This interview took place in Boston, Massachusetts.
It first aired on PBS-WGBH as part of
La Plaza: Conversations with Ilan Stavans
(September 24th, 2002)
IS: Poetry and politics. In you and your work, the two converge. What does a poem do?
ME: A professor of mine, Herbert Hill, used to say that ideas have consequences. I really believe that. Poems communicate ideas in a variety of ways. One never knows what kind of impact the poem is going to have, who it's going to reach, what change it might engender. I don't put too many expectations on an individual poem. Eduardo Galeano has written that it’s madness or arrogance to think a work of art, by itself, can accomplish social change, but it would be equally foolish to think that a work of art can’t contribute to making that change. Personally, I see what I do as my small contribution.
The crossroads of poetry and politics is a place where craft encounters commitment, where the spirit of dissent encounters the imagination, where we labor to create a culture of conscience. There the dynamic of oppression and resistance distills itself through the image, the senses. It is essential that we see and hear, taste and touch and smell in the world of the political poem. It is essential for the political poem to be crowded with exact, human details. We must work to give history a human face, eyes, nose, mouth. If we do otherwise, than we risks all the familiar perils of political poetry. The complacency you refer to is indeed widespread among poets, and often begins with the rationalization that good political poetry is impossible. Aside from the huge body of evidence to the contrary, this argument strikes me as utterly arbitrary. We can write about anything, in theory—but not things political.
This is akin to saying that we should never write any poems with trees in them. (Parenthetically, if we're going to write political poems we should know our trees; we must draw our metaphors from the world around us, and our metaphors have to be accurate.) True, there is a great deal of bad political poetry out there, filled with rhetoric, but this does not prove the impossibility of the political poem. There is a great deal of bad love poetry or bad nature poetry in circulation, yet no one seriously argues that love poems or nature poems are impossible. The argument that political poetry is a contradiction in terms is advanced by complacent poets who defend their lethargy with impressive fury. They justify their apathy with passion. If only these poets devoted the same energies to writing poems that mattered to other human beings. I want to see poems pinned on the refrigerator, carried in wallets until they crumble, read aloud on the phone at 3 AM. I want to see poems that are political in the broad sense of urgent engagement with the human condition, poems that defend human dignity.
IS: How did you discover poetry? Or better, when did you first see yourself as a poet?
ME: I discovered poetry when I was 15 years old. At that age, I was a terrible student. I failed English one semester, in the eighth grade. By the tenth grade, I was more interested in the exploration of mood-altering substances in the parking lot than in the mysteries of poetry. Yet, those mysteries found me. A tenth grade teacher confronted a group of us young thugs in the back row of his classroom, and gave us an assignment: We had to produce our own issue of The New Yorker magazine. We had never seen The New Yorker magazine. We were all New Yorkers, but that was a different New York. Nevertheless, the magazine was passed from hand to hand, down the hierarchy of thuggery, until it came at last to me. All that was left, at the back of the magazine, was a poem. I was rather agitated. However, I didn't want to fail English again, so I went to the window, sat down, and wrote a poem. It was raining that day. I wrote a poem about rain. I don't have the poem anymore, and I don't remember it, except for one line—"tiny silver hammers pounding the earth"—to describe rain. I had just invented my first metaphor. I didn't know what a metaphor was. I found out a week later, and went strutting down the hallway. But I discovered something else that day. I discovered that I loved words. I loved slamming words into each other and watching them spin around the room. I soon discovered that I had something to say with all those words. Virtually from the start, I have written about the idea of justice, in practical, philosophical, and political terms.
IS: Let's talk more about the tension between Puerto Rico as an island and the Puerto Rican diaspora. Do you feel a connection with island literature today, and with its poetry in particular?
ME: There is a definite tension between Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans of the diaspora. The island and the diaspora represent opposite poles of identity in constant reaction to each other. We are a colonized people, by definition divided. We will remain powerless as long as we are engaged in distracted squabbles over authenticity, ethnic purity, our own brand of "blood quantum." In spite of all this, Puerto Rico is poetry to me. The impact on my senses, and on my sense of history, is overwhelming. Moreover, I feel a strong connection with two poets of the island: Clemente Soto Vélez and Juan Antonio Corretjer. These were major Nationalist poets imprisoned in the 1930s and 40s for their pro-independence ideas and activities. I met and read with Corretjer, but my deepest influence came from Soto Vélez, who became a close friend and mentor in the last decade of his life (he died in 1994). Soto provided a political and ethical example for me to follow. His poems were powerfully surreal, yet totally engaged with the fate of humankind. Inspiration does not necessarily equal imitation; yet, to the extent that my poems ever leap into surreal and fantastic places, I owe it to him.
IS: There’s a lack of interest of US newspapers and magazines in Puerto Rican poetry, which is hardly reviewed in any significant fashion.
