Interview with Martín Espada
conducted by Kevin Sweeney,
Martín Espada teaches at the University of Massachusetts,
Amherst. He has received the Shelley Memorial Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as the 2012 International Latino Book Award and the Milt Kessler Award for his collection The Trouble Ball. His latest book is Vivas To Those Who Have Failed.
Kevin: Let’s start with a simple question: What kind of shoes are you wearing? I trust they’re not Nike. I cite your name when I argue with my 13 year old grandnephew about why I don’t buy that brand. I’m referring to that letter you wrote them in 1997 and why you wouldn’t write a poem celebrating a female Olympic athlete.
Martín: I’m wearing rather worn-out Rockport shoes. They’re very reliable, which is important, since my left foot is more of a flipper than anything else. As for Nike, I should be clear that I didn’t refuse to write a poem celebrating female Olympic athletes, per se. I refused to write a poem for a Nike commercial that would feature these Olympic athletes. And here is what I said:
This is a letter in response to your correspondence
concerning the Nike Poetry Slam and my proposed
I could reject your offer based on the fact that
your deadline is ludicrous (i.e. ten days from the above date).
A poem is not a pop tart.
I could reject your offer based on the fact that I would not
be free to write whatever I want, notwithstanding your
assurances to the contrary, since I must “keep in mind TV
network standards and practices regarding content and
language.” You clearly have no idea what the word
“censorship” means. Where, as you put it, “the mechanics of
commerce outweigh the demands of art,” then de facto
censorship will flourish.
I could reject your offer based on the fact that, to make this
offer to me in the first place, you must be totally and
insultingly ignorant of my work as a poet, which strives to
stand against all that you and your client represent.
Whoever referred me to you did you a grave disservice.
I could reject your offer based on the fact that your client,
Nike, has through commercials such as these outrageously
manipulated the youth market, so that even low-income
adolescents are compelled to buy products they do not need at
prices they cannot afford.
Ultimately, however, I am rejecting your offer as a protest
against the brutal labor practices of Nike. I will not associate
myself with a company that engages in the well-documented
exploitation of workers in sweatshops. Please spare me the
usual corporate response: there’s no problem, and besides,
we’re working on it. I suggest, instead, that you take the $2500
you now dangle before me and distribute that money equally
among the laborers in an Asian sweatshop doing business with
Nike. The funds would be much more useful to them than to me.
Kevin: So, second easy question: Have you had any good Brie lately? I’m remembering your essay Zapata’s Disciple and Perfect Brie. What you said there seems even more relevant since I read that poem in your book The Trouble Ball about a job which once required you to “remove a perfect turd from a urinal.” Do you ever feel awkward at a poetry reading when someone rolls out the wine and cheese?
Martín: I’d feel more awkward if someone rolled out the wine and turds. I don’t drink anyway.
Kevin: What’s Umass /Amherst like these days? You once took issue with people using the term “political correctness” pejoratively. Still, a lot of people would probably see UMass as a politically correct place, Amherst itself for that matter, or what I remember people calling the “Happy Valley.” What’s your take?
Martín: What I object to about the term “political correctness” is that it’s loaded. It’s judgmental. It’s akin to the old question-that- contains-the-answer-trick: “How many times have you shat in the public square?” (Answer: Zero.) Having said that, I will also say that UMass displays fewer characteristics of so-called political
correctness than you might think. I believe there should be more actual diversity and less talk about diversity. I also believe that we may need a new word to replace the word “diversity.” Too many people use it without knowing what it means, or without meaning it.
Kevin: Do you ever miss being amid the fray back in Chelsea, especially since as you’ve written, you spent your early childhood years in public housing in East New York?
Martín: No, I don’t miss my days as a tenant lawyer in Chelsea. There is the burnout factor, for one thing. (See below.) For another, I have continued my advocacy work as a poet. Poetry and the law, of course, are very different, yet, for me, the common ground is advocacy, in the tradition of Whitman and Neruda. While I don’t miss the courthouse, once in a while I need to have a good argument. That’s the lawyer in me.
Kevin: I sometimes read to students your poem “City of Coughing and Dead Radiators” about the trials and tribulations of being a legal defense attorney. I say that’s the ultimate poem about burnout. Am I overstating that at all?
Martín: That’s an accurate reading of the poem. I should add here, though, that I wrote the poem well before I left the law.
Kevin: I also tell them that my all-time favorite poem title is “Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer.” Have you heard from other readers about that? I think that poem emphasizes how routinely human cruelty and callousness is shown towards those considered lesser beings. Is that true, or am I just the kind of liberal people love to hate?
Martín: Yes, that is true. And yes, you are probably the kind of liberal people love to hate. Good for you.
Kevin: Donald Trump: asshole, giant ball-buster, racist demagogue, or just a regular guy from Queens who used to be a Democrat?
