[(interview date March-April 1995) In the following interview, Espada and Gunderson discuss Espada's development as a poet and his commitment to social activism and political poetry.]
Behind a small table in the cramped Grolier's Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Martín Espada looms, his imposing shape squeezed by books on three sides. Happily, they are his books, waiting to be signed by the grateful patrons clutching plastic cups of wine and waiting for their names to appear from the pen in his large, soft hand. Although the room's size discourages lingering, customers do it anyway, reading through Espada's latest, and fourth, book of poems, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (Norton, 1993).
There is a festive mood--perhaps because of Espada's unmistakable quiet energy and charming cocky smile, which seem to draw people closer to him, make them hover. When speaking to him, they use verbal shorthand for the titles so familiar to both poet and audience: "Iceboy's Bolero" for The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero (Ghost Pony Press, 1982), "Trumpets" for Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction (Bilingual Press, 1987), "Rebellion" for Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover's Hands (Curbstone Press, 1990), which won the PEN/Revson Award as well as the Paterson Poetry Prize. Now "City" can be added to the sparkling, well-received list.
Later, after the book pile has diminished considerably and the plastic cups lie in a jumbled heap in the garbage, Espada reveals that there was a time when people weren't quite so eager to be near him, and when his poetry wasn't so respected.
Espada spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn, where he was born in 1957. When he was about 13, his family moved to Long Island, which he calls "my own private Mississippi," because of the difficulties he encountered as a Puerto Rican in a white suburb. When he first started writing poetry at 16 he did so partially to search for a positive identity in a negative atmosphere.
"I think for the period of three years that I was going to high school on Long Island I heard the word 'spic' more often than I heard my own name. There's one of two ways that you can respond to that pressure. You can either run like crazy from the identity being attacked and say, 'no, I'm not that, I'm not what you're calling me,' or you can confront the hostility directly by asserting your identity. I chose the second path. I did it with poetry. It took a while for me to understand why I was compelled to write poetry. At first the purpose was therapeutic, and once I got beyond that I realized I had a certain love of language that compelled me to keep writing."
Espada kept writing through spotty grades in school, through another move to Maryland, and in college. He stopped writing, however, after taking two pivotal courses at the University of Maryland. The first was a poetics course, where he was blasted with the canon.