Books In Conversation
MARTÍN ESPADA with Alex Dueben
What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump
(Northwestern University Press, 2019)
Martín Espada is the poet, essayist, translator and editor of a long list of books including Imagine the Angels of Bread, The Republic of Poetry, and The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive. Over the course of his career, he’s received the American Book Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Paterson Poetry Prize, he’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in 2018 he was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize by the Poetry Foundation for lifetime achievement.
Espada edited the new anthology What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. Many of these poems pre-date the past three years, but the concerns at the heart of this anthology is solidarity and shared values. These twin concerns of empathy and outrage have been at the heart of so much of Espada’s work as a writer and an activist, and we spoke recently about the business of anthologies, political poetry, the late Donald Hall, and how Brooklyn shaped his values.
Alex Dueben (Brooklyn Rail): When did the idea for the anthology begin?
Martín Espada: The idea for this project began on a walk with my future wife, Lauren Marie Schmidt, in Montclair, New Jersey. There are certain nuggets in the anthology, certain key poems that form the heart and soul of the collection. One of them is a poem called “The Social Worker’s Advice” by this same Lauren Marie Schmidt. That’s a poem all about empathy, wherein the speaker in the poem, Lauren herself, a volunteer teacher of poetry at a shelter for homeless women and children, confronts an authoritarian social worker who warns her against feeling anything for the inhabitants of this shelter. The poet accepts the challenge. If this is empathy, and empathy is a beast, “let it take me, then, this beast of your invention.”
I began to contemplate that poem in the light of an idea for a larger anthology that would respond to the Age of Trump. The core of this anthology would be poems of empathy and outrage. You may have noticed that many of the poems in the anthology combine empathy and outrage. I let that percolate in my brain for a while. I took a walk around a pond with Lauren. We made three revolutions around the pond, and every time we walked around the idea got more specific. After the third time around I had formed the idea for the anthology you have before you. That’s where it started, but it couldn’t have been realized without many more poets who were out there writing these poems.
Rail: Those twin guideposts of empathy and outrage are in so much of your work. You’ve edited work before. I have a copy of Poetry Like Bread. I would imagine there would be a lot of interest in a project like this.
Espada: It’s complicated. The work of making an anthology has changed dramatically since the first one I edited, Poetry like Bread, published in 1994. Think about how the world has changed in that intervening quarter of a century. More than ever, making an anthology is about business. It’s about dealing with permissions. My permissions budget was $0.00, so I had to figure out a way to collect work that would be strong, that would be relevant, without any money. There are poets and poems that are not there because I didn’t have a permissions budget. I sent out a limited call to poets I know and respect, poets writing work that would be relevant. You can see from the foreword how broadly I define the mission of the anthology. I did that because I was familiar with the work, but also because I knew there would be a sense of solidarity in these poets. Many of them sent me new work. A few of them even wrote poems specifically for the anthology. Patricia Smith, for example, saw this as a challenge and wrote powerful, dynamic poems. There are those who went to extraordinary measures, even if the poems had been previously published, to help me circumvent the usual expenses.
Perhaps the most extraordinary story of all would be Donald Hall, who lived about two hours north of where I live in Western Massachusetts. I went to see him before he died. We were emailing on a daily basis. I told him about the anthology and said, “I want something from you.” We both understood it would have to be previously published. Don found a poem that had been published years ago and said, in effect: this is a long poem, take the stanzas you want and put them in any order you want. I did that. Then he said, “okay, now I’m going to change the title so you don’t have to pay anything to anyone.” I’m paraphrasing, but I have emails saying this. Shortly afterwards, he passed away. He was almost 90 years old, he knew that death might be near, and yet it was important to him to include something in the anthology, to make sure I didn’t have to pay for it. I’m fairly sure it’s the last poem he published. That demonstrates not only the commitment to being included, but an understanding of what I was facing as editor. There are so many walls made of money. I knew of many poems that had been previously published—even before Trump was elected—that spoke to our time, and I wanted them. Some of them I could get; some of them I couldn’t get. It was complicated. Not everyone was able to do what Don Hall did. In cases where the situation was ambiguous, some poets wanted me to get permission from the publisher. I ended up hiring someone to help me clear permissions. I understand why people don’t edit anthologies.
Rail: I was going to ask about the Donald Hall poem because I knew that you two were friends and that he hadn’t been writing poetry for the last years of his life.
