Poet Of The Week

Martin Espada

     April 18–24, 2016

Called by Sandra Cisneros “the Pablo Neruda of North American poets,” Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn in 1957. He has published almost twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His newest collection, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, was published this year by Norton. Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball (Norton, 2011); The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Alabanza (Norton, 2003), the title poem of which, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His book of essays Zapata’s Disciple (1998) has been banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. On Friday, April 22, he will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church with J. Scott Brownlee and Aracelis Girmay.

El Moriviví

                 For Frank Espada (1930-2014)

The Spanish means: I died, I lived. In Puerto Rico, the leaves
of el moriviví close in the dark and open at first light.
The fronds curl at a finger’s touch and then unfurl again.
My father, a mountain born of mountains, the tallest
Puerto Rican in New York, who scraped doorways,
who could crack the walls with the rumble of his voice,
kept a moriviví growing in his ribs. He would die, then live.

My father spoke in the tongue of el moriviví, teaching me
the parable of Joe Fleming, who screwed his lit cigarette
into the arms of the spics he caught, flapping like fish.
My father was a bony boy, the nerves in his back
crushed by the Aiello Coal and Ice Company, the load
he lifted up too many flights of stairs. Three times
they would meet to brawl for a crowd after school.
The first time, my father opened his eyes to gravel
and the shoes of his enemy. The second time, he rose
and dug his arm up to the elbow in the monster’s belly,
so badly did he want to tear out the heart and eat it.
The third time, Fleming did not show up, and the boys
with cigarette burns clapped their spindly champion
on the back, all the way down the street. Fleming would
become a cop, fired for breaking bones in too many faces.
He died smoking in bed, a sheet of flame up to his chin.

There was a moriviví sprouting in my father’s chest. He would die,
then live. He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver
who told him to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi, then
slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail,
called it the best week of his life, strode through the jailhouse door
and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town,
his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck.
He would come to know the jailhouse again, among hundreds
of demonstrators ferried by police to Hart Island on the East River,
where the city of New York stacks the coffins of anonymous
and stillborn bodies. Here, Confederate prisoners once wept
for the Stars and Bars; now, the prisoners sang Freedom Songs.
The jailers outlawed phone calls, so we were sure my father must be
a body like the bodies rolling waterlogged in the East River, till he came
back from the island of the dead, black hair combed meticulously.
When the riots burned in Brooklyn night after night, my father
was a peacemaker on the corner with a megaphone. A fiery
chunk of concrete fell from the sky and missed his head by inches.
My mother would tell me: Your father is out dodging bullets.
He spoke at a rally with Malcolm X, incantatory words
billowing through the bundled crowd, lifting hands and faces.
Teach, they cried. My father clicked a photograph of Malcolm
as he bent to hear a question, finger pressed against the chin.
Two months later the assassins stampeded the crowd
to shoot Malcolm, blood leaping from his chest as he fell.
My father would die too, but then he would live again,
after every riot, every rally, every arrest, every night in jail,
the change from his pockets landing hard on the dresser
at 4 AM every time I swore he was gone for good.

My father knew the secrets of el moriviví, that he would die,
then live. He drifted off at the wheel, drove into a guardrail,
shook his head and walked away without a web of scars
or fractures. He passed out from the heat in the subway,
toppled onto the tracks, and somehow missed the third rail.
He tied a white apron across his waist to open a grocery store,
pulled a revolver from the counter to startle the gangsters
demanding protection, then put up signs for a clearance sale
as soon as they backed out the door with their hands in the air.
When the family finally took a vacation in the mountains
of the Hudson Valley, a hotel with waiters in white jackets
and white paint peeling in the room, the roof exploded
in flame, as if the ghost of Joe Fleming and his cigarette
trailed us everywhere, and it was then that my father
appeared in the smoke, like a general leading the charge
in battle, shouting commands at the volunteer fire company,
steering the water from the hoses, since he was immune
to death by fire or water, as if he wore the crumbled leaves
of el moriviví in an amulet slung around his neck.

My brother called to say el moriviví was gone. My father tore
at the wires, the electrodes, the IV, saying that he wanted
to go home. The hospital was a jailhouse in Mississippi.
The furious pulse that fired his heart in every fight flooded
the chambers of his heart. The doctors scrutinized the film,
the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father
was a moriviví. I died. I lived. He died. He lived. He dies. He lives.

