Acclaimed local poet Martín Espada has garnered numerous accolades over the years for his work. Espada was the first Latino to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2018, a lifetime achievement award given by the Poetry Foundation.  

One of his greatest influences has been his father, the late Frank Espada, who was a civil rights activist, community organizer and documentary photographer.  

In this digital exclusive, Espada discusses his father’s influence and what he learned from him. 


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Acclaimed local poet Martín Espada has garnered numerous accolades over the years for his work, including being the first Latino to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2018, a lifetime achievement award given by the Poetry Foundation.

One of his greatest influences has been his father, the late Frank Espada, who was a civil rights activist, community organizer, and documentary photographer. In this digital exclusive, Martín discusses his father’s influence and what he learned from him.

Martín Espada, Poet: My father’s photographs not only hung on the walls of our apartment in Brooklyn when I was growing up, they hung on the walls of my imagination. And they continue to be there. So, there is that. We begin with his images. And images of the community in general, but the Puerto Rican community in particular.

However, I learned an even larger lesson, which was that there was no distinction between art and politics, that art and politics indeed could be one. My father never made that distinction. He was an activist, he was an artist. They were inseparable.

And so I watched him every day, whether it was his activism or his art or the two combined. And I internalized that. I grew up with an ethos of resistance all around me, and that resistance is itself a form of hope. And so I learned, when I started writing poetry that I could do that, too. It’s very important precedent.

And of course, once I began to write seriously, my focus was, not surprisingly, on the same community or communities.

Zydalis Bauer: Yeah, and in this collection, it really touches on historical, political, personal accounts, sometimes tying all three of those into one poem. And one of the poems that spoke to me was “Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin Bridge,” which includes a personal counselor of yours, tied in with the factual story of a notorious murder case in Boston where a white man murdered his wife, blamed it on a made up Black carjacker, and almost got away with it.

Which poem or poems are your favorite in this collection?

Martín Espada, Poet: It’s a little bit like having your favorite child. You’re not supposed to have one. You’re not supposed to say. But the poem you just mentioned, “Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin Bridge” would certainly qualify as one that is close to my heart in this collection.

Another is indeed a poem called “Letter to My Father,” where I addressed my father, Frank Espada, in the wake of Hurricane Maria in the fall of 2017.

And I am reminded from time to time that people are already forgetting about Hurricane Maria what it did to Puerto Rico. They’ve certainly forgotten what it did to my father’s hometown of Utuado. It was basically devastated, destroyed.

And so when the hurricane hit, I found myself talking to my father, even though he had died three years earlier. In point of fact, I was talking to his ashes in a box on my bookshelf. It’s not unusual to talk to the dead, but I was talking to the dead quite, quite directly.

And I imagined what he might say, although all the quotations in the poem are, in fact, things he did say. So, that one also qualifies.

I hasten to point out, though, that this is not only a collection of political poems, that there are love poems in this collection. I do believe that times of hate call for poems of love. And so, you know, there is a series of poems for my wife, Lauren, who is herself a poet with four books out. She’s also working on a novel and she’s a very committed teacher. So, there it is. This is a book that, for that reason is difficult to categorize.

Zydalis Bauer: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

Martín Espada, Poet: If I can reach one reader with one poem, then I’ve done my job. If a poem makes readers’ eyes water, if it makes the hair stand up on the back of the reader’s neck or on the reader’s arm, then I’ve done my job. If I can make the reader go back to the first line of the poem after they’ve gotten through reading the poem the first time, then I’ve done my job.

It’s impossible to quantify, although, you know, certainly in the good old days when I did in person readings, people would come up to me and say something at a book signing. They would say this or that about a poem. And I would have that kind of communion with a listener. In the case of a reading, obviously we don’t get that opportunity right now. Hopefully, that sometime a forthcoming in the near future.