The Massachusetts Poetry Festival was held last week, and among the headliners was former Boston tenant lawyer turned acclaimed poet, Martín Espada. A resident of Western Mass and a professor at UMass Amherst, Espada has published more than 20 books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. 

Espada’s most recent published work is entitled Floaters. The collection includes poems that touch on personal accounts, songs of love, and tackles issues of race and protest.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Espada to learn more about his work and the book, and what inspires both. 

This segment originally aired on May 21, 2021.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Massachusetts Poetry Festival was held last week, and among the headliners was former Boston tenant lawyer-turned acclaimed poet Martín Espada.

A resident of Western Mass and a professor at UMass Amherst, Espada has published more than 20 books as a poet, editor, essayist, and translator. His most recent collection is entitled “Floaters,” and includes poems that touch on personal accounts and songs of love, as well as tackling the difficult issues of race and protest.

I spoke with Espada recently to learn more about his work and the book.

Martín Espada, Poet: I had for a long time lived this double life as poet-lawyer, poet always came first, by the way. And I noticed that there was a position open in the English department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And I began teaching at UMass Amherst in the fall of 1993 and I have been there ever since.

Now, does my life as a legal services lawyer influence my work as a poet? Absolutely. The common denominator is advocacy. Advocacy, speaking on behalf of those who do not have the opportunity to speak for themselves.

I did that as a lawyer in Chelsea District Court with my clients who came from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, or El Salvador, Guatemala. And I do it as a poet, and I’m doing it with this new book called “Floaters.”

Zydalis Bauer: You have published more than 20 books as a poet, editor, essayist, translator, and just as you mentioned, your current publication is titled “Floaters.”

What is the meaning behind the title?

Martín Espada: The title comes from a term used by certain members of the Border Patrol to describe those who drowned crossing over the border.

In particular, the title poem deals with a Salvadoran father and daughter, migrants, who came to be known as Oscar and Valéria. They drowned in June of 2019 crossing the Rio Grande and a photograph of their bodies went viral. One thing led to another, sparked outrage, sparked grief. But, it also sparked trutherism.

And there was a post, an anonymous post, on the page of the I 10-15 Border Patrol Facebook group alleging that the photograph was a fake, trutherism. And so, some poems began as an argument, this poem began as an argument, both with that Facebook post alleging that this photograph was a fake, and as an argument with the slur, the word “floaters.”

Poets, of course, have to be attuned to language, and especially when it is abused in the service of power.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, in a review of floaters by the North American Review, it says that “instead of being overwhelmed by the delusional past of Americanist narratives, [you] face its ugly truth and require readers to do so, too.”

Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, what are some of these ugly truths that readers will uncover in this book?

Martín Espada: The ugly truth is that we do not live up to our high ideals. The ugly truth is that millions of people in this country live with racism, not as an abstraction or as a debatable political phenomenon, but as a lived reality in concrete terms that diminish them or even destroyed them. And so, we see this in poem after poem.

But it’s important to point out, too, that it’s not merely a catalog of victimization and that I do whatever I can as a poet to chronicle resistance, as well.

Zydalis Bauer: And I want to also note that you have been very vocal through your poetry, responding to many of the policies and controversies of the former Trump Administration.

And one of your poems titled “Not for Him: The Fiery Lake of the False Prophet” touches on a hate crime that occurred right here in Massachusetts shortly after former President Trump announced his run for office.

With a new administration in office, and a national reckoning on racial justice, what do you hope to see?

Martín Espada: I hope to see something better. I hope to see the rhetoric match the reality. Obviously, there are many progressive initiatives put forward now by the Biden administration. It’s certainly a big step forward from the monstrosity that preceded it, the Trump administration.

And, yes, Donald Trump, even in the speech where he announced his candidacy, called Mexican migrants criminals and rapists. And that was, in turn, the catalyst for the hate crime committed in Boston by two brothers from South Boston against a homeless Mexican immigrant sleeping outside a station on the Red Line.

As far as the present day is concerned, the one area where I think we are still seeing a glaring contradiction is in terms of our treatment of migrants at the southern border. There is a continuation of Trump policies rather than a contradiction of Trump policies in certain areas, particularly the failure to lift the prohibitions of Title 42, the public health emergency measure, which is effectively shutting down migration at the southern border. But, especially application for asylum and asylum, of course, is is a human right.

Zydalis Bauer: You describe your collection as “reflecting on the present in the light of the past.” In doing so, do you see hope for the future or do you take more of a pessimistic outlook on on looking ahead?

Martín Espada: Do I see hope for the future? Consider the alternative. I don’t think we can give in to despair. I think we have to look in the collective mirror, and ask ourselves one fundamental question “Who are we?”

Who are we as a nation? Who are we as a community? Who are we as individuals? And can we find it in ourselves to exercise that empathy, which goes hand in hand with democracy, when it is truly democracy?