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Martín Espada, National Book Award Winner for Poetry, Interviewed by Kristen D. Scott
KNOT: The majority of Anglo-American poets seem to shy away from political poems. Some academics think those poems aren't aesthetically serious. Yet, the great Latin American writers create beautiful, vivid poems from tragedy. Somehow in their work, the life force always shines through. So, I would like to know how a poem comes to you. Is it an image, an idea, an event. And if you have an opinion, I would like to know why you think academic, Anglo-American poets often shy away from political poems?
Martín Espada: For me, a poem, political or otherwise, often begins with a story that needs telling. I ground the narrative in the image, the senses on paper; that’s how I tell a story or construct an argument. Sometimes a poem begins with a visceral experience, a situation where I want to bear witness or act as advocate, followed by research to flesh out the experience and, thus, the poem. You might think of it as a two-tiered creative process.
While contemporary Anglo-Americans often shy away from political poems, this was not always the case. There is a strong tradition of political poetry in North America, starting with Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass. Think of the poets who wrote in the Whitman tradition: Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Allen Ginsberg. Today that tradition continues with a number of poets I could name, from Marge Piercy to Rafael Campo. Of course, they are in the minority. So what happened? McCarthyism happened. The Cold War happened. Poets were not exempt. Historian and critic Cary Nelson explains very clearly the ramifications for poets and poetry:
It was a period of nationwide inquisition and fear. Thousands lost their jobs in extralegal hearings held by industry and by all levels of government. Some were imprisoned as well. The literature professorate protected itself by a theoretical severing of poetry and politics, and by a ruthless—sometimes condescending, sometimes frightened—purging of its and our historical memory. We have
remained as a profession largely trapped within that ideology and that
impoverished memory for more than thirty years. But we ceased to see it as ideology and instead lived it as one, as a self-evident fact of nature. Many of us forgot that there was a rich literary life beyond the stories we told about the discipline’s favorite poems. And we have forgotten that the restricted and depoliticized canon of modernism is effectively our discipline’s testimony before HUAC. And we have continued, unwittingly, to repeat that testimony long after the committee has been discredited and disbanded. We are the products and the victims of a history we have forgotten.
KNOT: What does the word “homeland” mean for you, growing up in New York City as a young Puerto Rican male?
Martín Espada: A Puerto Rican writer from New York is doubly dislocated: first, there is dislocation from Puerto Rico; secondly, there is Puerto Rico’s dislocation from itself, as a colony of the United States. It may be a truism that you can’t go home again, but this is especially true when home is an occupied territory. In the United States I belong to a marginalized, impoverished, even despised community; yet, in Puerto Rico, as a “Nuyorican” poet writing primarily in English, I am marginalized in a different sense.
This sense of never quite being at home, of not truly belonging anywhere, produces a friction that sets off the sparks of poetry. If I am always at the margins, then I am by necessity the observer; if I am always on the outside, then I am by definition independent; if I am never anchored to one place, then I am free to wander; if I am never blinded by loyalty, then I am free to speak the truth as I see it. Nevertheless, the island of Puerto Rico exerts a tremendous pull on the children of the diaspora, myself included. We return, again and again, in body and spirit. Puerto Rican identity is remarkably resilient, transcending borders, oceans, languages, colonial politics and the pressures of assimilation.
KNOT: Do you see yourself as a Neruda type of poet in that vein of complex maleness-- meaning, lover, Latino, politician, and voice for those who are marginalized.
Martín Espada: Neruda is a great influence on my work. There are many Nerudas, as you say. For me, the most compelling Neruda is Neruda the advocate, speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard. This is the Neruda who stands at the heights of Macchu Picchu, speaking to centuries of dead Latin American peasants and laborers, and says: “I come to speak for your dead mouths.” Of course, Neruda was Whitman’s greatest disciple. Whitman says, in #24 of “Song of Myself:” “Through me many long dumb voices.” This is the poet-advocate.
KNOT: What do you think of labels in regards to identity? Hispanic, Latino, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Nuyorican? How do you define yourself?
Martín Espada: I am, as I said, a Puerto Rican poet from New York. More broadly, I am a Latino poet. That is how I identify myself. Labels can be useful as long as they are not confining. I don’t want to be put in a box. I don’t want to be reduced to a cartoon stereotype: the ranting ethnic militant. That’s simply another form of dismissal.
KNOT: What does culture homogeneity mean to you? Is there a new landscape for Latino poetry?
Martín Espada: The landscape for Latino poetry has changed rather dramatically since I got my start. When I was in school, in the 1960s, the term “Latino poet” did not even exist. Having said that, I’d say that we still have a long way to go. There are those in the literary world and beyond who still regard “Latino poet” as an oxymoron. There is a prevailing view in this country that Latinos are not literate people. If we do not read, it follows that we do not write. That’s the mentality.
