Secrets of a Poet Spy

Award-winning poet Martin Espada talks to YES! associate editor Tracy Rysavy about his Latino roots, the pen as an activist's tool, and why we have to imagine a more just world before making it happen.
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Photo by Ehud Neuhaus / Unsplash

Martín Espada has been called “the true poet laureate of this nation” by The Bloomsbury Review. His work has been celebrated with prestigious honors - including the American Book Award for his poetry collection Imagine the Angels of Bread and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship - and has been banned from some arenas for its brutal honesty and controversial content. His poems and essays speak of what happens to boys who find the word “spic” scripted in the icing on their cakes, why “the perfect brie” makes a perfectly awful artistic subject, and why “poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” His latest book is Zapata's Disciple, a collection of essays published by South End Press.

Tracy Rysavy: When would-be writers look at a sheet of paper, they sometimes feel sheer terror at having to express themselves in such an intimate way. Where do you get the courage and the passion to write poetry?

Martín Espada: Compulsion. It feels urgent. There are ghosts that tell me to write. There are voices that tell me to write. I'm not talking about schizophrenia now, I'm talking about the interplay of imagination and memory and ancestors, both literal and figurative. There's a certain responsibility I feel because of what I know.

I rarely think of writing in terms of courage. It doesn't feel like courage; it feels like necessity. If I thought about consequences, I'm sure there are things I would not write, actions I would not take. But that's also known as living in fear. I think the people we see as principled or courageous are those who often act without considering the consequences or in defiance of the consequences.

Tracy: Can you say a little more about what it is you “know” that must be put down on paper?

Martín: Let's take, for an example, what I know because I worked for many years as a legal services lawyer. I know that a live cockroach can become embedded in a child's ear - if living conditions are harsh enough, if poverty is omnipresent, if a given apartment is overrun with roaches. To me, that's a particular horror that requires expression. First of all, it makes human or real the abstraction we call “poverty.” If we can make that abstraction vivid for people who live outside of that experience, perhaps they will be moved to address that experience and to change that condition.

I must admit that when I sit down to write, I don't have that chain reaction uppermost in mind. I write because, again, it's a compulsion, a reflex, it feels urgent. It's only later that I may say, “I hope this has an effect somewhere among people who may not be aware that such a thing is possible.”

Tracy: You've had many different jobs: from gas station attendant, to assistant in an animal testing lab, to bar bouncer. When was the moment when you felt this urgency to write - and to give voice to these problems other poets often dance around?

Martín: I started writing when I was 15. I used to write instead of sleeping. I learned to become a time bandit, to steal minutes. I learned how to walk down the street and compose a poem in my head. I learned to retain images while I was hanging from the strap in a subway car. I learned if I string together these images like boxcars on a train, eventually that train would start to move and would become a poem.

I was grateful for the opportunity to work in all kinds of settings, because that made me a spy. I was working in a gas station with my hands while my brain was writing poetry, which probably accounted for the fact that I often gave people too much gas or not enough gas.

Tracy: What do you mean when you say you were a “spy”?

Martín: Well, this goes back to the notion people have that if you work with your hands, you don't have a brain. If you don't have a brain, people assume they can say or do whatever they want right in front of you. If you go along with this, if you give people the impression that you are a pair of hands only, you get to see and hear a lot of very interesting things. I've still got the ability to make myself part of the wallpaper so I can observe everything around me. I was always watching, listening, taking mental notes, and turning some of those notes into poetry.

Tracy: You've said that for other poets, “social class seems to be the triangle in the orchestra,” and for you “ it's an insistent percussion.” Can we talk about why it's so important in your work?

Martín: I think it's an insistent percussion in my consciousness, so therefore it would be a insistent percussion in my poetry. Class is something that is always present in poetry and rarely addressed. Why in the world would poetry be exempt from the class system, which surrounds and produces the poet? Latino poetry is a poetry steeped in working class experience.

When I say working class, I'm stressing origins. Right now, I've been a professor for six years, and before that I was a lawyer for a number of years. Clearly, I now enjoy a middle class status. But I come from a working class background, and I'm not going to disavow that or put it behind me. Instead, I'm going to do what I can to embrace it, to bring forth the voices I recall from that working class heritage, and to put those voices out there to the world. And hopefully they'll sing if I get it right.

If you look at the news media, you rarely see working class life displayed for what it is - celebrating the work itself or celebrating the struggles that people undergo. How many times has entertainment television or television news given us a sympathetic portrayal of a strike? It doesn't happen.

