never have the opportunity to express them ... to be able to write the poem, get it published, read it to an audience. I get to do that. And it's part of my responsibility as a poet to do that, for those who do not get the chance to speak. That's poetry of advocacy.

This points to a third aspect that is central to your poetry. There is a sense of transcendence, that something exists which carries us beyond the bitterness of personal trials and the burden of history - and that always seems to involve the family, the redemption possible in the deepest human relationships.

That's because I see, not only history but personal experience, as a dynamic rather than a stasis. There is a dynamic between oppression and resistance, between victimizer and victim. There is not only struggle but triumph. And seeing that dynamic, that tension, that conflict, that's where I try to go for my poems, that place where those elements meet and combust. For me the essence of expressing our dignity, our defiance, our resiliency, our potential for solidarity is in the family.

There's a perfect example of that in your poem "La Tumba de Buenaventura Roig," where you journey back to Puerto Rico with your father and search for your great-grandfather's grave.

First of all, one of the ironies of that poem is that, in the end, we don't find the grave. But we do gather plenty of evidence of my great-grandfather's presence.... On the journey, what you find is not always what you set out to find. Because the poem is not only about Buenaventura Roig but about the Puerto Rico of his time which was a harsh place but also a beautiful place, a place that does not any longer exist. So there was a very powerful, profound sense of belonging to something bigger than myself, as I say in the last stanza: "we are small among mountains,/ and we listen for your voice/ in the peasant chorus of five centuries ..." I felt I was in the presence of those centuries and it was an overwhelming feeling.

Because then, even in our limited perspective, we begin to get some sense of the larger design that we are part of — and that affects us as we are called upon to make our next choice.

That brings me to the poem that I think is the loveliest in the collection: "Colibr'i." It creates a palpable moment where the ties of family and love counterbalance both the individual's pain and the burden of history.

That poem came about as a direct result of an experience I had with my wife on our honeymoon. We were in Jayuya staying in an old converted hacienda, which is essentially a bed-and-breakfast ... a very beautiful spot. We came out of our room and found a hummingbird trapped in the hallway. And the bird was crazy, smacking off the walls, desperate to get out, obviously a wild bird. And my wife, quite instinctively, managed to calm the bird down, get her hands around it, which as you can imagine is almost impossible. And while she was doing that, I pushed open the wooden shutters of the window, and in one motion she pushed out. And the bird disappeared into the dusk.

The whole scene to me was so miraculous, I knew I'd eventually write about it, but it took a while before I found the context for the poem which was simply the ghosts of that place. Fifteen minutes from that spot you could go to a place called la piedre escrita, literally "the written rock," where you can see the carvings left behind by the Ta'ino Indians who had been there when the Spanish arrived and were quickly disposed of by them. The Spanish, in conquering the Taino, did it by slaughtering them with swords and cannon but also did it by taking away their culture, their language, changing the names of everything. One of the themes that also runs through this book is the power of naming — who gets to name your experience. Do you do it or does someone else do it for you and impose it on you? So what the poem deals with is that legacy of conquest. And the poem ends with a tribute to my wife, really, but a tribute to all people who are kind, and wishing that the world were that way.

But is it just wishing? Aren't you pointing to something in the world that is capable of redeeming the personal and historical trauma — not only quieting the bird but setting it free?

The reason I have hope — and this is one of the hopeful poems in the collection — is that people like that still exist. That, in spite of everything, we are as human beings still capable of being gentle, still capable of kindness, of generosity. Given the cruelty of history, there is virtually no reason in the world any of us should have those qualities. Yet they persist.

Copyright © 2000 The Christian Science Publishing Society. Reprinted with permission of Martěn Espada.

Martěn Espada