A Bard from East New York: Martín Espada
Called “the Pablo Neruda of North American authors” by Sandra Cisneros, Martín Espada has published eight books of poetry, including Imagine the Angels of Bread, winner of an American Book Award, and Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982-2002, which received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. His newest book, published last year, is The Republic of Poetry. Espada is a professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he teaches creative writing and the work of Pablo Neruda.
Gabriel Thompson (Rail): Where are you from in Brooklyn?
Martín Espada (Espada): I was born in 1957 in the East New York section of Brooklyn, and grew up in the Linden projects on Wortman Avenue, moving later to Stanley Avenue.
Rail: It was a trip to your old apartment on Wortman Avenue that inspired your poem “Return.” What was it like to return to Brooklyn?
Espada:It was really fascinating. For many years I used to go to Brooklyn, customarily to do a reading here or there, and I would ask people to take me back to East New York, and they would always refuse [laughs]. I would do readings in Williamsburg at El Puente, a community center run by a friend of mine, Luis Garden Acosta. And I’d ask him to take me, and he’d say, “Are you kidding, I’m not going to East New York—you’re out of your mind!” So for years I would try to persuade people to take me back to my old neighborhood, which has and always did have a rather fearsome reputation.
Rail: Many parts of Brooklyn seem to be changing dramatically. Can the same be said for East New York?
Espada: Well, it was amazing on one level how little anything had changed. You’re talking about institutional housing—the projects—so they look like a hospital or school. You know, the light was still dim, the corridors were how I remembered them. What I was not ready for were all of the things I was able to recollect. I had some help because I went back with a friend that I grew up with, Mari McQueen, now an editor at Consumer Reports. A documentary film crew was doing a piece about me, and we decided to go back to East New York. And Mari was our guide, since her family still lives there. Mari said something very interesting on that trip: everyone that comes out of East New York has an edge. She said that is because we learned from the very beginning that lack of respect has serious consequences, up to and including death. And I thought, wow, she really nailed it. Because that’s exactly what it was.
Rail: How old were you when you left Brooklyn?
Espada: Thirteen. And the funny thing is that when I left East New York I ended up somewhere much worse: Valley Stream, Long Island. The objective conditions were not worse—it was a working-class community—but it was worse for me. There was a very definite hostility towards Puerto Ricans. Valley Stream was a community composed of people who were a part of white flight. They had left New York to get away from people like me. There were no African Americans in Valley Stream at that time; when the first African American family moved in, crosses were burned, just like in Mississippi. We were the only Puerto Rican family, and I caught absolute hell. It was much more traumatic than anything that ever happened to me on the so-called mean streets of East New York.
Rail: So you were a Puerto Rican in an all-white school?
Espada: Yeah, which meant I ended up in all kinds of brawls. Somebody grabbed my head and slammed me face first into a water fountain—still have a cracked tooth from that. I was punched in the mouth on one occasion, and it did so much damage that thirty years later it turned up on a dental x-ray. I had the word “spic” spray-painted on my locker. Some of this I wrote about in my poem “Beloved Spic.” It wasn’t me that was beloved, of course; it was the word and the racism behind it. Oftentimes we have this collective illusion that we’re all against racism, and it’s just a matter of figuring the best way to communicate about it. Where in truth, there are many people who are madly in love with their racism and will cling to it until the bitter end. So I was dealing with people who enjoyed their racism. It was fun to them.
Rail: In “Beloved Spic,” it seemed like the white students fetishized the word.
Espada: Yes, and there were very exotic forms of torment. Somebody once gave me a cake, and I opened up the box and there was the word “spic” written in icing. There was no way to accommodate with that kind of environment, no way to compromise with it. In a way it forged me because I had to make a choice. I had to stand up for myself and fight back or I would have been completely obliterated. Which probably has a lot to do with who I am today.
Rail: As a poet, you seem to have held a wide variety of jobs.
Espada: Well, I was a poet before I was anything else. My first love was actually drawing, but that was beaten out of me by an art teacher.
Rail: And you’ve been everything from a bouncer to a tenant lawyer.
Espada: Yes, you could say I was a poet-bouncer. I do have a very colorful work history. I’ve done just about everything you can imagine. Once an interviewer asked me, “_Why_ were you a bouncer?” I thought it was a very strange question, because naturally I took that job for the same reason I took most of my jobs: because it was a necessity. And yet I couldn’t let the question pass, so when the interviewer—it was for a very prestigious radio program—asked me that question, I said because I thought it would look good when I came up for tenure. There’s a strange disconnect between what I do now and what I’ve done over the years to make ends meet. Being a bouncer at a bar was probably the most colorful of these occupations, but I was also a janitor at Sears & Roebuck, a gas station attendant, a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. Which was probably the most brutal job I ever held, much more so than being a bouncer.
