Home of La Cueca dancing, spectacular scenery and the renowned poet Pablo Neruda, Chile was also the backdrop of a bloody coup led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. During the 17 years of Pinochets rule, more than 3,000 citizens were murdered and another 30,000 were forced to leave the country. Those who remained were often tortured or imprisoned in what the government called an effort to return order to the nation. The destruction of justice and the redemptive power of the human spirit are the foundations of Puerto Rican poet Martin Espadas, The Republic of Poetry.
Espada will read selections from the The Republic of Poetry as part of the College of Southern Marylands Connections Literary Series beginning at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 2, at the La Plata Campus, Center for Business and Industry (BI), Room 113.
Espada is the author of eight poetry collections including Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982-2002, Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands, Imagine the Angels of Bread, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, and the audio book Now the Dead Will Dance the Mambo. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Robert Creeley Award, an Independent Publisher Book Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the PEN/Revson Fellowship, two NEA Fellowships and a 2006 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review and The Nation. A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
In preparation for CSMs Connections program, Espada discussed war, poetry and finding a voice in poetry and in life.
CSM: In your commencement address to students at Hampshire College this year (http://www.martinespada.net/new_page_13.htm), you noted that 'phrases like “weapons of mass destruction,” “shock and awe,” and “collateral damage are clichés, bad poetry by bad poets,' and that people no longer believe the words because they have been bled of all meaning. You encouraged the students to “reconcile language with meaning,” and to “restore the blood to words…” In a world where “truthiness,” sound bytes and blurbs have replaced authentic dialog between people, how can the blood, life or true meaning of words be returned to language?
Espada: Poets can take responsibility for restoring the blood to words by returning the meaning of words to language. The language of poetry is powerful precisely because it is not the language of power. This may seem self-evident, but we should use language to communicate rather than control, to clarify rather than obscure, in contrast with the language of power. Saying exactly what we meanclearly, concretely, urgentlyis necessary but not sufficient. We must also have something to say, telling the untold tales, speaking on behalf of those who lack the opportunity to be heard. Remember what [Walt] Whitman said in section 24 of Song of Myself about the rights of them the others are down upon? Thats the goal.
CSM: In your poetry you give voice to characters who are often perceived as “invisible” and “silent” in society – the tenement renters, the poor and the war ravaged. Yet, in several of the poems in “The Republic of Poetry” there are lamentations from characters and even poets about not having the right words to describe what they are seeing happening around them. Do you find there are circumstances when words fail even you, and how do you go about regaining your voice?
Espada: In my more recent work I have begun to explore not only the power of poetry, but also the limits of poetry. There are times when words fail me, which is true of any poet. Poetry is not magic; there are times when words will not console. We should deal openly with this awareness. How do I regain my voice? I keep trying.
CSM: You worked as a Legal Aid lawyer for a number of years and many of your earlier poems are filled with frustration over the blindness of the justice system; have you found poetry to be a better tool of justice than the law?
Espada: I wouldnt say that poetry is a better tool of justice than the law. Its different. As a tenant lawyer, I could prevent an eviction or compel a landlord to exterminate rats. As a poet, I may be able to persuade a tenant to take a part in a rent strike, or to convince a landlord to turn on the heat. Of course, its usually much more difficult to quantify the impact of poems on the world. A political poem is an act of faith.
CSM: In several of your poems, including “Not Here,” the voice of the poem tries to disassociate from what is happening around them. In an interview you recently did with Bill Moyers (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/07202007/watch2.html), you mentioned that the “war in Iraq is probably the single most important issue facing Latinos. With only 1 percent of the population directly affected by the war in Iraq, is it frustrating as a writer of humanist poetry to see people failing to acknowledge what is bound to have a huge impact on their future?
Espada: The impact of the war in Iraq goes well beyond the 1 percent who are directly affected. Were all affected. The Latino community is particularly impacted. There are the higher casualty rates, the greater tendency of Latinos to become cannon fodder. There are the billions of dollars in governmental resources being drained away from communities in need, like the Latino community, which could go instead to education or health care. Finally, there is the scapegoating of the Latino community, in terms of the immigrant issue and its use by the Republican Party as a diversionary tactic, calling attention away from this increasingly unpopular war. The Latino community is aware of these issues. That's why there are now polls showing that two-thirds of Latinos are in favor of an end to the war and an immediate withdrawal.
CSM: What is the thing that excites you the most about being a poet?
Espada: Being a poet is exciting in many ways. Im not sure I can single out any one thing. Simply finishing a poem provides a level of satisfaction for me that few other experiences can equal. There are times when I write a poem for or about a particular person. If they're excited about it, that's great for me.
CSM: There is an amazing image in the poem The Republic of Poetry “…everyone in the courtyard /rushes to grab a poem /fluttering from the sky,/ blinded by weeping.” Could you talk about it?
Espada: That image is a very specific reference. A few years ago, a group of young poets in Chile called Casagrande actually rented a helicopter and bombarded the courtyard of La Moneda, the national presidential palace in Santiago, with poems on bookmarks. Many years prior to this, on September 11, 1973, the Chilean Air Force dropped bombs on La Moneda, announcing the commencement of the military coup that brought General Pinochet to power. President Salvador Allende died that day at La Moneda. As you can imagine, then, the bombing of La Moneda with poetry was a very emotional moment for those gathered there. Ive seen a video of this event, which shows people in the courtyard crying and reaching for bookmarks as they floated through the air. Casagrande dropped a huge number of bookmarks that day; by the time it was over, there were no bookmarks left in the courtyard of La Moneda. No one had to sweep up. Imagine that.