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For poet Martín Espada, National Book Award is a recognition for his book and the people in it

The poet Martín Espada describes the 2021 National Book Award for his poem collection “Floaters” as an extraordinary megaphone to recognize the people he writes about.

Espada teaches English at UMass Amherst and has been writing for 40 years. He said his poems are both personal and about matters of justice for Latinos. 

For instance, “Floaters,” the title poem, is about Oscar and Valeria Ramirez, the Salvadoran father and daughter who died trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico to Texas — made famous in a news photo that went viral.

Espada told NEPM’s Jill Kaufman the National Book Award is a megaphone for them, and others too.

Martín Espada, poet: Like Jack Agüeros, who was a poet and a translator, essayist and my second father. There's a poem in this book for him called “Flan” about the moment when I figured out that Jack, in fact, had Alzheimer's disease. So you know, we're recognizing all the people who walk or run or jump or sing or shout in these poems.

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: You're as much a poet as a storyteller, but a journalist as well, in your own way. Can you talk a little bit about that first poem in this collection? It's “Jumping off the Mystic Tobin Bridge.” Can you describe what this poem is about, and why you wrote it now?

Yeah, that's what we call the bridge in Chelsea, and I was there in the late '80s and early '90s. I got a law degree from Northeastern University Law School and I was practicing law there.

I was supervisor of a program called Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea. And indeed, they came from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but they also came from Central America, especially El Salvador and Guatemala — and those people were fleeing the wars; the wars bought and paid for by our tax dollars.

The first half of the poem, when it takes place in that setting, with me and the people that I represented with other attorneys — and then I end up in that poem, stuck in a taxi on the bridge with a driver who's very helpfully warning me to be careful in Chelsea. Because as he put it, "There's a lot of Josés around here." And I had to inform him in the spirit of full disclosure, that I'm a Jose.

The cover of "Floaters," a book of poetry by Martín Espada.
Credit W.W. Norton and Company
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W.W. Norton and Company

Do you have this in front of you that you could read, "'What the what the hell are you doing here?' said the driver." Could you read that?

This is the third stanza. I have explained in the poem that I used to take the bus, typically, back and forth across the bridge — the 111 bus, specifically. But I hated the 111 bus, and as I say, I had to take a taxi cab that day.

What the hell are you doing here? said the driver of the cab to me in my suit and tie. You got to be careful in this neighborhood. There's a lot of Josés around here. The driver's great-grandfather staggered off a boat so his great-grandson could one day drive me across the Mystic Tobin Bridge, but there was no room in the taxi for chalk and a blackboard. He could hear the sawing of my breath as I leaned into his ear, past the bulletproof barricade, somehow missing, and said: I’m a José. I could see the 40-watt squint in his rearview mirror. I'm Puerto Rican, I said. It was exactly 5PM, and we were stuck in traffic in a taxi on the Mystic Tobin Bridge.

I want to try to bring this back to Holyoke and to the last piece in "Floaters" — "Letter to My Father." It's an incredible piece, and it's as much about your father, and your life in Brooklyn, and maybe Long Island, as it is about what just happened in Hurricane Maria, and this horrific natural disaster that became a bigger disaster because of how it was handled.

When I was a boy you were God. I watched from the seventh floor of the projects as you walk down into the street to stop a public execution. A big man caught a small man stealing his car, and everyone in Brooklyn heard a car alarm wail of the condemned: He's killing me. At a word from you, the executioner’s hand slipped from the hair of the thief. The kid was high, was all you said when you came back to us.

The poem evolved organically out of what you might call a series of conversations. They were one-way conversations, but conversations nevertheless. The genesis of the poem is what follows the hurricane. Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico, and I began to see [in the news coverage] something that really shook me to my core.

I began to see a town called Utuado. My father, Francisco Luis Espada — Frank Espada — was born in Utuado, a town in the mountains in 1930, and he died in Pacifica, California, in 2014, and I never expected to see or hear Utuado outside of the context of the island. I never expected to see Utuado everywhere I looked, suddenly it was on television. It was online, in social media and I was helplessly sitting here in western Massachusetts.

So I began to talk to my father. Now, mind you, my father had been gone since 2014, and yet I have my father's ashes in a box on my bookshelf wrapped up in a Puerto Rican flag.

So I began talking to the box, and it made its way into the poem.

I spoke to my cousin Gisela, who's kind of a lifeline to the rest of the family for me, and some of which she said made it into the poem. And I began to wish for my father to come back to do battle with the forces of Donald Trump, who showed up on the island and tossed paper towels into the crowd at a church, and I won't soon forget that.

Is it for you, as a poet — this is very personal question — is it soothing for you to be able to have these conversations? Then of course, you give them to readers — but, you know, to be able to connect with your father like that?

I take great satisfaction in completing a poem to the best of my abilities. That is a very satisfying experience. Does it make the ghosts go away? No. In fact, I have a bad habit of inviting them in to sit down and talk to me.

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