Espada: Well, you might have some leads, but they were the cheapest possible leads—a list of people who had entered free drawings to win an encyclopedia. They clearly didn’t want to buy an encyclopedia. So they didn’t win the drawing and the next thing they know there’s a salesman knocking on their door trying to sell them one for $100. It was an absolutely impossible task, as it turned out. I was a terrible salesman. But I learned something from knocking on doors and having them slammed in my face, which was how to take rejection. I also worked at the University of Wisconsin primate laboratory, taking care of baby monkeys. I’m the only poet you’ll ever meet that’s been bitten by a monkey. Nobody at the lab knew that one day I would write a poem called “Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer.” Because that’s what the sign said on the freezer door, meaning that it happened at least once. I wish I had been there to see that.
Rail: So during all this time that you’re bouncing around at different jobs, are you also writing poetry?
Espada:Absolutely. In a sense I became a poet spy, because I was invisible. I was seen only for what my hands could do—what my hands could clean up as a dishwasher or janitor.
Rail: Some of your poems are sweeping in scope. Others, like “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits,” focus on very specific activities and people that usually aren’t considered subjects worthy of poetry. Subjects that perhaps most poets don’t have any exposure to.
Espada: Jorge is based on somebody I knew who worked at a church in Harvard Square, Cambridge—that bastion of liberalism—and quit one day because he was treated so badly. But I wrote it in the first person precisely because I had had a very similar experience doing janitorial work at Sears, where I was treated as an extension of my mop, which is why I ended with the imagery that I did. [Maybe the mop will push on without me/sniffing along the floor like a crazy squid with stringy gray tentacles. They will call it Jorge.] I could empathize with that sense of dehumanization because I had experienced it. It’s what you might call a working-class sensibility, writing a working-class poem. And doing it not just in terms of the “facts,” but in terms of the emotional landscape, where you get into the way a character feels. That’s often what gets missed. When we focus on janitors we usually focus on working conditions, or wages, or health insurance—all of which are very important and things around which to organize. But that doesn’t get to the poetry of it. The poetry of being a janitor deals with the emotional landscape of it. That can be said for a lot of the occupations I’ve had. I mean, I’ve never seen another poem about being a bouncer, and I’ve got two of them.
Rail: What is the emotional landscape of being a bouncer?
Espada:Well, there’s one bouncer poem where I describe what it’s like to break my hand on somebody’s head, which I don’t recommend [laughs]. But in the end it’s about observing a tragedy and only being able to help in the most minimal of ways. You watch people drink themselves into oblivion night after night, and then do your best to care for them, to help them gather their things and get them into a taxi. That’s mostly what a good bouncer is doing.
Rail: Let’s shift to poetry and politics. What roles can poets play in society?
Espada: Poets can play so many different roles. We are used to the idea that poetry accomplishes nothing, accustomed to feeling powerless and helpless as poets. And that point of view is encouraged by a certain element in the poetry community that writes meaningless poetry. You write meaningless poetry, of course it’s not going to have any effect on the world, and so the thing to do is to establish your meaningless poetry as a standard, to write poetry that caters only to the obscure and self-indulgent. A poet can do so much more, and if you travel around the world you see the effect that a poet can have on their society. A poet can be a teacher, a historian, a journalist, an organizer, a preacher, a caretaker, or a bard. And a poet can be a political activist, one who participates in the great changes that the world is always going through. We can go back to a poet that used to wander the streets of Brooklyn in the mid-19th century: Walt Whitman.
Rail: With the Republic of Poetry, you write about a number of poets that are activists. Is that tendency muted in the US?
Espada: In this country it is less a matter of the absence of political poetry than the repression of political poetry. In other words, it’s there, we just don’t get a chance to see it and hear it. We have a very proud tradition of political poetry, of political protest. And it goes back to Whitman. If you go to “Song of Myself” you see a constant empathy with the most downtrodden people in society: prisoners, prostitutes and slaves. He is constantly advocating for their rights. He wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass that the duty of the poet is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots. This is our tradition. In the 20th century you see many poets in the tradition of Whitman writing political poetry and protesting against the injustices of the day. You have Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Edgar Lee Masters—all writing about political and social concerns. After the Second World War, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlenghetti represented the tradition so well. Then there’s Marge Piercy, any number of Latino poets like Gary Soto, Leroy Quintana, Luis Cervantes. Jack Agüeros, who lives in New York City, writes sonnets of the street. And his sonnets of street subjects demand dignity for people in the community, people that are despised by others outside of the community.
