Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1957. Career: Has worked as an attorney. Instructor in English, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Awards: PEN/Revson award, 1989, for Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; Massachusetts Artists fellowship; Paterson Poetry prize; American Book award, Before Columbus Foundation, for Imagine the Angels of Bread.Address: Department of English, Bartlett Hall, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, U.S.A.
The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero, with photographs by father, Frank Espada. Madison, Wisconsin, Ghost Pony Press, 1982.
Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction. Tempe, Arizona, Bilingual Press, 1987.
Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands. Willimantic, Connecticut, Curbstone Press, 1990.
City of Coughing and Dead Radiators: Poems. New York, Norton, 1993.
Imagine the Angels of Bread: Poems. New York, Norton, 1996.
A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen: Poems. New York, Norton, 2000.
Zapata's Disciple: Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts, South End Press, 1998.
Editor, Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press. Willimantic, Connecticut, Curbstone Press, 1994.
Editor, El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.*
Critical Studies: "With Martin Espada" by Mireya Perez-Erdelyi, in Americas Review (Houston), 15(2), summer 1987; "'Lengua, Cultura, Sangre': Song of the New Homeland" by Marguerite Maria Rivas, in Americas Review (Seattle), 21(3–4), fall-winter 1993; in Literary Cavalcade, 47(2), October 1994; by Matthew Rothschild, in Progressive, 58(5), May 1994; by Roger Gilbert, in Partisan Review (New York), LXI(1), winter 1994; by Frank Allen, in Poet Lore, 90(1), spring 1995; interview with Elizabeth Gunderson, in Poets & Writers, 23(2), March 1995.* * *
Before becoming a tenants' rights lawyer and then a professor of English, Martin Espada held many jobs, including gas station attendant, printing bindery worker, bartender, telephone solicitor, mental patient advocate, transient hotel desk clerk, and bouncer. The class dynamics of this generally disrespected and poorly paid work figure prominently in Espada's poems, many of which reveal the daily oppression of the powerless at the hands of bosses, corporate interests, landlords, colonizers, and the police. By bearing witness to such injustice, Espada insists on the essential dignity of lives that poverty degrades.
Espada, a native of Brooklyn, New York, whose father came from Puerto Rico, belongs to the Neorican, or Nuyorican, tradition. Neorican writers are of Puerto Rican descent and concern themselves with Puerto Rican themes, but they write in English or sometimes switch between English and Spanish within a piece. Puerto Rico itself, "the Island," remains a central focus in this tradition. Espada locates numerous poems there, and in other works he uses the island as a symbol of the exile's lost fatherland and of the hope of return. "The Spanish of Our Out-Loud Dreams," in Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction, evokes both this redemptive image and the pain of the "eviction" from home. In the poem the speaker addresses a woman who takes her dying father from a hospital in the Bronx back to an island of refuge and comfort. The island offers what is natural (palm trees and the mother tongue) as opposed to the harsh sterility of exile (failed radiation treatments in the Bronx). It suggests the hope of reunion after a lifetime "wander[ing] with stuffed bags, / not staying long enough / to learn the language." Similarly, "We Live by What We See at Night" evokes the pain and longing of exile. The poet, addressing his father, imagines the old man's dreams of home:
When the mountains of Puerto Rico
Flickered in your sleep
With a moist green light,
When you saw green bamboo hillsides
Before waking up to East Harlem rooftops
Or Texas barracks,
the craving for that island birthplace
as thirty years' exile,
constant as your pulse.
The clipped syllables of "Texas barracks," following the mellow description of the island's beauty, are as sharp as gunshots. Echoing the language of the first stanza, the poet reveals how, through his father's dreams, the boy recognizes a home he has never seen.
Though Espada writes within the Neorican tradition, he does not focus exclusively on the experience of Puerto Rican exiles. He writes about Mexican migrant workers, Nicaraguan and El Salvadoran peasants terrorized by government death squads, unskilled laborers hoping to find jobs, and mental patients. Often Espada chooses overtly political themes. He skewers social hypocrisy in "For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks," from A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen. "I am aware of your T-shift solidarity / with the refugees of the Americas," the poet sneers, and the poem swells to a litany of curses that smartly put tortilla white exploiters of Mexican culture in their place: "… and may the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies / to the menu wait for you in the parking lot / at midnight, demanding that you spell their names." Less satisfying is "The Eleventh Reason," which considers the controversial case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The poem expresses predictable outrage but adds nothing essentially new to the story.
Similarly condemning are Espada's poems about death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, a onetime Black Panther convicted—erroneously, he maintains—of murdering a police officer. "Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent," commissioned by National Public Radio but never aired, intones, "The board-blinded windows knew what happened; / the pavement sleepers of Philadelphia … / … knew what happened," creating through these and similar repetitions of phrases a solemnity of tone that suggests the coverup of a grave injustice. Mumia is heroized (he has "thinking dreadlocks" and is described sharing meals and calling out his friends' names), whereas the police are demonized (they speak in "fanged whispers"). Certain that Mumia has been made a martyr, Espada assures the prisoner that after death he will be welcomed by the spirit of Walt Whitman, at whose tomb "… the granite door is open / and fugitive slaves may rest."
Hard-hitting as his openly political poems are, Espada can be tender and funny as well. One humorous poem explains that he would not have accidentally hit his love in the eye with a poison ivy-wrapped crayfish if he had not grown up in an area so polluted that he does not know the first thing about nature ("I Apologize …" from Mayan Astronomer). And in "Rednecks," a moving piece made all the more lovely for its reversal of usual stereotypes, a group of teenagers jeering at rednecks are humbled when they see a simple farmer lovingly kiss the deformed face of a woman scarred by fire. Adrienne Rich and David Lehman selected it as among the best American poems of 1996.