Conversations: Martín Espada and Giles Li

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Martín Espada needs very little introduction. An award-winning poet with twenty published volumes, Martín spent many years as a tenants’ rights lawyer for the Latinx community in Greater Boston. Giles Li is himself an acclaimed poet and performer as well as the Executive Director of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC), an organization that serves immigrant families in Boston and surrounding areas. They electrified the audience at Greater Boston Writers Resist in January 2017 and I am honored to feature them now in The Critical Flame.

— Daniel Evans Pritchard


Giles Li: I have always felt the presence of others in your work. If you can characterize it, who are the people or communities you feel have been consistently in your poetry throughout your life? Is there anyone who you regret is missing from your work?

Martín Espada: There would be no poetry, for me, without community. I think of community as a series of concentric circles, like rings on a tree. There is the Puerto Rican community; the Latino/a community; the immigrant community; the community of working people; the community of activists and dissidents; the community of poets; the community of teachers and elders.

I am still an advocate, speaking of behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard—a reflex from my days as a tenant lawyer in Boston—but it would be misleading to leave it at that, since these communities feed me, educate me, energize me and keep me going.

 

GL: As I mentioned at Writers Resist, I keep a copy of Imagine the Angels of Bread in my desk drawer at the immigrant-serving social services agency where I work. I turn to it when I feel burned out or when I question my own motivation—or sometimes even when I feel I need to keep my ego in check. Whose work does this for you? Who’s in your desk drawer, so to speak?

ME: I return, most often, to the two foundations of my poetics: Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda. I return to section #24 of “Song of Myself” or Canto XII of Heights of Macchu Picchu. They are many other poets as well, too numerous to mention.

 

GL: Throughout your new collection, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, and all your writing, the people who work for their living are valued and honored especially, in a way that isn’t common in the rest of our lives. From your perspective, what is the relationship between the world of poetry and the world of people who work?

ME: The English poet Adrian Mitchell wrote: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” The world of work is a world of poetry, yet most poets seem blissfully unaware of work, and working people, as subjects.

Yet, there is also a strong tradition of work poetry in this country that goes back to Whitman and Sandburg. I could cite Levine, of course, but also check out the Puerto Rican poet Jack Agüeros, the man I consider my second father, and his “Sonnet: How I Became a Moving Man.”

 

GL: You are known for being one of the best performers of your own work. As someone who has primarily existed in the poetry business as a performer, I want to ask you about your intentions when you get up to read in front of a crowd. What do you want to get across in the performance itself?

ML: I gave my first reading in the bar where I worked as a bouncer in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve read at a boxing gym in Willimantic, Connecticut, at El Matador Tortilla Factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield on Christmas Eve. I take poetry to places where poetry allegedly does not belong, to the so-called non-traditional audiences, who are actually the most traditional audiences of all.

My goal, wherever I go, is to communicate with clarity: clarity of word, thought, emotion and purpose. It’s not a matter of the audience feeling what I feel; I want them to feel what they feel, rising to the surface, filling their lungs and hearts. That’s the electricity of empathy.

 

GL: When you write, how conscious are you of the way words sound coming out of your mouth versus how they appear to a reader off the page?

ML: I read aloud as I compose the poem. If the musicality isn’t there, then I keep working. If the words don’t sound right, out they come.

Having said that, I should also make clear that, if the words don’t stand up on the page, in silence, then out they come. I’m not sentimentally attached to my own language.

 

GL: The title poem in Vivas brings the Paterson Silk Strike—which isn’t necessarily a triumphant story—to the forefront. Why is it important at this point in history to revisit histories like this?

ME: The Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 is living history, relevant history. Yes, the strikers “lost” the strike, but their major demand—for an eight-hour day—became a fundamental principle of labor in this country, a right embraced even by the right. (In that sense, it is a triumphant story; we must revise what we mean by words like “triumph” and “failure.”) This was also an immigrant strike, and their story highlights the fact that immigrants, historically, have sacrificed everything to create a world we take for granted.  That’s a powerful counter-argument against the immigrant backlash today, an antidote to the chilling chant of “build that wall.”

 

GL: There is a specificity to the concepts and density to the language in the newest collection that actually helps define the through-line of diverse themes that maybe seem only kind of related at first. It is done with so much intentionality, I wondered did this book start as a whole idea, or did you take stock of your most recent work and create a frame that fit?

ME: It wasn’t a whole idea. In fact, I wrote many of the poems in the book as a response to events around me: the massacre of students and educators at Sandy Hook; lethal police violence against people of color; the murder of my former student, Jim Foley, by ISIS; the death of my dear friends Howard Zinn, the historian, and Joe Gouveia, the poet; and, above all, the loss of my father, Frank Espada, who died in 2014 and inspired a sequence of ten poems in the book. You use the word, “specificity.” My work grounds itself in specificity, precision, particularity, regardless of subject.

 

GL: The deep love and admiration for your late father is one of the central themes in this collection, and the language you use to describe him feels familiar to me. My father passed away recently too. In death, our fathers often become physically and emotionally mythical, like the hero of a folktale, “a mountain born of mountains.” If you father were to read this collection, would he recognize the man you describe?

ME: I hope so. He was a storyteller, and some of those stories manifest themselves as poems in this book. I think he would have liked the poem, “El Moriviví.” That’s the poem I read at his memorial at El Puente, a community center in Brooklyn.

A week later, I flew from Boston to San Francisco, and read the poem to my mother across her kitchen table. I was more nervous reading it to her than I was reading it at the memorial. After I read the poem, she nodded and said, “You really got him. You got him better than anybody else.”

The elegies in this book seem to console others; I’m not sure they console me.

 

GL: Your father was a fighter, an organizer, and a documentarian of the histories of underrepresented communities. How do you think of your own role in 2017 as similar, or different?

ME: Yes, my father was all these things, and more: he was the creator of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, a photo-documentary and oral history of the Puerto Rican migration. I think of myself as a documentary poet.

Ultimately, however, I write about whatever moves me. What moves me at the moment is this: Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair ninety years ago this past August at Charlestown Prison, at the current site of Bunker Hill Community College.

What moves me is that, two years ago this past August, less than seven miles from the place where Sacco and Vanzetti were killed, two South Boston brothers, Scott and Steve Leader, coming back from a Red Sox game, encountered a homeless Mexican man by the name of Guillermo Rodríguez sleeping outside the JFK/UMass station, woke up him by urinating in his face, kicked him, punched him, and beat him with a pole, breaking his nose. Scott Leader told police: “Donald Trump is right. All these illegals need to be deported.” Trump, hearing the news, responded that his followers were “passionate.” I told this story at Writers Resist Boston last January, but it’s time for a poem.

We should write about what moves us. And we need to get moving.

 


Giles Li is the Executive Director of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC), a family-centered multi-service organization that serves immigrant families with four locations in Boston and surrounding areas. In 2017, he was awarded a prestigious Barr Foundation Fellowship, and also named the winner of the statewide Excellence in Leadership Award from the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. In addition, Giles is a nationally recognized spoken word artist and published poet who has served as faculty at the annual retreat of Kundiman, a renowned community of Asian American writers.

​Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published almost twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His latest collection of poems from Norton is called Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016). His many honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, an American Book Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His book The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona, and has been issued in a new edition by Northwestern University Press. A former tenant lawyer in Greater Boston’s Latino community, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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