If I worked as a janitor, there's probably something I could say about being a janitor that would make sense as a poem and would also address this void - that would address the simple idea that maybe there's dignity among janitors. I'm not trying to sentimentalize or romanticize that particular occupation, but I've been a janitor. I've had my share of dignity, and I've been surrounded by people who have also had their share of dignity. You're never going to see that on a television screen, in the movies, or on the news.

Tracy: That brings to mind the first poem I ever read by you - “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits.”

Martín: That's the one I was thinking of. I wrote that poem about a friend of mine - a man of intelligence and dignity who was treated abusively by his employers. He quit in the middle of the night, just walked away. There are a lot of Jorges out there. There was a time when I was a Jorge, so that enabled me to write the poem in the first person voice of Jorge. I'd been treated as a pair of hands, seen only for what my hands could clean up and not for what my mind could do. It's what I call “the Dilemma of the Thinking Janitor.”

Tracy: Your father came from a working-class background and seems to have had quite an influence on who you are as a poet. Can you talk a little more about that?

Martín: When I was born, my father was working as a draftsman for an electrical contractor. Before that he'd been in the military. My father had been radicalized by an experience he had while in the military. He was traveling through the South on a bus on his way home for Christmas. The bus stopped in Biloxi, Mississippi, and he was arrested for not going to the back of the bus. My father is dark complexioned, unlike myself.

He spent a week in jail, and it was there that he was radicalized. He decided to get involved with the civil rights movement, and that led him to other things. So, that's why I made a pilgrimage to Biloxi, Mississippi. He was radicalized there, and, in effect, so was I, because I grew up in his house.

Tracy: There's a quote in your book of essays from a friend of yours that you say expresses your feelings about your bilingualism: “English is an obedient dog. When I tell him to sit, he sits. Spanish is a disobedient dog. When I tell him to sit, he pees on the couch.” However, you write your poetry in both languages. Do you feel you have a dual identity of sorts, an English and Spanish language identity?

Martín: I write mostly in English. Occasionally, I will employ a device called “code switching,” where I go from one language to the other for effect - whether that effect is drama, irony, humor, emphasis, or music.

I also participate in the process of translation from English to Spanish. I say “participate” because I work with a co-translator, named Camillo PÅ?rez Bustillo. He takes the lead, because his Spanish is better than mine. Also, a poet can often make for a very bad translator, since the poet is too close to the work. You need some distance and perspective. You also need someone to remind you that the most literal translation is not necessarily the best one.

I think Spanish is a very important bridge for Latinos to cross, because on the other side is the homeland - ancestry and tradition, the elders in the community, yourself. There's a much deeper and richer sense of yourself when you have that language as part of your identity.

It's really difficult for Latinos who don't speak Spanish to feel whole. There's always a debate in any ethnic community about authenticity. In many ways it can be a dangerous debate, but if you're a Latino who doesn't speak Spanish, your authenticity will be questioned, and you will question it more strenuously than anyone else.

Conversely, there's a sense of connection when you speak Spanish. There's a connection to the place and people that you come from. If you want to talk to the old people in your community, you have to be able to speak Spanish. If you want to be able to travel to Latin America and find out about your personal history and the history of your culture, you've got to speak Spanish.

Tracy: Didn't a group of parents in Massachusetts call you when Spanish was banned at lunch during school?

Martín: That was during my time as a lawyer. I was working in Boston at the time for an organization called META, Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy. One day we got a call from a parent in the Lynn, Massachusetts Hispanic Parent Advisory Council, who said, “Would you please come up to Lynn? They've banned Spanish at lunchtime.”

We intervened, and after some discussion, the principal changed the policy. Out of that experience, I wrote a goofy poem called “The New Bathroom Policy at English High School,” where a principal in the school bathroom doesn't like the fact that there are kids talking in Spanish. He hears his name, which reinforces that sentiment, so he becomes constipated, and the only way to relieve himself is to ban Spanish in the bathroom.

A Puerto Rican hospital administrator in Connecticut told me that he read this poem aloud at a meeting, causing the hospital to reverse its policy of forbidding patients to speak Spanish among themselves.

Tracy: I was very struck by one of your essays where you talked about the use of the term “macho” as justification to repress Latino males - particularly inside the criminal justice system.

Martín: “Macho” is a matter of projection. There is a dominant society that views Latino males as dangerous and threatening - whether that danger manifests itself in the form of criminal violence or in the form of revolutionary violence. How do you rationalize incarceration of a large percentage of a certain segment of the population? This society is very dangerous for Latino males, so the rationalization must be that Latino males are dangerous. It's a reversal. It's a projection.