ME: Let's look at simple demographics. There are precious few Puerto Rican editors employed by newspapers and magazines and publishing houses in this country. Puerto Rican writers and especially readers are widely regarded as nonexistent. Puerto Rican literature is received by Anglos as Puerto Rican food is received, in the words of our friend Earl Shorris: "dinner with the doorman, a janitor's repast, the flavor of failure." That won't sell. No Puerto Rican writer has ever received a major book award in the U.S. On the other hand, I would prefer that we be left alone rather than be manipulated and twisted into knots by the mainstream media. I was recently interviewed for a New York Times article about Nuyorican poetry, and I was appalled at the results. My words were grossly distorted so that a false debate was created between me and some of the Nuyorican poets in the article. I was quoted as opposing the creation of a film about Miguel Piñero, an early influence of mine. I said no such thing. Instead, I warned the reporter that I had never seen the film. I also said that many more films should be made about Puerto Rican writers like Clemente Soto Vélez. Other writers interviewed for the piece were furious as well. One young poet was supposedly "energized" by the Piñero film—in contrast to me—but she hadn't seen the film either. In other words, writers who had not seen this movie were asked about the movie, and then pitted against each other in a phony, manufactured argument about this movie they hadn't seen. In the New York Times, por favor.
IS: Since World War II poets have been "bought" by academic institutions to teach in English Departments and in Creative Writing Programs. You are part of this trend. Can you reflect on the tension between literature and the university at the level of language, pedagogy, politics, etc.?
ME: Certainly, the academy has been perfecting its stranglehold over poetry since the days of Pound and Eliot. Though I receive a paycheck from the English Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, they haven't "bought" me. I have not mutilated my ideas, or censored the expression of my ideas, to suit the academy—and no one has asked me to do so. On the other hand, I’m critical of MFA programs as a rule. More often than not, they do a terrible job recruiting poets of color; they rely on reading lists that are often relentlessly white; they turn out poets who mimic their masters in a pose of detached, hip cynicism; they train their students in the arts of social-climbing and professional ambition above the arts of poetry; they hand out countless degrees as credentials for teaching jobs that don't exist; they are run autocratically; they are extremely resistant to change, especially political change, and exercise a chilling effect on real academic freedom. Bulletin: No one needs an MFA to be a good poet. There are decent MFA programs, but not many. I work outside the MFA system, and am glad for it.
IS: Your Puerto Ricanness is at the core of your identity and of the poetry that you've been writing since 1981 or '82 when your first book was published. And yet, you were not born in Puerto Rico, you were born in Brooklyn. How did the Puerto Rican-ness come to you, from the neighborhood, from the family, when you were a child?
ME: New York is the largest Puerto Rican city in the world. There are more Puerto Ricans in New York than in San Juan. I was surrounded by that from the beginning. My father, Frank Espada, was an activist, a leader in the Puerto Rican community of New York in the 1960's, and his role in the community was reflected everywhere around me. Later on he made a transition and worked as a documentary photographer, recording the life of the Puerto Rican community; again, that had a big impact on me. It was quite natural to develop and to nurture that identity, even though I was born in Brooklyn and not in San Juan.
IS: When did words become in you a tool to begin exploring your own universe and to begin communicating the ideas that were in your mind?
ME: I can remember early on the influence of my father and his use of language. I recall a political use of language in particular. Again, this was natural. This was endemic to the environment. When I was about seven years old, my father participated in a demonstration at the New York World's Fair. He was protesting, with other members of the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE], against discriminatory hiring practices at the Schaeffer Brewing Company. There were many, many arrests at that World's Fair. One of the people arrested was my father, who disappeared for at least a week. No one explained this to me at the age of seven. I simply assumed that my father was dead. I would sit holding a picture of him and crying, and that's the way it was up until the moment he walked through the door.
I looked at him and said, “I thought you were dead.” He thought that was funny and started laughing. Then he realized, on another level, that he had to begin explaining all of this to me, that the time had come. Over the years I would follow him to various kinds of events, demonstrations, what have you. He had a storefront headquarters in the East New York section of Brooklyn, on Blake Avenue, called East New York Action, and I would go visit there.
My first art, if you will, was visual. I drew, constantly. I would draw demonstrations on the back of flyers announcing these demonstrations. It was just part of my environment. There's a blank piece of paper. It happens to announce a demonstration, but I flip it over and draw on it. I remember this being part of the whole ethos. I was raised with an ethos of resistance all around me.
IS: When did you eventually or finally make it to Puerto Rico, what was the experience of having been born in the so-called Diaspora, in the mainland, and being exposed to the island culture? You have poems that deal with this. I'd like you to reflect a little bit.
ME: Yes. I first went to the island at the age of 10, around 1967. For me, it was first and foremost an explosion of the senses. I came from Brooklyn. I came from that urban environment, that industrialized city, and found myself in Puerto Rico. It was absolutely remarkable to see the trees. For the first time in my life, to actually hold a real coconut in my hand, not the hairy shriveled up husk we see in the supermarket, but a big green shell, and to watch someone cut the top of that shell off so I could drink right out of the damn thing--it was a revelation. It was miraculous. I was surrounded by miracles. The island revealed itself to me in that way, as an explosion of the senses. Being that little fat kid, I ate and drank my way across the island like Pac Man.
For me, Puerto Rico is a constant learning experience. The island is, I believe, only 111 miles long. and yet to me it is enormous, so deep and so rich. I'm always going to mine something from the experience of being there.
