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Brooklyn-born poet Martin Espada is reconciling words with meaning

Brooklyn BookBeat

December 19, 2017 By Natasha Soto Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Headshot courtesy of Martin Espada
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Martin Espada is prolific. He has published almost 20 books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. He practiced law as a tenant lawyer in Greater Boston’s Latino Community. He works as a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He holds many honors such as the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award and the PEN/Revson Fellowship, to name a few.

He is also a Brooklyn boy. He says his parents’ courtship “basically happened at Ebbets Field,” home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They even announced their engagement in the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle.

The Eagle spoke to Espada to learn more about his Brooklyn roots, the bridge between personal and political and the role of the poet to reconcile words with meaning in “an age of hyper-euphemism.”

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What was your experience like growing up in Brooklyn?

I was born in 1957 and lived in East New York, in the Linden Projects. I went to a couple of neighborhood schools, PS 260, PS 190 and Gershwin Junior High.  My father Frank Espada was a community organizer in the 1960s and 1970s. He is best known as a photographer, for his award-winning book “The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People.” It was featured in many places including The New York Times and The Smithsonian. You can find it in The Library of Congress.

My earliest recollection of a political experience happened in Brooklyn when I was 9. I witnessed a candlelight vigil my father organized for the murder of the short-order cook Agropino Bonillo in East New York by local drug dealers. Thousands of people descended from their apartments holding candles to demonstrate for safer streets. I wrote a poem about this event called “The Moon Shatters on Alabama Avenue.”


You studied law and were a practicing poet for many years. Was this difficult to reconcile with your writing or did your work inform your writing?

I published my first poetry book before I went to law school, and I published another one afterwards. I wrote poetry during as well but didn’t publish anything because those were a very demanding three years. The two forms of work definitely informed one another. I was kind of discovered by The Boston Globe, and they referred to me as a “poet-lawyer,” as some sort of rare creature. Yet I always saw the connection between the two. I was so used to seeing activism and photography go hand in hand growing up. I also wrote a collection called “Lawyer Poems” about my experience practicing law as a tenant lawyer. Of course I changed names and other details to protect clients.

In both law and poetry, I worked as an advocate. I amplify the stories of those who need their voices to be heard.


How did moving to western Massachusetts impact your poetry?

Some people were worried about me moving. They would ask, “What are you going to write about now?” I thought, “I still have 1,000 stories to tell.”

For example, now, writing in the era of Donald Trump, there are many stories to tell. Two months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, two brothers, Scott and Steve Leader, beat and urinated on a homeless Mexican man named Guillermo Rodriguez. When questioned by the police, Scott Leader said, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.” Donald Trump’s response to this was “my supporters are very passionate.”

Another thing we see today that I write about is the state of political duplicity.  There has been a suppression of the total death toll in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. While the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments report 55 deaths, CNN surveyed half of the funeral homes in Puerto Rico and found 499 deaths in the months following the Hurricane. It’s still an incomplete figure because that’s only half of the funeral homes, the Center for Investigative Journalism found a disparity of over 1,000.

The poems I have read of yours are mostly political. Do you ever write sappy poems about the beauty of a sunset?

[Laughs] I wouldn’t write that poem, too cliche. Though I am writing love poems now! I am known as a political poet but I’ve been publishing since 1982, and I write silly poems too. For example, I wrote a poem about belonging to a community theater with my son, or a somewhat absurd love poem called “The Love Song of the Kraken.”

I think poems of outrage, poems of empathy, poems of love, political poems, personal poems, poems that bridge the personal and the political, loud poems, quiet poems, poems that denounce injustice and poems that embrace what is good about being alive are all important. It is important to be able to speak in all of these voices.

We are living in an age of hyper-euphemism, where words are deliberately divided from meaning. Words like the “alt-right” and “alternative facts” drain the blood from words. They obscure and divide meaning. Poets put the blood back into the words.


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