Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
by Martín Espada
W.W. Norton & Co. 2016
L.G.: Tell me more about the title... How did it come to the five sonnets? Do we need to be acquainted with the Whitman poem to understand the reference? Also, the last verse, does it take us back to Whitman or to your reading of his poem?
M.E.: "Vivas to those who have failed" comes from section 18 of Whitman's "Song of Myself." For me, this phrase resonates on multiple levels. We have to see the world in a whole new way. We have to redefine what we mean by "failure." The subject of these five sonnets is the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. This was one of the great strikes in U.S. history. Yet, they lost. Or did they? Their most important demand was for an eight-hour day. That demand would transform the history of labor in this country.
There is an important sub-text here. These were immigrant workers. Many spoke little or no English. They were considered sub-human on the one hand, and politically threatening on the other. Sound familiar? We live in the Age of Trump and the anti-immigrant bigotry he both provokes and embraces. All we have to do is look to history to see how immigrants have constructed the world we take for granted--just as immigrants do today.
In the same passage of section 18, Whitman refers to the "numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known." We must acknowledge those heroes, past and present, and finally give them their due. We don't need to know Whitman to know those numberless unknown heroes. We all know them, in our own lives and beyond.
Finally, I settled on five sonnets because I want to find a way to focus on a great historical event by finding the part to stand for the whole, to find the face that is many faces, to find the stories of individuals, some famous, like John Reed of Reds fame, some anonymous like Hannah Silverman, to tell the tale. It's not a coincidence that these are Italian sonnets, given that thousands of these workers came from Italy.
M.E.: I did quite bit of research to write about the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. I read primary source documents, written by and about people who were there. I did not discover Hannah Silverman. Historian Steve Golin has much to say about her in The Fragile Bridge, his book about the strike. Aside from his book, however, you'll find very little about the so-called "Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike." I do what poets do: I attempt to rescue the dead from oblivion.
L.G.: The formal construction of your poems, the exalted tone, seem to oppose the notion of failure (like "Vivas...") Is failure necessary for change? Does that "river" ever reach the sea?
M.E.: We associate the sonnet form with Shakespeare, with exalted subjects, with high art. By using the sonnet form here, I'm demanding respect for those commonly denied respect. Jack Agüeros did that in his "Sonnets from the Puerto Rican." Rafael Campo did that in his emergency room sonnets, the cycle called "Ten Patients and Another."
Yes, "failure" is necessary for change. Any struggle for justice is matter of years, decades, centuries. Those who came before us, who contributed to that struggle, invisible though they may be to us in the present, do "become the river"--a powerful force, a force of nature, moving forward, beneath our feet and all around us, from which we take sustenance, even if we don't know it.
"The brain thrown against the wall of the skull remembered too:
the Sons of Italy, the Workmen's Circle, Local 152, Industrial
Workers of the World, one-eyed Big Bill and Flynn the Rebel Girl
speaking in tongues to thousands the prophecy of an eight-hour day.
Mazziotti's son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet.
Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river."
L.G.: How did you conceive of this collection of poems? Can you talk about the process of organizing its five sections... (5 again!)
M.E.: Here's a quick overview of the five sections:
1. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed: These are the poems about the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. I chose this sequence of sonnets to begin the book because that social struggle is so critically important to our history in this country, and, as they say, la lucha continua--the struggle goes on.
2. Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World: These are poems about, and against, violence. The sequence begins with a poem about the conquistador Juan de Oñate and his genocidal assault on the Acoma Pueblo, and continues on with poems that address the Sandy Hook massacre, the killings of unarmed people of color by police, and the murder of James Foley, a journalist (and former student) executed by ISIS. The common denominator of each poem, however, is resistance, in all its forms, from protest to memory.
3. Here I Am: This sequence of poems that celebrates performers and visionaries: poets, musicians, baseball players, actors. There is the same struggle against oblivion in this section--there are three elegies--but there is also humor, particularly in the poems about my "career" as a Shakespearean actor with a community theater company.
4. A Million Ants Swarming Through His Body: This group of poems deals with my childhood--in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico--as well as the connections between generations: grandfathers, fathers and sons. There is a particular focus on Puerto Rico, including a poem about my first visit to the island and another elegy, this time for a former light-heavyweight boxing champion, Chegüí Torres.
5. El Moriviví: This is a cycle of poems about and dedicated to my father, Francisco Luis "Frank" Espada, who died in 2014. They range from very personal to very political. Frank Espada was a hell-raiser: a community organizer, a civil rights activist, a leader--some would say the leader--of the Puerto Rican community in New York during the 1960s. Above all, he was a documentary photographer, the founder and director of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, a photo-documentary and oral history of the Puerto Rican migration. I read the last poem, "El Moriviví," at his memorial service at El Puente, a community center in Brooklyn, in May 2014. The title refers to a plant that grows in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. This plant closes at the touch, and then opens again. This plant also closes in darkness and opens in light. The word literally translates to "I died/I lived," and so it becomes the ideal metaphor for the many lives, deaths and rebirths, the ultimate transcendence, of my father.
L.G.: In "Once Thundering Penguin Herds Darkened the Prairie," you write: "We [poets] will tempt them [tourists] to taste the steamed tofu dog of poetry instead." Sounds pretty unappealing! Could you tell us a bit more?
M.E.: I often write about the power of poetry. (The poem "Here I Am," about the poet José Gouveia, is a good example.) I believe in the power of poetry. Here is a poem, however, about the powerlessness of poetry. Sometimes we poets have to concede that poetry is not all-powerful, and laugh at ourselves, as this poem does.
Reading & Book Launch
for Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
at Cave Canem in Brooklyn (20 Jay St.)
Friday, February 5th at 6 PM
Click here for more info