Soaking up the Ghosts, Luivette Resto Interviews Martín Espada

I was able to catch up, albeit virtually, with my friend and mentor Martín Espada to discuss his latest poetry collection The Trouble Ball. This is Espada’s eleventh poetry collection, and the power and ferocity of its verses are reflective of the poet himself. Recently, Bill Moyers interviewed Espada about his new work specifically the political power of the last poem in the collection “Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass.” I highly encourage everyone to watch this interview. It provides great conversation about the power and place of poetry, and it reminds me of one of the new poems in this collection “People Like Us Are Dangerous.”

LUIVETTE RESTO:  Two themes that stood out for me in this collection is (im)mortality (such as “Instructions on the Disposal of My Remains” and “His Hands Have Learned What Cannot Be Taught”) and honoring those who have passed away especially those who have influenced us on a literary, social, and/or political level like Jack Agüeros or Howard Zinn. What formal strategies did you take into consideration in developing these themes? For example, “Like a Word That Somersaults Through the Air” is a sonnet for Abe.

MARTÍN ESPADA:  I have lost many friends in the last few years, and written so many elegies, that I had to find a new way to say the unsayable, to find a language of consolation that goes beyond consolation. Rather than focusing on the death itself, I found myself focusing on the life, or better put, the epiphanic moments in the life that made this human being unique or important. You mention the sonnet for Abe Osheroff, who was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and an activist for more than 75 years. It began for Abe at the age of fifteen, when he was became involved in Brooklyn's anti-eviction movement, and ended up swatting a gun away from a cop who tried to stop Abe and his friends from moving furniture back into the apartment of a neighbor who had been evicted by the landlord. That was an epiphanic moment for Abe, and it led to a lifetime of activism. In turn, Abe's life was an inspiration for many others, myself included.

LUIVETTE:  This book reads much more personal than the rest (i.e. the poems about Sam Hamill, Sandy Taylor, Jack Agüeros, baseball with your dad) with the first half of the book paying homage to your Brooklyn childhood. They read like elegies and odes. Was that purposeful, to share these personal childhood memories with your audience?

MARTÍN:  Yes, this book, The Trouble Ball, is essentially a collection of odes and elegies, poems of praise and grief. At the same time, as I said in response to the first question, I want to redefine my own approach to praise and grief. Childhood memories are essential. As I mature as a writer, I can write about subjects that were too sensitive or difficult emotionally for me to approach through poetry in the past. There is a poem here where I get kicked between the legs in a street fight. There is no way I could have made myself so vulnerable as a young writer.

LUIVETTE:  In the second half the dead speak again in your poems. They are resurrected through your memories and words for example in “The Buried Book of Jorge Montealegre.” Were the poems a way for you to remember or for others to remember and honor these individuals they way you do or both?

MARTÍN:  I should point out, first of all, that the Chilean poet Jorge Montealegre is very much alive. I met him in Santiago de Chile in 2007, where I heard him tell the story of his poetry and his incarceration during the Pinochet dictatorship. But, in answer to your question: I want the dead to speak through my poems so that we can collectively remember those who built the roads we walk upon. In one poem, I refer to walking through the world, "soaking up the ghosts through the soles of my feet." The ghosts tell us stories, yes, but let's never forget that the ghosts--our ancestors, our compañeros--built those roads.

LUIVETTE:  Political poetry and you have become synonymous at this point, and some poems fall in line with that particularly the last one about Frederick Douglass and the 08 election and even Howard Zinn's poem. But somehow you were able to combine the political moment with his death. How does a poet achieve this combination without being too sentimental?

MARTÍN:  The most direct way for a poet to accomplish the combination of personal and political of which you speak is to rely on the image. Be concrete, be precise, be specific, and ground yourself in the senses, and you can usually avoid the abstract rhetoric that so often leads to sentimentality in such poems.

LUIVETTE:  You have been a strong advocate of the Librotraficante movement. As history has shown us, literature is seen once again as a threat to those in power and empowering to those oppressed by the plutocracy and oligarchy we are living in these days. You have seen this before, so I ask you where are we headed? Do you foresee more resistance writing being born from this or should be wary of how much more censorship can be enforced? How does institutional censorship like this affect the art and the artist?

MARTÍN:  These are major questions, worthy of an essay unto themselves. I am not only a supporter of Librotraficante, but a banned author myself. My book of essays and poems, Zapata's Disciple (South End Press) was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. Contrary to what we've all been told over and over, censorship in this country happens, and it works. Most banned writers go unread; their books go out of print, and those who would most benefit from reading their work never get the chance. So Latino writers have to respond immediately. We have to organize. We have to speak out. We have to keep writing. And we will. I know what my generation was able to accomplish. It's time for the next generation to step up and fight back. I foresee resistance. Never tell a poet: "You can't say that."