Espada: He and I knew each other many years ago in the Boston community of poets, and it was only recently that we connected again. It was a great loss. Not long after we got reconnected, he died—but not before he and I shared correspondence and books, and talked about baseball. I’m grateful for the time I had with him. He was not the only one, by the way, who sent me poems knowing that he probably wouldn’t be around to see the book. He was one of three poets who died before the book was published. The others were Sam Hamill, who was a dear friend of mine, and another friend, the Native American poet Adrian Louis. They knew they were looking at the end, and they insisted on being a part of this project. That, to me, is impressive testimony to the sense of urgency they felt, that we should all feel.
Rail: Before reading this I would have guessed that Hamill’s Poets Against the War was a big influence.
Espada: Absolutely. I cite the book in the preface. Sam Hamill was a citizen-poet in the truest sense. He was organizing against the Iraq War, and that’s where Poets Against the War started. His anthology, published by Nation Books, is ongoing testimony to the power and relevance of political poetry. And this anthology sold and kept on selling. People will tell you that poetry in general doesn’t sell, and political poetry in particular doesn’t sell. Here we have evidence against that argument. It does speak to people in these times.
Rail: I would imagine that on a project like this, part of the goal is to reclaim the language.
Espada: Absolutely. We are confronted every day in the Trump regime with the corruption of language. Language used in the service of power becomes divorced from meaning. We used to talk about racists and neo-Nazis, and now we talk about the alt-right. We have the infamous phrase “alternative facts.” Every day, we see this president do something to the language that wasn’t there before. As poets we need to do that, too. If Trump and his friends are going to divorce language from meaning, we have to reconcile language with meaning. If they’re going to drain the blood from words, we have to put the blood back into words. That’s something poets do well. This is something I can do. This is something the 90-plus poets in this anthology can do, too.
Rail: One thing you’ve always been clear about in your own work is this larger context of history and culture. The subtitle of the book is about “the Age of Trump,” but these concerns—and many of the book’s poems, as you said—pre-date the past three years.
Espada: Yes. That is very much by design. I know there are many books out there, poetry and prose, that focus on what has happened since he took office. I wanted to include poems that preceded Trump’s rise to power. Many of these poems are prescient, and they speak to the moment even though they were written five or ten or twenty years ago. Why? Trump is nothing new. He represents a concentration of the ugliest, the most spiteful, the most venal forces in our society, but the values of Trump are nothing new. These have been with us in various forms. Those who remember Richard Nixon or George Wallace remember that they had some of the same qualities. (There are people from earlier generations, like Don, who feel that Trump is worse than Nixon.) I found poems that speak eloquently against those values everywhere I looked. I wish I could have made an anthology twice this size.
Rail: I keep coming back to your last collection, Vivas To Those Who Have Failed, and the idea of failure that you get at in that series of poems, and what it means in the context of this ongoing struggle.
Espada: The redefinition of failure is essential for us to see or feel any sense of progress. The title comes from Whitman. That title refers to five sonnets about the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913, one of the major strikes in US history, little known because it was lost. And, even on the left, we love winners. Yet, their most important demand was for an eight hour day, a workday most of us have and take for granted. How is that failure if they advanced that particular cause and made our lives better without us even realizing it?
This is what we must do when we look at the nature of social change. It’s very difficult to do at a moment like this, where everything is so overwhelming, but we have to understand that social change is not linear. It zigs and zags. It moves in figures of eight. We move forward, and back again, and sideways. What appears to be failure or defeat must be redefined as part of that ongoing, nonlinear struggle for progress. One day, Mr. Trump won’t be there any more. One day, I believe the class he represents won’t be there either. We always have to remember that he’s the representative of certain interests. Right now the left in this country is scared and angry. I can’t tell you for sure that we’re going to win the next election. I am not confident. The solidarity on the right is terrifying. The lack of solidarity on the left is equally terrifying. One of the objectives of a book like this is to try to create a sense of solidarity and community. If it makes such a contribution, in some small way, it’s worth all the trouble.
Rail: I was going to say that advocacy has always been a part of your work.
Espada: You’re right. There’s been quite a bit of debate in circles on the left and even in poetic circles as to advocacy and its legitimacy. Can we truly speak for others? First of all, if we do not speak for others who do not have the opportunity to speak for themselves, the alternative is silence. Secondly, I am trained and experienced as a tenant lawyer working in greater Boston. My mind works that way. Since we’re doing an interview for the Brooklyn Rail, let’s talk about Brooklyn. I was born in Brooklyn in 1957. There were activists and advocates all around me when I grew up in New York in the 1960s, people who nurtured the activist and the advocate in me. I’m thinking of two people in particular. The first was my father, Frank Espada, who was a documentary photographer, the creator of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project. He was also a community organizer, the founder of East New York Action, with a storefront on Blake Avenue in East New York. He was involved in all kinds of community issues. From rent strikes to safe streets to discrimination in employment to welfare rights, my father was there. And he was always there with his camera. His photographs of the community hung on the walls of our apartment in the Linden projects, but also hung on the walls of my imagination. He was speaking for his community because the alternative was silence. He spoke passionately. He spoke as an artist. That influenced me deeply.
