On April 5th Martín Espada became the first Puerto Rican poet to receive the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award. This prestigious award is presented annually to a living American poet "selected with reference to his or her genius and need by a jury of poets."
Espada kindly agreed to answer a few questions for La Bloga about this honor and the role of poetry today...
LYDIA GIL: What does having received the Shelley Memorial Award mean to you, and to Latino poets in general?
MARTÍN ESPADA: For me, the Shelley Memorial Award is meaningful, in part, because the award is named for a radical poet. Shelley was the one who told us that, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World." I subscribe to that notion, and consider myself one of those unacknowledged legislators. Shelley also wrote, in his poem, "The Mask of Anarchy:"
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.
Those words were written in 1819, but they're applicable today. Think about the Occupy movement. Think about the one percent and the ninety-nine percent. Think about the economic suffering of Latinos in this country, especially the suffering of immigrants. Think about our political potential as Latinos to "Rise like Lions," by the millions.
I'm glad to receive this award because I follow in the footsteps of many outstanding poets who have won the award since its inception in 1930, including Lola Ridge, Edgar Lee Masters, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Tom McGrath, Etheridge Knight, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton and Rigoberto González. He was the first Latino to win the award, two years ago; I'm the second. These are breakthroughs for Latino poets, little by little. When a door opens for me, I try to bring others through the door with me.
GIL: You mentioned on one occasion that if extraterrestrials landed, finding the USA devoid of life with only books remaining, they would conclude that Latinos did not exist... Is this interpretation still valid?
ESPADA: Yes, I did say that, on more than one occasion, such was the near-total invisibility of Latino poets in mainstream literary journals, anthologies, awards and readings. That situation is slowly changing, as Latino poets continue to produce work of undeniable quality. What we have to say as poets creates a momentum that becomes impossible to ignore. There are still certain literary publications and organizations that would still confuse those visiting Martians, that cannot accept the seemingly oxymoronic notion of Latinos as poets. We have come a long way, and still have a long way to go.
GIL: As a poet, you enjoy a great deal of visibility and participate actively in the political and cultural conversation of this country. Do you consider these activities an integral part of your profession?
ESPADA: Yes, I believe that a poet should participate in the national dialogue. I believe that a poet should be a public citizen, an unacknowledged legislator. I believe that Latino poets especially should embrace the responsibility of acting as advocates, speaking on behalf of a community that is all too often silenced or neglected. We see far too few Latinos on television, sitting at the table and taking part in the national discourse on nearly everything (including Latino issues). Until we become part of that national discourse--and even after that--Latino poets have to step up and speak out.
GIL: Our days, like so many in the past, are full of insecurity, fear and mistrust... What role does poetry play in this kind of world?
Everything you say about the fearful state of our world is true. That affects the language of those in power, from governments to corporations, as they try to control our perception of reality. Thus, we live in an age of hyper-euphemism. That's how torture becomes "enhanced interrogation." That's how civilian deaths in wartime become "collateral damage." That's how the powers-that-be drain the meaning and the blood from words. We, as poets, can reconcile language and meaning; we can restore the blood to words. We can do this for the present or the future reader. We can do this for our children. We can do this, as Latino poets, in English or Spanish, or bilingually. We can do this for the sake of those who do not know our community's reality--and those who do.
GIL: What can you share with us about present and future projects?
ESPADA: I am working on two books at the moment. One book is a collection of essays on Latinos and baseball. (I just finished an essay about Roberto Clemente and one of his remarkable accomplishments: he hit the only walk-off, inside-the-park grand slam home run in baseball history.) The other is a compilation of my poems about work, about my labors or the labors of others, especially the most invisible among us in the Latino community. By the way, I've had every job you could possibly imagine, from bouncer in a bar to caretaker in a primate nursery to tenant lawyer. Working with monkeys is not that different from working with lawyers. I'm the only poet you'll ever meet who has been bitten by a monkey.
Martín Espada has published more than fifteen books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His latest collection of poems, The Trouble Ball (Norton, 2011), is the recipient of the Milt Kessler Award, a Massachusetts Book Award and an International Latino Book Award. The Republic of Poetry, a collection published by Norton in 2006, received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A previous book of poems, Imagine the Angels of Bread (Norton, 1996), won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other books of poems include A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen (Norton, 2000), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (Norton, 1993), and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover's Hands (Curbstone, 1990). He has received other recognition such as the Robert Creeley Award, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. His work has been widely translated; collections of poems have been published in Spain, Puerto Rico, and Chile. A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.