KNOT: Discuss Puerto Rican poet Clemente Soto Velez. He spent six years in prison for his political poet voice.
Martín Espada: Clemente Soto Vélez was born in the mountain town of Lares, Puerto Rico in 1905. Lares was the site of a historic 1868 revolt against the Spanish. Soto Vélez become the living link between 19th century resistance to Spanish colonialism and 20th century resistance to North American colonialism. He was an independentista (a believer in independence) and a leader of the Nationalist Party, the political organization at the forefront of the movement for independence from the United States in the 1930s.
Clemente Soto Vélez was a visionary in every sense. He was not only an independentista, but a socialist; not only a socialist, but a surrealist poet who invented his own phonetic alphabet, so no one lacking an education could misspell a word. Soto Vélez was also the editor of the Nationalist Party newspaper. The slogan on the masthead read: “Puerto Rican, the independence of Puerto Rico depends on the number of bullets in your belt.” This statement, by itself, was enough to earn Soto Vélez a six-year sentence after a trial on charges of seditious conspiracy in 1936. He served the first four years of his sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. When he was released from Atlanta in 1940, on the condition that he not make any more speeches demanding independence, Soto Vélez returned to Puerto Rico and did exactly that. He was immediately re-arrested and served two more years in prison at the penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Clemente Soto Vélez was not only a poet and mentor, but friend. My wife and I named our son after him. The poet died in April 1993, and was buried in Lares, the town of his birth. When we visited his grave the following year, we found it unmarked and untended, an apt metaphor for the interment of the independence movement to which he had dedicated his life. He was the first of many fathers I would lose. I wrote an elegy for Clemente Soto Vélez called, “Hands Without Irons Become Dragonflies.”
KNOT: Many poets have been incarcerated, hunted, and even murdered for their writing such as Nazim Hikmet, Federico Garcia Lorca, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pablo Neruda, etc. Are politics and poetry the same? Do you see the poet as a type of “Christ” against the establishment?
Martín Espada: If repression knows no borders, then neither does resistance. All the poets you mention are heroes of mine. In fact, my first public reading was a reading of Hikmet at a benefit back in 1979. I teach Hikmet in a course at the University of Massachusetts called, “Poetry of the Political Imagination.” Political poets recognize kindred spirits across borders, and act in solidarity with each other. (I’ve even had my poems translated and published in Hikmet’s Turkey and Neruda’s Chile.) Though I would not equate politics and poetry, nor would I see the poet as a Christ figure, I do believe, as Shelley put it, that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world. But what did Shelley mean? Adrienne Rich said this:
I’ll flash back to 1821: Shelley’s claim, in “the Defence of Poetry” that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Piously overquoted, mostly out of context, it’s taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power--in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay, “A Philosophic View of Reform,” Shelley had written that , “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged” etc. The philosophers he was
talking about were revolutionary-minded: Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft.
And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority…
Shelley, in fact, saw powerful institutions, not original sin or “human nature,” as the source of human misery. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the “struggle between Revolution and Oppression.” His “West Wind” was the “trumpet of a prophecy,” driving “dead thoughts ... like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth.”
Many of our greatest poets have been unacknowledged legislators, from Shelley to Adrienne Rich herself. I return, at last, to Whitman. This is what Whitman meant when he said: “I give the sign of democracy.”
*first published in 2014, Fall - KNOT Magazine
Martín Espada, called “the Latino poet of his generation,” was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published more than fifteen books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His collection of poems, The Trouble Ball (Norton, 2011), is the recipient of the Milt Kessler Award, a Massachusetts Book Award and an International Latino Book Award. The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006) received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A previous book of poems, Imagine the Angels of Bread (Norton, 1996), won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other poetry collections include A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (Norton, 2000), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (Norton, 1993), and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands(Curbstone, 1990). He has received other recognition such as the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Robert Creeley Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. His work has been widely translated; collections of poems have been published in Spain, Puerto Rico and Chile. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple(South End Press, 1998), has been banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. A graduate of Northeastern University Law School and a former tenant lawyer, Espada is currently a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
From Martín Espada.net
Kristen D. Scott is a nominee of the Pushcart prize in poetry for five works from her recent collection of poetry, OPIATE (Garden Oak Press, 2014). She is an award-winning essayist for her work on Federico Garcia Lorca and his books the Divan del Tamarit, Poet of the Deep Song, and essay, "The Duende."
She has published in several Anthologies, newspapers, and ezines, including the San Diego Poetry Annuals, Nomos Review, Perigee, Alesbuyia, and published two poetry collection from Garden Oak Press; OPİATE (2014) and LIASİONS (2012). She has also been translated into Arabic, Turkish and Sanskrit.
Scott is currently the Editor-In-Chief, founder, and web designer of KNOT Magazine, holds a MFA in Creative Writing, MA in English Literature, and progressing with her Ph.D in Global Education.
She resides on the Riviera in Türkiye.