By Lauren Paolini
Acclaimed poet Martín Espada returned to FSU after 25 years during the Alan Feldman Week of Poetry Oct. 22.
“I’m going to read tonight and 25 years from now, I’ll be back again,” Espada joked.
Espada’s poetry is strongly influenced by his birthplace, Puerto Rico, and his experiences in the United States as a Latinx individual.
The first poem Espada read is set in Puerto Rico and embodies the music played and celebrated on a street named “San Sebastían.” The rhythmic performance by Espada and the repetition in this poem showcased the influence of music on this piece to the audience.
Before reading “En la Calle San Sebastían,” Espada explained that to him, Saint Sebastían Street is one of miracles where the impossible happens.
“Here in a bar on the street/of the saint en la calle San Sebastían/a dancer in white with a red red scarf /en la calle San Sebastían/calls to the gods who were freed by slaves/en la calle San Sebastían,” he read.
Espada was born in Puerto Rico, but grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he was first introduced to poetry. His poem, “Blessed Be The Truth-Tellers,” is an ode to Jack Agüeros, a fellow Puerto Rican poet whom Espada said “was very much my second father.”
“When I was 12, pus bubbled/on my tonsils, and everyone said/after the operation, you can have all the ice cream you want/I bragged about the deal/ … and Jack said/You gonna get your tonsils out?/Ay bendito cuchifrito Puerto Rico/That’s gonna hurt.”
Espada said he wrote this poem for a benefit he helped organize after learning Agüeros was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
He ends the piece with, “This is how I learned to trust the poets and shepherds of East Harlem. Blessed be the Truth-Tellers, for they shall have all the ice cream they want.”
Espada moved from New York to Boston to attend law school at Northeastern University. After he graduated, he worked at multiple jobs in the Boston area.
One of these jobs was writing for a program that supported low-income Spanish-speaking residents in Chelsea. While he was working, many people were emigrating from Latin America to escape war.
“I used to represent these clients in Chelsea, and it was very clear they were not welcome. And if I stood next to them in court, it was equally clear that I was not welcome,” Espada said.
His next poem illustrates his experience as a member of the Latinx community while facing the racial biases that were so prevalent.
Espada uses the Tobin Bridge as the epicenter for this poem. It is appropriately titled, “Jumping off the Mystic Tobin Bridge.”
“I had to take a taxicab that day/’What the hell you doing here?’ said the driver of the cab to me in my suit/and tie. You gotta be careful in this neighborhood/There’s a lotta 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. … I leaned into his ear, past the bulletproof/barricade somehow missing, and said: I’m a José.”
Another poem he read was titled “Floaters.”
Based on true events that took place at the United States and Mexico border, the piece concerns a photograph of a 25-year-old man and his 23-month-old daughter found drowned in the Rio Grande. A debate arose in a border patrol Facebook group over whether the photo was real or photoshopped.
Espada pulled the title of this recent poem from the term used by border patrol agents who find people who have drowned trying to swim across the Rio Grande to the United States.
The epigraph to the poem begins, “Okay, I’m gonna go ahead and ask. Have y’all ever seen floaters this clean? I’m not trying to be an ass, but I have never seen floaters like this. Could this be another edited photo?”
Espada goes on in heartbreaking detail about Óscar and Valeria, the father and daughter found in the Rio Grande, and the audacity of those who doubt this tragedy.
“He swam … the girl slung around his neck, stood her in the weeds on the Texas side of the river, swore to return with her mother in hand. Turning his back as fathers do, later saying ‘I turned around and she was gone.’ In the time it takes for a bird to hop from branch to branch, Valeria jumped in the river, after her father,” Espada read.
Espada’s focus of the night, as in many of his poems, was the Latinx experience in the United States. This theme was present not only in pieces directly about immigrants and the border crisis, but also those inspired by the people Espada has met and interacted with throughout his life, including his father.
The cover of his book, “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed,” depicts an image of a man smoking a cigar. Espada said that many people ask him if it is a picture of his father. He explained it is not, but his father was behind the camera.
Espada’s father was a successful photographer, despite facing many people who doubted him. After hearing of his work on a photographic documentary of the Puerto Rican migration, another photographer, Cornell Capa, told Espada’s father, “No one wants to look at pictures of Puerto Ricans, Frank.”
Espada told the audience, “Well, my father’s photographs are included now in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Library of Congress, and The National Portrait Gallery. So, Cornell Capa was wrong.”
He read one of the multiple poems he wrote about his dad, titled, “Letter to my Father.”
“I know you are not God. I have the proof: seven/pounds of ashes in a box/on my bookshelf. Gods do not die, and yet I/want you to be God again./ … I promised myself I would stop talking to you/white box of gray grit./ You were deaf even before you died. Hear my/promise now: I will take you/to the mountains, where houses lost like ships at/sea rise blue and yellow/from the mud. I will open my hands. I will/scatter your ashes in Utuado.”