Martín Espada uses poetry as a form of advocacy

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In New England, the route often taken is poetry. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, EE Cummings, Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost are just a few of the countless poets from these regions. Cambridge alone is populated by an American poet laureate and a Nobel laureate.

To celebrate this New England tradition, GBH features local poets every Friday during National Poetry Month. Open workshop animator Jared Bowen recently spoke with Martín Espada about his work.

Espada, a poet and professor at UMass Amherst, won the 2021 National Book Award for “Floaters,” a collection of poetry named after a piece he wrote in response to the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínex Ramírez and his young girl, two migrants whose bodies were found face down in the Rio Grande. He said the image sparked outrage and grief, but also prompted “truthfulness” and comments about whether the image was doctored or staged.

“Next to the photo was this comment specifically on the Facebook group page ‘I’m 10-15’ Border Patrol, an anonymous commenter questioning this photo – wondering if it had been doctored or tampered with. scene,” he said. “So I wrote the poem in response to that photo, but also in response to that Facebook post and the mentality behind it.”

Espada said poetry can capture intangible qualities and move people in ways that other media cannot. To complete narrative details and put readers in a scene, he incorporates journalistic sourcing into some of his work. With “Floaters”, he read everything he could, in English as well as in Spanish.

“I am also linked to an organization called Border Witness,” he said. “So this group of border activists not only had information, but a certain sensibility that I wanted to tap into and wanted to share.”

Espada previously worked as a lawyer at Chelsea. He was a supervisor of a legal services program for low-income Spanish-speaking tenants. Espada said advocacy is the common thread between her earlier work and her poetry. Much of her work deals with human rights and social justice issues, including a poem based on her experience at Chelsea.

“There is a poem in this book called ‘Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin Bridge’ which tells the story of my time in Chelsea and a particularly loud argument with a taxi driver who warned me when I got into his taxi to be careful at Chelsea because, as he said, ‘there’s a lot of José around here,'” Espada recalled. “I felt ethically bound to tell him that indeed I am a José and I am Puerto Rican. And in fact, that I go to court and represent all the Josées there. So I was a real nightmare for him, especially since we were stuck together in rush hour traffic on the bridge.”

The poet said that these two words – “les Josés” – were both racist and inventive.

“There are a lot of other words he could have used – words that were used on me,” he said. “Admittedly, he didn’t use them. He invented something himself. … It replaces a whole series of prejudices, a whole series of acts of discrimination that took place not only at Chelsea in the past , but in all this country.”

Espada hopes her poetry will contribute as a form of historical document.

“I sometimes wonder, assuming this poetry survives, assuming anything from this culture survives, is this how people will understand what we’ve been through? of another ?” he said. “I hope it does. There’s no way to prove it, of course. We just have to keep writing.”


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