This is not to say there aren't problems with sexism and homophobia and violence in the Latino community. Of course there are. But when we talk about “macho” as a word, we have to look very carefully at the way it's applied by the majority to the minority. Notice that I'm not advocating that Latinos stop using the term “macho,” or that Latinas in particular stop using it. We have to continue to have that dialogue among ourselves.

What I object to, strenuously, is the Anglo use of the term “macho,” because it is a very broad brush that is used to justify a host of repressive measures against Latinos - again, as our presence on the honor roll of many a jail and prison will attest.

Think about the sense of anticipation in the mind of a police officer who confronts a Latino - or an African-American male - on the street, taking into consideration the few seconds that officer has to react. Think about the rash of police brutality incidents that have come to our attention in recent years. Think about the hail of bullets that comes from cops who are scared, because they're seeing a criminal prototype standing before them instead of a human being. The perception of “macho” volatility turns deadly.

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Tracy: You've been very involved with the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the African-American journalist on death row. Many people allege that Mumia was a victim of police brutality and conspiracy.

Martín: As many readers may know, Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted in the 1981 slaying of police officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia - under extremely dubious circumstances. Officer Faulkner was beating Mumia's brother with a flashlight when Mumia came upon the scene. In the ensuing confrontation, both Faulkner and Mumia were shot. Though Mumia had a .38 caliber pistol in his taxi that night, and the gun was found at the scene, the judgment of the medical examiner concerning the fatal bullet was that it came from a .44 caliber weapon. Several witnesses reported seeing an unidentified gunman flee. I don't think it's coincidental that before his arrest, Mumia was a strong critic of the Philadelphia police.

What we're dealing with in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal is a chain of silence. For example, I was commissioned to write a poem by NPR. I met all the guidelines - one of the producers admitted in an interview that she loved the poem, called “Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man is Innocent” - but they refused to air it, because it was about Mumia. Since that happened, I have become much more involved in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal; I've ended up visiting him on death row.

In order to silence the millions for whom Mumia speaks, you have to silence Mumia. In order to silence Mumia, you have to silence those that speak for him where he does not have the opportunity to speak for himself.

We have to get away from the very narrow formulation that censorship is something carried out exclusively by the state. One of the great ironies of this culture of the end of 20th century is that the media is both the greatest protector and the greatest inhibitor of free speech in this country. We must never forget that oftentimes, free speech depends on who owns the press. If you don't own the press, you don't have free speech.

Tracy: The title poem of your book Imagine the Angels of Bread has several of what you call “reversals.” You say, “This is the year that squatters evict landlords É that shawled refugees deport judges É that no doctor/ finds a roach embedded/ in the ear of an infant.” You talk in your essays about these reversals being the vision of the future from which you write. What do you see now that gives you hope that this vision may come to pass and some of these injustices will be overturned?

Martín: I think my hope for the future is based on my understanding of the past. When I look at history, I am encouraged by the possibilities for the future. When I talk about the impossible in the poem “Imagine the Angels of Bread,” I do so knowing that there were other injustices considered unresolvable that were resolved.

Let's take, for example, the profound injustice of slavery. There was a time when almost everyone accepted slavery in this society as a given.

But you had the abolitionists who said, “We must imagine a world without slavery.” Slavery in this country is no longer with us in the form that we saw it in the 19th century.

More recently, most people in this society accepted the notion of racial segregation by law. But there were people in the civil rights movement who insisted that it had to go, who insisted that we imagine the impossible - a time when de jure segregation was no more.

We look to the south today, and no longer do we see de jure segregation.

In the poem, I refer to slavery as something we once thought of as an evil that would always be with us. And it's gone. I cite the Holocaust as an evil that seemed to be impregnable. And the Holocaust is gone.

What we have to guard against, of course, are the slaveries and the Holocausts of the future. But what we can also see is that there are many social problems that - while they are extremely difficult - are not nearly as difficult to resolve as slavery. My argument, implicit in that poem, is that if we could get rid of slavery in this country, we can also get rid of the injustices we are struggling with today, which are much less formidable, much less impossible.

Tracy: Everything you've cited has taken a huge revolution to overcome.

Martín: Well, yes, that's why I'm talking in terms of the imagination in that poem, because we must imagine. When you're talking about a huge social transformation and the huge social struggle that precedes that transformation, there must be a huge shift in the collective imagination before any of that can take place. That's a prerequisite; it must come first. We must imagine the possibility of a more just world before the world may become more just. That's something that poets do well. So I guess that's where I come in.