The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Martin Espada

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Martin Espada at Sampsonia Way in 2015.

Martin Espada at City of Asylum in 2015.

“Poet-lawyer” Martin Espada published his first book of poems in 1982, immediately before beginning law school at Northeastern University. Upon graduating, he became a tenant lawyer in Greater Boston’s Latino community. Eventually, he left the law and became a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he still teaches. In all, he has published more than fifteen books as a poet, editor, essayist, and translator.

His 1998 book of essays and poems, Zapata’s Disciple, has been banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006), Alabanza (2003), A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (2000), and Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996). He has been the recipient of many honors, including the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, an American Book Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Martin Espada’s forthcoming collection of poems is called Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), the title derived from a line written by his favorite poet, Walt Whitman.

Sampsonia Way interviewed Martin Espada about topics ranging from activism to the modern academy’s impact on poetry’s revolutionary potential.

What was it like to be both a poet and a practicing lawyer?

I did indeed practice law. I obtained a law degree from Northeastern University law school. I practiced in the Latino community of Greater Boston for a number of years. Eventually I became supervisor of a program that provided legal services program for low income Spanish speaking tenants in Chelsea, which is right across the Tobin Bridge from Boston.

It’s a gateway city, a city of immigrants. It always has been. It was also a city with the poorest housing stock. We had plenty of work to do. We did eviction defense, no heat cases, conditions cases (rats and roaches) crazy landlords. And we supervised and trained law students from Suffolk University Law School to do the same.

That was in fact the frame of reference for me to write poems about the experience of being a tenant lawyer. I did that particularly in one book, called City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, which was published in 1993 by Norton.

You’ll note in that title that it’s not cold radiators, i.e there is no heat. They’re dead radiators: there’s no heat forthcoming. That exemplifies the desperate nature of the situation.

In fact, I used to sit on the stairs outside the courtroom and scratch out poems on legal pads while I was waiting for our cases to be called. There were juvenile hearings prior to the housing cases, and of course given their right to privacy we were not allowed inside the courtroom while that was going on. Everyone was in the hallway or on the stairs. I sat there. I didn’t have an office there, and I wrote poems. It was not as crazy as it might sound because whether I was working or am working as a lawyer or a poet, I am an advocate. I am speaking on behalf of others without an opportunity to be heard. At that time and place they happened to be people in the community of Chelsea and beyond.

Now, if anything, the spectrum is even broader than that, because it’s national or it’s international, but I’m still speaking on behalf of immigrants. I’m still speaking on behalf of the most damned, the most despised, the most condemned people in our society and beyond. I feel a compulsion to do so.

I’m also in a position to do so, because I have borne witness to so much.

You say it was a double life, but you were also writing about the issues in the community you were representing. How did writing poetry influence your practice of law?

They bleed into each other. Most people would not regard what a poet does to be anything remotely like what a lawyer does. In fact the commonality is language. A lawyer must use language very precisely. If you put a word in the wrong place in a will, that will could be invalidated. If you put the wrong language in a contract, that contract could end up going out the window. The same applies when you are representing indigent tenants in court. Instead of putting words on paper you are translating, interpreting. The client is speaking to you in Spanish and you are translating for the court. Or you are making a deal in the hallway — a very common occurrence — and you are doing the same thing, translating the words of your client from Spanish to English, and then the words coming back to you from English into Spanish. You have to be very exact, very precise.

That’s something that I seek to do as a poet. My diction, my choice of words, is as precise as I can make it. The images that I use, the evocation of the senses, again, relies upon a certain exactitude. You can see how what I did with language as a poet would bleed into what I did as a lawyer, vice-versa.

I’m not the first one to do it. There had been other poet-lawyers in the past. If you look more closely at their work, you can see the influence of their chosen profession. A perfect example would be Edgar Lee Masters. Edgar Lee Masters wrote a collection called Spoon River Anthology, and for a number of years in the early 20th century it was the most widely read and discussed book of poems in the United States. What Masters did was to write a series of over 200 interlinked persona poems, speaking in the voices of the dead at Spoon River Cemetery in Ohio, which was really a combination of two different cemeteries in the place where he grew up. He combined fact and fiction, He invented stories but he was also using real names. It’s a remarkable collection, something everybody should read. In many ways it is the underbelly of small town life, the anti-Our Town, the anti-Thornton Wilder.