Martín: Demagogue, racist.
Kevin: Bernie Sanders: your kind of guy? He’s a fellow native New Yorker, and I remember from your essays that your mother was Jewish.
Martín: I voted for him. What I appreciate, among other things, is that he’s reclaiming the word “socialist.” That was a dirty word in the political discourse of this country till a short while ago; witness all the times it’s been hurled in the direction of President Obama who, whatever else he may be, is not a socialist. Poets should try to reclaim the language too.
Kevin: “My Native Costume” is a pretty funny poem despite its serious content. Any chance you’d tell us which “suburban school” had the teacher who wanted you to wear a Guayabera shirt when you came to visit? By the way, my students love that poem
Martín: It was, I believe, a high school in Waltham, Massachusetts. I’m not sure anymore.
Kevin: I wonder if people who haven’t read your work thoroughly know how funny you can be. You have plenty of serious, polemical poems, but I’ve had more than a couple of chuckles reading your work. I’m thinking “DSS Dream,” “Revolutionary Spanish Lesson,” and titles like, “I Apologize for Giving You Poison Ivy by Smacking You in the Eye with the Crayfish at the End of My Fishing Line.” Then there’s “Instructions on the Disposal of My Remains” in which you write:
I want to be stuffed and mounted at the White Castle
in East Harlem. I want to welcome everyone, with glass eyes
and cotton in my head, to buy tiny steam-grilled burgers by the sack.
I want to stand in the doorway like a grizzly bear
at the museum of Natural History, his mouth frozen
in a roar for all eternity, as if to tell the world:
That imperialist bastard Teddy Roosevelt shot me.
Am I way off-base here, or is this hysterical? Isn’t it true you can read Martín Espada and have a couple of laughs along the way?
Martín: I hope you have a couple of laughs along the way. In fact, I must resist the impulse to write nothing but funny poems. I have to resist the impulse to turn every reading into a stand-up routine. It’s too easy for me. That trend continues with my most recent work. Consider:
Once Thundering Penguin Herds Darkened the Prairie
I. Poetry for Tourists
The poets bring poetry to the Coney Island Aquarium,
around the corner from the wooden rollercoaster
creaking since 1927, tourists staggering away queasy,
yet hungry for a hot dog on the boardwalk. We will
tempt them to taste the steamed tofu dog of poetry instead.
II. Poetry for Jellyfish
Tonight we declaim poems at the jellyfish exhibit,
creatures that plummet like parachutes of light,
illuminated mushrooms zooming sideways, amusing
themselves, oblivious to the nuances of alliteration
and assonance, silently refusing to clap after the last poem.
III. Poetry for Penguins
The voice of a poet on a loop, installed in the penguin
exhibit, booms out poetry in praise of penguins:
Once thundering penguin herds darkened the prairie.
Once flocks of flapping penguins blocked out the sun.
Now they cower behind a rock, peeking, ducking down,
listening to poetry for penguins, hearing only the rumble
of the Almighty Orca opening his jaws on Judgment Day.
IV. No Poetry for the Octopus or the Security Guard
The Coney Island Aquarium is closed. We are locked in.
The octopus glares at us with one huge eye. No one fed
him today. No one read him any poems. We panic and flap
like flightless birds. We rattle the gate, wailing in chorus:
We are the poets. Let us out. The security guard glares
at us with one huge eye. No one fed him today. No one
read him any poems. He unlocks the gate anyway.
Kevin: What does it mean to be Puerto Rican in 2016? I trust you’d be less likely to get arrested in Mississippi or need to integrate a diner in San Antonio like your dad? Maybe today he could even play for the Yankees. I’m remembering that poem, “Tato Hates the New York Yankees.”
It was the spring of 1947.
There were no brownskinned boys
in the American League.
And the New York Yankees
gave no more tryouts;
they broadcast the message sent
by overdue bills
and losing lottery tickets.
Certainly the Yankees have employed a few Latinos more recently. Is “the Puerto Rican Dummy” in your essay of the same title a no-longer extant stereotype?
Martín: Being Puerto Rican in 2016 means that we’ve come a long way, and we’ve a long way to go. No, Puerto Ricans no longer suffer the kind of racist oppression suffered by my father’s generation — thanks, in great part, to my father’s generation. At my father’s memorial, I said this:
How do we carry on the legacy of the generation now passing
before our eyes? We’ve heard about “The Greatest
Generation,” mostly referring to white men who fought in
World War II. For the Puerto Rican community, this was our
Greatest Generation. They marched. They picketed. They
organized rent strikes. They staged hunger strikes. They staged
sit-ins. They went to jail. They went to jail again. They built
schools and community centers. They took photographs, wrote
poems and plays, painted and sang — but their activism was
inseparable from their art.