There was somebody else, too: Luis Garden Acosta. He died a year ago, in January 2019. He was a political protegé of my father. I discovered him sleeping on our couch one morning. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old. He ended up becoming a mentor to me. Luis was a member of the Young Lords. He was an administrator at Greenpoint Hospital, and went on to found a community center called El Puente, or The Bridge, in Williamsburg. Luis saw the bodies coming into the ER, all these kids killing other kids, and there seemed to be nothing he could do about it. He decided that he needed to create a space for them, where they could have what young people need, and so he envisioned El Puente. I remember visiting this gutted church in Williamsburg on South 4th Street where he spread his arms and said, “we’ll put the karate classes over there, and the ESL program over here, and the dancers over there, and health education over here.” I thought he was nuts. I was in law school at the time, and only believed what I could see with my own eyes, but he made it a reality. I saw the vision become reality. I saw the word made flesh. That’s advocacy. That’s activism. It works. And it happened right here, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But he was not alone. He made it happen with his wife, Frances Lucerna, who co-founded El Puente. They were a dynamic duo indeed. I ended up writing a poem for Luis and El Puente a year after he died that aired on Democracy Now. And so we come back to poetry.
Rail: This is an aside, but a while back someone taped copies of your poem “Soldiers in the Garden” up around some bus shelters, which was odd, but really nice to see.
Espada: That happens. Reports filter back to me about the use of a poem. Ironically, political poems like those in the anthology are often criticized as having an expiration date, because they refer to a specific moment in history. People make a distinction between poems that are “timely” and poems that are “timeless,” as if those are mutually exclusive. Some of the most timeless poems are political poems, because the struggle never goes away, because the enemy remains the same, because the need to organize ourselves remains the same. Thus, somebody can put up a poem like that at a bus stop in Hartford and it means something to people. My poems “Imagine the Angels of Bread,” “Alabanza,” and “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits” turn up from time to time. That is gratifying when it happens. Far from being ephemeral, political poetry is some of the most lasting poetry we create.
Rail: One poem of yours that I always think of is “City of Coughing and Dead Radiators,” which is less explicitly political but it is about exhaustion and burnout and work.
Espada: It’s about burnout and exhaustion, and the fact that I have to go out and do it again tomorrow. It’s one of a series of poems about my days as a tenant lawyer in Boston. Sometimes we define “political” so narrowly that we exclude ourselves. I believe much of the work we do, if we serve the community in one sense or another, is political. My wife Lauren currently teaches at an urban high school in Springfield, Massachusetts. She gets up before dark and comes home after dark. She teaches English and supervises teachers of English. This is a political act. There are many people who strike a pose, who take a stance, and do nothing more, and consider that political. Then there are those of us out there in the world like my wife, who roll their sleeves up and actually do the work. They act out their principles. I have the greatest respect for that, just as I had the greatest respect for my fellow tenant lawyers back in the day. Now, I do consider the act of writing a poem to be work, and the act of writing a political poem to be political work, but it doesn’t end there. When we create political poetry, I think we have an obligation to bring it into the community. That can be complicated, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make that attempt. I’ve seen the effect it can have on people.
Rail: You’ve always tried to bring poetry to different places. You famously did a reading at a boxing gym years ago. But I know so many writers and teachers who have talked about going to schools and prisons and just how engaged people can be by poetry.
Espada: The key word is “engagement.” When you are dealing with alienation, then you have to do something to engage. In an urban high school, there is a great deal of alienation. At almost any high school, there is a great deal of alienation, but particularly at an urban high school. How do you respond to that? One way is by using the tools of engagement. Poetry is a tool of engagement, just as this anthology is a tool of engagement. When you engage people emotionally, when you engage them on a visceral level, when you engage them intellectually, when you move them, when you give them the opportunity to participate, you have created engagement. That, in turn, has ripple effects when it comes to what they do with the rest of their day. I’m flummoxed by administrators at schools who regard poetry as some sort of giraffe, too tall to fit in the front door. I’ve gone into many settings that are non-traditional for poetry (in fact, the most non-traditional of all) and have been seen as a giraffe—until I open my mouth and engage. We have to think of poetry not as something that is marginalized, but as something that has the potential to build bridges between people. We have to stop believing in our own disempowerment. We have in our hands the potential to do what we’ve only dreamed of doing.