Rail: So the tradition continues, even if it’s not always gaining huge exposure.
Espada:Right, and that’s because political poetry isn’t in critical favor, and it hasn’t been since McCarthyism. Political poetry was considered a very viable option until the 1930s and 40s. It wasn’t until the Cold War that political poetry was considered an oxymoron in this country. The same way that the Left was repressed in Hollywood, the Left was repressed in the academic and literary worlds. It’s not an accident that we don’t know about our tradition of poetry concerning itself with social justice. It’s there, it’s always been there, but for half a century we’ve had this myth that it does not exist in the US, and there are very specific reasons for that.
Rail: At the same time, your political poetry feels very personal.
Espada: In order to write poems, you have to make yourself very vulnerable. There are many poets today who are afraid to take risks, who are terrified of expressing emotion openly. They are terrified of appearing vulnerable on the page. They are ultimately afraid of being accused of sentimentality. That’s the greatest crime in our contemporary world.
Rail:You have to be a cool customer.
Espada: Exactly. Detached, hip, cynical, and absolutely invulnerable. And we all know that that’s a dishonest pose.
Rail:The focus of your newest book is Chile. What is it about that country that has drawn you to pay so much attention to it?
Espada: The first that drew me to Chile was Pablo Neruda—I think a lot of people could say the same thing. So Neruda is a door through which we pass into another world, and this other world included Chile. I was aware of what had happened three decades ago [the US-sponsored coup of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973], but I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered when I went to Chile in July 2004. I was invited by the government to participate in the centenary celebration of the birth of Neruda. It was inspiring on a number of levels. First of all, I had never seen poets and poetry celebrated in this way. It’s inconceivable to us in this country that a poet could be so honored the way Neruda was honored in Chile in July of 2004.
Rail: How was he honored?
Espada:I saw people singing Neruda, dancing Neruda, doing séances trying to recall the spirits of dead poets, Neruda included. I got into a taxi at one point and there was a radio talk show on, discussing poetry! I’m sitting in the back seat and I couldn’t believe it. I’d walk into a restaurant and there would be an item on the menu proudly proclaiming it to be a recipe based on an ode by Neruda. I mean, what’s going on here? When I left the country there was a woman security guard at the airport who recognized some of my things from the centenary celebration. She said, “Oh, you’re a poet? Do a poem for me.” I said, “Right now? I gave all my books away.” And she says, “Well, you can do something from memory, can’t you?” She wouldn’t let me leave the country until I declaimed a poem.
Rail: That’s an image straight out of the final stanza of your poem “The Republic of Poetry.” I thought you had just made it up.
Espada:Everything in that poem is based on something true that happened in Chile. That poem looks and sounds like something right out of magical realism. Every stanza, those things all happened. At the beginning I make a reference to the president of the republic boarding a train full of poets and shaking every hand. That actually happened. We were on a train, a group of international poets and writers, chartered to go from Santiago to Neruda’s birthplace, Parral, on his birthday. Halfway there the train stops, and we’re told to remain seated. This little man gets on with a suit and sash and starts shaking everybody’s hand. He was the president of the country, Ricardo Lagos, a Socialist. Made sure he shook hands with every single writer on that train. And then we got to Parral and he made a speech under a tent to several thousand people. A very literate speech about Neruda and Whitman, where he went on this discourse about comparing politics and poetry, even comparing those two words. And then I thought about our chief executive and My Pet Goat. That’s when you want to take the tag that says USA on your lapel and turn it over.
Rail:And you’ll be returning to Chile soon to do a series of readings, right?
Espada: Yes, in a few weeks. What’s going on there is the continuing transition from dictatorship to democracy. Neruda was against fascism and dictators in his own land. When the coup hit he was already seriously ill, and died shortly after. And the struggle even extended to his wake because his wife brought his body to their house in Santiago and it had been destroyed by the military. She decided to set up the wake and have it there anyways, so the world could see what had happened. Now, Pinochet has finally been forced out of power, and Chile is seeing a transition towards democracy, and memory, and poetry.