" In Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets

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Editor: Michelle Lee
Date: 2006
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 74. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,782 words

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[(interview date 2002) In the following interview, Espada and Ratiner discuss the political nature of Espada's poetry.]

Hunched over the podium, Martín Espada is an imposing presence, a grizzly bear of a man with dark eyes that devour the page. His poems are, by turns, ferocious, tender, ardently political or touchingly biographical. But in between the poems, when he tells stories about his writing and his life, the audience is caught off guard by his playful and self-deprecating humor. There is a largeness of feeling in the man, and we are willingly snared in the net of his words.

His first two volumes of poetry--The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero (with photographs by his father), and Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction--made him a rising star in contemporary Latino writing. But it was with his third collection, Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands, that his work began to be widely recognized. The book was awarded the first PEN/Revson Foundation Fellowship and gained him a national audience. The judges' citation praised the intensity of his writing: "The greatness of Espada's art, like all great arts, is that it gives dignity to the insulted and the injured of the earth."

When I interviewed him, shortly after the publication of Rebellion, Martín Espada was still a full-time tenant lawyer and supervisor of a legal services program. Today he is a professor at the University of Massachusetts and his recent collections, Imagine the Angels of Bread and A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen, reveal a deepening of his vision and a still-pungent sense of the political ironies in American life. His social commitment continues to energize his writing, "a poetry of advocacy." In our conversations, we discussed three of the larger themes that seem to run through all his work.

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[Ratiner]: So much of our poetry revolves around the personal experience of the individual. But yours has a broader, more communal focus. I'm impressed by the way history seems to be one of the large concerns in your writing.

[Espada]: First of all, I think that a poet can be a historian, just as a poet can be a sociologist or journalist or teacher or organizer. I see no contradiction there at all. Secondly, my undergraduate degree was in history, with a focus on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. I'm also very aware of a tradition that I come out of, which is the tradition of Latin American poets writing in historical terms. If you look at Ernesto Cardenal's Zero Hour, for example, that is a history of Nicaragua under Somosa. If you look at many of the poems of Pablo Neruda, likewise you see him writing with his country's history as a focus.

I begin my book [Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands] with a series of historical poems concerning the island of Puerto Rico--for two basic reasons. First, the need. My sense of the educational system of this country--having been through it myself...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420074614