Masters, in fact, was not only a lawyer practicing at a very high level; he was Clarence Darrow‘s law partner in Chicago before he was discovered as a poet. If you look more closely at these poems, they are persona poems written as you would write an affidavit in the first-person voice of the client. The client is telling the story through your language, and the only difference is in an affidavit the sentences would be numbered. Masters was writing persona poems that evolved out of his practice as a lawyer, his practice of advocacy.

He was speaking on behalf of the dead. And not just the dead — he spoke on behalf of the one Chinese boy in town, murdered by the son of the sheriff and buried in a lonely corner of the cemetery. He spoke on behalf of the town drunk, the town poet, and on and on. He spoke on behalf of soldiers who died in wars that Masters opposed, like the Spanish American War, and were buried there, not knowing why they died.

You read something like that and you understand that yes, there is a tradition, not just a tradition of lawyers writing poetry, but a tradition of advocacy that extends back, yes a century to Masters, but extends back even further in English to the middle of the 19th century and Walt Whitman. Masters was definitely a disciple of Whitman, he wrote in that tradition, and so do I.

What responsibility comes with speaking on someone else’s behalf? What tensions do you have to navigate in order to do this in the context of poetry?

You have to get it right. You have to pay close attention. You have to be a good listener. You can put yourself in the poem, but don’t put yourself in the center of the poem such that you become the hero of the poem. That’s not the idea. If you’re in the poem you’re in the poem because you saw and heard what you are describing in the poem. You were there. You are bearing witness, so you’re in a corner of the poem or the “I” appears somewhere in the poem as a way of saying directly to the reader or the listener, “Yeah, this happened. I know. I was there.”
I feel perfectly good about taking on that responsibility given the alternative. The alternative is silence.

The people that I represented in Chelsea — for that matter, the people I represent in other poems — especially if they happen to be Spanish speaking, if they happen to be immigrant, are consigned to silence and oblivion in society. The alternative is unthinkable, and so I speak.

Now am I aware that there are certain ethical and artistic issues? Yes, of course I am. And so you’re obligated to be careful, and attentive, and to get it right.

Too often, however, I hear poets use these issues as a way off evading any responsibility at all. You hear some of the phrases popular today in the academy, like “agency.” “Oh, I don’t have agency.” Hmm. How terrible for you. Or, “I lack authority.” It’s a cop out.

How is the tradition of the academy impacting poetry’s political function today?

The academy reinforces whatever the predominant aesthetic happens to be through a system of rewards, whether that’s readings or workshops or, more importantly, hiring in terms of who becomes a professor, who teaches in a MFA program. The academy, which is given to be bureaucratic and authoritarian in the first place, very naturally reinforces the status quo. In fact, the predominant aesthetic in poetry, you won’t be surprised to hear, marginalizes or excludes poetry of social or political content. It always has, but now it has become more pronounced, especially since the end of the Second World War, with the advent of McCarthyism.

Cary Nelson, who is a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, has written a couple of books where he focuses on this history. When did this taken for granted reality cement itself? When did it become a given that political poetry was an oxymoron? At one time it was an accepted part of the spectrum when it came to poetry in this country. In the 1930s you can see it everywhere. Many of them, indeed, were advocates writing in the Whitman tradition, too many of them to name. And yet many of them were wiped out of the historical record and out of the academy. We don’t read them anymore, precisely because of the advent of the Cold War and McCarthyism.

Remembering this represented not only a political but a cultural counter-revolution. The black list was not something confined to Hollywood. It also affected the academy, and Cary Nelson maintains that what the academy does today in terms of its exclusion of such poets and their history, represents nothing less than the profession’s continuing testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee: “We didn’t do it. We’re innocent. And here are some names.”

In point of fact, these prejudices have deep historical roots. I’m used to functioning in that environment, I’m used to doing what I do and saying what I say. You just have to get accustomed to the fact that you’re going to be on the margins, and you’re going to have to fight your way to the middle.

You use the phrase “taken for granted reality.” What do you do to make sure you are not taking your reality for granted?

Everybody takes his or her reality for granted. Everybody takes for granted the reality we see, we hear. That’s true for life as well as poetry. We grow up in certain circumstances, in a certain environment, and we understand that this is the way the world works. Sometimes we have to unlearn that truth, learn that there is a different or broader reality. I’m always open to that, and I’m certainly transformed any number of times during my life. And then I regress. We all do it.