For Luis Garden Acosta (1945-2019)
Brooklyn, New York
I saw the empty cross atop the empty church on South 4th Street, as if Jesus
flapped his arms and flew away, spooked by one ambulance siren too many.
I saw the stained glass windows I wanted to break with a brick, the mural
of Saint Mary and the Angels hovering innocent as spies over the congregation,
and wanted to know why you brought me here, the son of a man punched
in the face by a priest for questioning the Trinity, who punched him back.
This is El Puente, you said. The Bridge. I knew about the Williamsburg Bridge,
eight lanes of traffic and the subway stampeding in the open windows of the barrio
all summer. You spread your arms in that abandoned church and saw the spinning
of a carousel better than any wooden horses pumping up and down at Coney Island:
here the ESL classes for the neighbors cursed with swollen tongues in English;
there the clinics on contraception, the pestilence in the veins of the unsuspecting;
here the karate lessons, feet spearing the air to keep schoolyard demons away;
there the dancers in white, swirling their skirts to the drumming of bomba;
here the workshops on Puerto Rican history, La Masacre de Ponce where your
mother’s beloved painted his last words on the street with a fingertip of blood.
I was a law student, first year, memorizing law school Latin, listening to classical
guitar on my boom box as I studied the rules of property: It’s mine. It’s not yours.
I saw only what could be proven by a preponderance of the evidence: the church
abandoned by the church, the cross atop the church abandoned by the Son of God.
My belly empty as Saint Mary of the Angels, I told you I was hungry, and we left.
I wanted Chinese food, but you told me about the Chinese take-out down the block
where you stood behind a man who shrieked about the price of wonton soup,
left and returned with a can of gasoline, splashed it on the floor and pulled a box
of kitchen matches from his pocket. Will you wait till I pick up my egg roll and pork
fried rice? you said, with a high school teacher’s exasperated authority, so he did.
You could talk an arsonist into postponing his inferno till you left with lunch,
but you couldn’t raise the dead in the ER at Greenpoint Hospital, even in your suit
and tie. You couldn’t convince the girl called Sugar to rise from the gurney after
the gunshot drained the blood from her body. You couldn’t persuade the doctor who
peeled his gloves and shook his head to bring her back to life, telling him do it again,
an arsonist in medical scrubs trying to strike a wet match. You couldn’t jumpstart
the calliope in her heart so the carousel of horses would rise and fall and rise again.
Whenever you saw the gutted church, you would see the sheets of the gurney
dipped in red, all the gurneys rolling into the ER with a sacrifice of adolescents.
We walked to the luncheonette on Havemeyer Street. A red awning announced
Morir Soñando. To Die Dreaming, you said, from the DR, my father’s island.
The boy at the counter who spoke no English, brown as my father, called Martín
like me, grinned the way you grinned at El Puente, once Saint Mary of the Angels.
He squeezed the oranges into a drizzle of juice with evaporated milk, cane sugar
and ice, shook the elixir and poured it till the froth spilled over the lip of the glass.
Foam freckled my snout as I raised my hand for another. Intoxicated by morir
soñando number three and the prophet gently rocking at my table, I had a vision:
ESL classes healing the jaws wired shut by English, clinics full of adolescents
studying the secrets of the body unspeakable in the kitchen or the confessional,
karate students landing bare feet on the mat with a thump and grunt in unison,
bomba dancers twirling to a song in praise of Yoruba gods abolished by the priests,
the words of Puerto Rican rebels painted on the walls by brushes dipped in every
color, pressed in the pages of notebooks by a generation condemned to amnesia.
Morir soñando: Luis, I know you died dreaming of South 4th Street, the banners
that said no to the toxic waste plant down the block or the Navy bombarding
an island of fishermen for target practice thousands of miles away. Morir soñando:
I know you died dreaming of vejigantes, carnival máscaras bristling with horns
that dangled with the angels at El Puente. Morir soñando: I know you died dreaming
of the next El Puente. Morir soñando: I know you died dreaming of the hammer’s claw,
the drill whining to the screw, the dust like snow in a globe, then the shy genius
raising her hand in the back of the room. Morir soñando: I know you died dreaming
of the poets who stank of weed in the parking lot, then stood before the mike
you electrified for them and rubbed their eyes when the faces in their poems
gathered there, waiting for the first word, so we could all die dreaming, morir
soñando, intoxicated by the elixir of the tongue, oh rocking prophet at my table.