This was my father’s advice to Los Seis del Sur, a group of
Puerto Rican photographers documenting the South Bronx:
“We need to raise some holy Hell, for we have landed at the
bottom and stayed there.” For my father, raising hell was holy.
His generation raised holy hell for us, for everyone in this room.
In the introduction to the new edition of Zapata’s Disciple, the book of essays that was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-Studies program outlawed by the state of Arizona, and will be reissued by Northwestern University Press, I said this:
“The Puerto Rican Dummy and the Merciful Son,” published
eighteen years ago, is still relevant. The essay cites Governor
Pete Wilson of California, “being seriously considered for the
presidency on the strength of his support for Proposition 187,
the most blatantly anti-Latino, anti-immigrant initiative in
recent memory.” Now comes Donald Trump, Republican
candidate for the presidency, bellowing sock puppet for bigots
everywhere, trying to ride yet another wave of anti-Latino,
anti-immigrant demagoguery all the way to the White House.
The essay addresses the stereotype of Latino males as violent
predators. Trump has slandered Mexican immigrants, saying,
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re
rapists.” With this utterance, his poll numbers skyrocketed
and he became the frontrunner.
As this essay noted eighteen years ago, this perception of
Latinos is dangerous. According to an article in the Boston
Globe on August 19, 2015, two South Boston brothers, Scott
and Steve Leader, came across a homeless Mexican man on
their way back from a Red Sox game, woke him up by
urinating in his face and then beat him severely, breaking his
nose. Scott Leader was quoted as saying, “Donald Trump is
right. All these illegals need to be deported.” Trump, upon
hearing the news, responded that his supporters were
“passionate.” Only later did he issue the requisite
denunciation of violence.
Kevin: As a guy who went from the projects to being physically and mentally abused in a Long Island suburb to one day busting his hand as a bouncer, do you ever shake your head at all this college campus stuff about “micro–aggressions” and “trigger warnings?” Does a guy who once had “racial obscenities” spray painted on his locker feel some of these students have been overindulged?
Martín: I don’t recommend having racial obscenities spray painted on your locker or breaking your hand on a drunk’s skull as pathways to character development. Speaking of trigger warnings: I had a guy stick a gun in my face once. I wish he had given me a trigger warning. I’ll have the overindulgence with extra cheese, please.
Kevin: I know James Tate passed away not long ago. When I first heard you were teaching at UMass, I wondered whether the two of you might chat about poetry or whether your aesthetics were just too different so you’d be polite but go your separate ways. It’s hard to picture him having read much Daisy Zamora or Roque Dalton. It’s hard to picture you curled up with a volume of John Ashbery. Your thoughts?
Martín: Jim and I never exchanged a harsh word, despite the aesthetic gulf between us. He was invariably polite. We served on some MFA thesis committees together, although I am not a member of the MFA faculty at Umass. Having said that, I will also say that I didn’t really know him. And no, I wouldn’t curl up with a volume of Ashbery. It would be more stimulating to watch a volume of Ashbery curl up.
Kevin: I’ve been assigning your book Alabanza to my poetry class. However, the conspicuously missing poem is “Another Nameless Prostitute Says The Man is Innocent,” so I give them the online link, and I generally read it aloud. Up here in mostly white Maine, they are pretty fascinated by this gap between people who celebrate Mumia Abu-Jamal and those who call him a murderer. Why did you leave it out of Alabanza?
Martín: I left it out because it’s my second-best poem about Mumia Abu-Jamal. The first poem, as you know, was first solicited and then censored by National Public Radio in 1997. As a result of the ensuing controversy, I ended up meeting Mumia on death row in 1998. That personal encounter resulted in a poem called, “Prisoner AM-8335 and His Library of Lions.” The library in question was the one confiscated from his cell shortly before our visit. He discussed his possible execution very calmly; when he got to the subject of the books taken away from him, he cried. The poem was so much more immediate, visceral, and emotional than the poem censored by NPR that I included it in my Selected Poems instead of the first poem. Why not include both? A Selected Poems, I discovered, must be selective. I left out many a poem I liked.
Kevin: Given the predominant themes in your work, would it surprise you that one of my favorite Martín Espada poems is “The Mexican Cabdriver’s Poem for His Wife, Who Has Left Him?” Despite a couple of forays through my bookcase, I can’t find A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen, the volume in which it appears. Although I can’t, therefore, quote from it, I have always thought it a wonderfully lyrical poem about heartbreak.
Martín: You mean this poem?
The Mexican Cabdriver’s Poem for His Wife, Who Has Left Him
We were sitting in traffic
on the Brooklyn Bridge,
so I asked the poets
in the back seat of my cab
to write a poem for you.
if you are like the moon
or the trees.
I said no,
she is like the bridge
when there is so much traffic
I have time
to watch the boats
on the river.
. . . That actually happened. I guess I’m a sensitive brute after all.