Having said that, I think it’s very important to look back at history, to not only think in political terms about poetry but in historical terms. I’m always frustrated with poets that think history began last Thursday.

It’s almost impossible to read a poet who has been obliterated from the historical record. That requires work. Part of what I do as a poet and a teacher is to reclaim those poets consigned to oblivion, joining the people for whom they wrote. You can do that by reaching into the distant past. You can find a poet from the 1930’s, you can say, “We should all be reading Ed Rolfe, the poet laureate of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the volunteers who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.” Or you can look around you and say, “Who among us, in this community, is deserving of recognition and of a voice?”

I always look to the elders. We live in a youth-infatuated culture, and that effects poetry as well. We are always looking at who is the hot young poet, somebody who is 28 or 30 years old. I’m more interested in the poet who never got a break and is about to turn 60. I’m interested in the poet who published one book and then was never heard from again.

Oftentimes, you discover a manuscript that has been collecting dust in a corner for years. It’s a matter of pulling that manuscript out of the corner and presenting it to somebody and saying, “Print this.”

That happened with a poet who became a very dear friend of mine, by the name of Jack Agüeros. He was a Puerto Rican poet. He was a translator. He translated Julia de Burgos, the greatest Puerto Rican poet. He was a playwright, the director of a museum called El Museo del Barrio, the only Puerto Rican museum in the mainland United States at the time. Jack was very close to my father politically. They were good friends, and later on in life I became very close friends with Jack. I helped Jack publish his first book. It’s called Correspondence Between the Stonewallers, from Hanging Loose Press. As I recall it came out in 1991 and that would have meant that Jack published his first book at the age of 57. To me, that’s a crime.

People finally, finally heard that voice. He put out several collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, this book of translations, and then — Alzheimer’s. He had about a decade where he was able to produce this body of work. I have never fought harder or spoken louder for any poet. I owe Jack,. It wasn’t that Jack owed me. Jack was like a second father to me. He died last year, not long after my father died. I was able to visit with Jack shortly before he passed away, and I’m very glad I had that opportunity. Then I spoke at a couple of memorials for Jack, I’ve written a poem about him called “Blessed Be the Truthtellers,” about the first time I met Jack. He was the first poet I ever met.

That’s who I’m interested in, if you’re talking about discovery. Where are the elders who are not being heard? One of the reasons this society is in such chaos is because those people don’t get heard, the ones who say, “Excuse me, but I remember the last war and it didn’t work out so well.” The poets from the Vietnam generation, all those poets who came back from the war, turned against it, wrote poems about the war. I call them Cassandra poets. They’re cursed. They have the gift of prophecy and nobody believes them.

How did looking to your predecessors influence the issues that you cover in your latest book, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed?

As usual, Whitman says it better than I possibly could, from section 18 of “Song of Myself”: “Vivas to those who have fail’d!/ And to those whose war- vessels sank in the sea!/ And to those themselves who sank in the sea!/ And to all generals who lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!/ And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!”

Consider the profundity of that last line especially. “The numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!” I am interested in those heroes, who failed but did not fail. When Whitman says “Vivas to those who have failed,” he is referring to those unknown heroes but he’s also demanding that we redefine what we mean by failure. We understand that what we call failure often contributes to what we call success. This particular passage serves as the title for a cycle of sonnets in this book, which have to do with the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. It’s an often forgotten strike, one of the great strikes in United States history.

Why do we forget? Because the strikers lost. In this country, we don’t like losers. We like winners, so we talk about the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence in 1912. They won. Same cast of characters, essentially, in 1913. It’s the Industrial Workers of the World. This extends out to some of the other characters, personalities and narratives in the book.

My father is featured in this book. I wrote a cycle of 10 poems about him after he died in February of 2014. I basically was charged with the responsibility of writing one poem for his memorial in Brooklyn that May. It was a heavy responsibility. I went away to a little place in Vermont, up in the Northeast Kingdom, way up there near Canada, and I wrote. Instead of writing one poem I wrote ten, eventually. That becomes the focus of the latter part of the book, concluding with a poem called “El Moriviví This is the Puerto Rican Spanish term for a small, pantropical weed that reacts to contact — it shrinks back and then it opens again. It does the same thing in reaction to darkness and light. It will close up in the dark and open up in the light.