–From Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

My father died on February 16, 2014. I wrote the poem for the occasion of my father’s memorial at El Puente, a community center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on May 17, 2014. I sequestered myself in rural Vermont—a region known as the Northeast Kingdom—for a week that March to write the poem, one of ten I would ultimately write for him, and which form the heart of my new poetry collection, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. There I hit upon the central metaphor of the plant called el moriviví to characterize my father’s many lives and deaths, and his ultimate transcendence. Frank Espada was a community organizer, civil rights activist and documentary photographer. The third stanza describes my father’s history of activism, beginning in December 1949, when he was arrested and jailed in Biloxi, Mississippi for refusing to sit at the back of the bus. In April 1964, he was jailed along with three hundred other protesters associated with the Brooklyn chapter of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) for demonstrating at the New York World’s Fair. In December 1964, he spoke at a rally in Brooklyn for community control of schools with Malcolm X. He photographed Malcolm taking questions; it is my father’s most celebrated photograph.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m copyediting the new edition of Zapata’s Disciple, a collection of essays and poems that was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies curriculum outlawed by the state of Arizona. Northwestern University Press will reissue the book in the fall.

What’s a good day for you?

Pizza and a movie.

So you were born in Brooklyn. Tell us about the neighborhood you grew up in. How long did you live there? What do you like about it? How has it changed since then? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn and grew up in the Linden Projects, first on Wortman Avenue, then on Stanley Avenue. I remember liking the pizza there and the corner candy store where I bought Classics Illustrated comics. I left Brooklyn in my adolescence for the Promised Land of Valley Stream, Long Island, where I was the only Puerto Rican in the neighborhood and heard the word “spic” more often than my name. East New York was considered a tough neighborhood, and still is, as I understand it. (How do you gentrify the projects? I guess you blow them up.) Yet, I had a much harder time in Valley Stream, where my new neighbors apparently confused me with a piñata.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

My defining Brooklyn experiences have to do with throwing things. My father would throw me his curveball, and I couldn’t catch it, which he found hilarious. This ended up in a poem called “There But Not There.” In a street fight, I dared another kid to throw a can at me. He did. The can hit me in the head. Head wounds bleed profusely, as it turns out. There was blood in my shoes. This ended up in a poem called “Return.”

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that in Brooklyn when you were here? Why or why not?

I did not find a poetry community in Brooklyn. I did, however, meet my first poet there. His name was Jack Agüeros. He was my father’s friend and co-conspirator in matters of political activism. What impressed me about Jack was that he told the truth. I was twelve, and about to have my tonsils removed. Everyone else told me I would have ice cream; Jack told me, “That’s gonna hurt.” He was right. I tell this tale in a poem called “Blessed Be the Truth-Tellers.” He was my second father; he also died in 2014.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Walt Whitman is my Brooklyn poet. The tradition of advocacy in North American poetry goes back to Whitman. As he says in #24 of “Song of Myself:” “Through me many long dumb voices.” I am a poet in the Whitman tradition; as I’ve said elsewhere, I am a branch on the tree of Whitman.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My most important poetry mentor was Clemente Soto Vélez. He was a Puerto Rican poet who spent six years in prison (1936-1942) for his advocacy of independence for the island of Puerto Rico, convicted of “seditious conspiracy.” Upon his release, he settled in New York and would mentor generations of activists and writers, myself included. I will always cherish the day this bard with long white hair inscribed a book to me as “a revolutionary poet.” He was passing the torch.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

The last poem I read that hit me between the eyes was “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” by John Murillo. This is a poem that turns and leaps and rises and keeps rising. The music and the momentum are breathtaking. He writes about the juxtaposition of beauty and brutality of the world all around him, and lays himself bare in the process. I won’t say more. Read the poem.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I must confess that I’ve never read Moby Dick, even though I’ve written a poem in the voice of Captain Ahab running a poetry workshop in Provincetown. Maybe I should read the Classics Illustrated version.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

My reading process, like my writing process, is pandemonium. Often, I read books out of necessity: I’m teaching that poet, or I’m researching the historical background of a poem, or I’m writing a blurb or foreword.

Where are some places you liked to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you liked being there)?

When I was young, I liked reading at the public library in my neighborhood. Then my parents told me I couldn’t go there anymore because it was too dangerous. You know you live in a tough neighborhood when the library is too dangerous.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I have had a long association with the community center called El Puente (The Bridge). Luis Garden Acosta, an organizational genius and a political protégé of my father, founded El Puente in 1982. El Puente has provided the community with everything from vaccination clinics to classes in art, theater and dance to literacy programs in Spanish and English to leadership on local environmental issues. This community center evolved into The El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a public school. I delivered the first commencement address in 1997. El Puente was the natural choice for my father’s memorial, as the embodiment of all the principles he represented in life.

Every June, I take part in a “Song of Myself” reading at Brooklyn Bridge Park, organized by Karen Karbiener. We read at Pier One, with the river behind us. The boats and helicopters go roaring by; there are crowds of people coming and going; every now and then, there is a downpour and we scatter in all directions, except for Chris Brandt, who last year insisted on reading his part in the middle of a thunderstorm like King Lear. Walt would have loved it.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate pizza,
And what I consume you shall consume,
For every slice belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Why Brooklyn?

I opened my eyes there on August 7, 1957. Brooklyn opens my eyes all the time.