It becomes a metaphor in this poem about my father, for his many lives. When you know someone who has basically gone through one escape after another, who seems larger than life, you develop the illusion that that person will live forever. Of course it isn’t true. The poem tells his story but also registers my shock at the fact that he finally died.

It’s also a political poem. It pays tribute to the political work he did, to his struggles coming over from Puerto Rico as a boy and being discriminated against, to the courage he displayed in Mississippi, when he was in the Air Force and, at age nineteen was arrested and thrown in jail for not going to the back of the bus.

Through telling this one story, I’m telling many stories. That is a story you might associate with the civil rights movement, but very rarely do we talk about the role that Latinos played in the civil rights movement. They were there. I know, because my father was there!

The tradition of advocacy continues. As I get older, I simply find it natural that more people I know will come to die. I’ve lost so many in the last few years. You understand when it’s someone like my father, who was 83. The young ones–I will never get used to that.

I had a friend who died of cancer when he was not quite 50 years old. Most gruesomely of all I had a former student by the name of James Foley who was the first American journalist to be executed by ISIS. He was not quite 40. There’s a poem about him in here, too, because he deserves a place in that pantheon of unknown heroes.

James Foley was a former student of yours?

Yes, Jim was a student of mine. The poem I wrote about him focuses on what he did during the years he was at the University of Massachusetts, where he got his MFA in Fiction. I was on his committee. We had that relationship, but we also were working on other levels. He took my classes, including a class called Poetry of the Political Imagination. Jim was coming from an experience in Phoenix, with Teach for America, where he had taught in the barrios of that city. He taught Latino kids, and he wanted to do more. He said, “I speak Spanish, I want to teach.”

He was the last person you would expect to say that: he was tall, athletic, grew up in New Hampshire. Where did the Spanish come from? But he was fluent. I managed to place him at an agency called the Care Center in Holyoke Massachusetts. Jim went to work teaching English to Spanish speakers. He was there for a couple of years. Their students are adolescent mothers who have dropped out of the high school system in Holyoke. So they’re either pregnant or they have kids, and they’re trying to get back into the educational system, get a GED, and hopefully from there go onto the next step which would be community college and so forth. Many of them speak a little English. Most come from the island of Puerto Rico, some come from other places. Jim did that work, and he was very good at it.

When the news came, the media called me because I was on his committee and I think somebody in the UMass press office gave my name out. The phone started ringing and I was in such shock that at first I just blacked out, I couldn’t remember much of anything. Over the next few days it came back to me.

The poem I wrote was a reflection back on Jim in the days that I knew him and the work that he did. There are poems that I can read in public, and poems that I still can’t read yet. I’m not sure I can read that one.

You’ve said that one of the reasons people might avoid writing is because writing burdens you down with the past. How do you reconcile that?

I’ve heard many writers talk about how tough it is to be a writer. Having a voice is much better than not having a voice, for all that we feel burdened, for all that we feel put upon, for all that we feel unheeded or disrespected or unrewarded. I’ve certainly felt all those things. I’m not exempt. It’s important to remember: we have a voice! There are so many others who don’t. Most people don’t. There are writers who have voices that are, in fact, suppressed. That happens in other countries and guess what, it happens here too. I think it’s always better to have that context, take a step back and remember the alternative is silence.

It’s important to keep something else in mind. We are opposed, in principle, to state violence. When we see state violence in other countries, we speak out against it, as we should regardless of the ideology of that government. We should speak out against state violence when it is directed at writers, whether those writers are poets or novelists or, most commonly, journalists. I have recently been involved in attempts to bring to light the human rights violations going on in México, the recent murders of journalists in that country. At the same time, here in the United States from a position of relative safety, it is important to bear in mind that we must oppose state violence in this country as well. Otherwise we’re not being consistent, and we lose credibility when we point fingers at other governments and other peoples far away.

I’m speaking in terms of what is happening in this country with respect to police violence against people of color. We are well aware of what is happening. I want to see more poets and more writers speaking out against the state violence that is happening in this country, right now, police violence against people of color.

One of the poems in this book is called “How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way.” In point of fact, it references eight documented cases of police violence. I found it necessary to write this poem because of what was going on, but also because of the way that both the victims of these acts of violence were being demonized. And also because of the way the protesters were being demonized.

  1. About The Writer’s Block
  2. The Writer’s Block is an ongoing video series of interviews with visiting writers at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. In these Q&A’s, conducted on Sampsonia Way, writers sit down with us to discuss literature, their craft, and career.
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