IS: The poetics of compassion… And yet, somewhere in your past you were a bouncer at a bar.
ME: I was a bouncer in a bar in Madison, Wisconsin, of all places. The physical was definitely there. Now, mind you, being a bouncer can be a compassionate business, because most of the time you're not punching people in the face. You are helping people who have had too much drink find the way out the door and, eventually, home. That was what I did most of the time. I could stand there and watch someone drink seven, eight, nine hours, slowly killing themselves. But once that person indeed had blacked out, it was my job to find the coat, to find the hat, to find the books, to call a cab, to carry that person and all of their worldly possessions down the stairs, to get that person and the stuff into the cab, to make sure that person got home.
IS: Aside from being a poet, which is, I would assume, the essence of who you are, you are also a professor, but you have been a lawyer involved in a variety of different areas of law. Tell me about that and how that informs, yet again, your condition of poetry.
ME: Both as a poet and a lawyer, I was engaged in the business of advocacy, speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard. It made perfect sense. Sometimes people would ask me: “How could you be a poet and a lawyer?” They are two totally contrary ways of using the brain. For me, it was perfectly congruent. I was an advocate both as a poet and a lawyer, speaking on behalf of people without an opportunity to be heard in the Latino community, immigrants, the poor, and so on. I went to Northeastern University Law School in Boston, graduated from there and pursued the practice of law in the Boston area.
I practiced bilingual education law with an organization called META. Later I worked as a supervisor for a program called Su Clinica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, a city right outside Boston, representing immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, and occasionally even from Vietnam or Cambodia when necessary. We did the things that tenant lawyers do: eviction defense, no-heat cases, rats and roaches, crazy landlords. I wrote about those things. I wrote lawyer poems. To this day, once in a while, I read one and still get this familiar kind of chill.
IS: In your poetry I see obviously influences from Whitman and Neruda. The elasticity that Whitman brought to American literature in many ways opened the door for somebody like you. The passion and the pathos of somebody like the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, is also there. When did you discover the early poems and poets that influenced you, and how did they influence you?
ME: I began writing poetry before I knew what it was. I started using poetic devices before I knew that these devices had names, that these tools had actually been used before and came from somebody else's toolbox, so to speak. I began writing poetry when I was 15 years old. There were no books of poetry in my house at that time. That was not part of our experience, per se. My parents read. My father, in particular, would read books about politics and history, but I didn't read poetry and they didn't read poetry, as a rule. I just began writing it, and later on I would discover that there was a place for me. There was a history and a tradition from which I emerged, that I only dimly perceived at first, and discovered in a strange attempt to find out who I was, both as a person and a poet.
I didn't start at the beginning. I didn't start with Whitman and move forward. I moved backwards to Whitman. I was influenced by Allen Ginsberg. I was influenced by Langston Hughes, by Carl Sandburg, by Pablo Neruda. Only later did I realize that they were all descended from Walt Whitman. Then, once I discovered Whitman, that was like going to the source; that was the fountain from which the waters sprang. I actually carried Leaves of Grass under my arm (as Whitman instructed me to do by the way; I mean, it's in the book). I would open it periodically and realize I had discovered a kind of Bible. What strikes me even now as I read Whitman, as with his disciples like Neruda, is the profound empathy, a poetics of compassion, which guides everything that Whitman does. Whitman is about this ultimate empathy, this deep fellow feeling.
IS: In between Whitman and Ginsberg is, of course, William Carlos Williams…
ME: Williams was a wonderful poet. Like most of his readers, I had no idea he was Puerto Rican when I first encountered him. Even without this knowledge, I loved his precise, jeweled images of urban life, the green bottle in the trash, the fire engine. He is not a major influence on my work, but he is certainly present.
IS: How do you perceive his influence on the Beat Generation?
ME: Williams, of course, wrote the famous introduction to Ginsberg's Howl: "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell." Again, I would say that Williams was a presence but not a major influence for the Beats. Whitman was their guru. (Mine, too.)
IS: There appears to be a few degrees of separation between your work and the Nuyorican tradition. It all comes down, I guess, to what one perceives as street poetry. Pietri, Algarin, Piñero, Esteves … there’s an urgency in their voices, urgency and roughness. Your style, in contrast, is more lyrical.
ME: I have various links to the Nuyorican tradition: I’m culturally Nuyorican—that is, a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York City. I’m writing from the same general experience and perspective as the poets of the Nuyorican school. In my twenties, I was inspired and influenced by several major Nuyorican works: Puerto Rican Obituary, by Pedro Pietri; Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas; and Short Eyes by Miguel Piñero. Again, to be inspired by a writer is not to say that I must imitate that writer. To be influenced by a writer is not to say that I must emulate that writer. Hopefully, our inspirations and influences lead us to discover our own unique voices. Though I was born and raised in New York, I evolved as a poet elsewhere, particularly in Boston, where, keep in mind, I practiced tenant law in the Latino community at the same time I was practicing poetry. My use of language is indeed different from most poets of the Nuyorican tradition. I don't want to sound like anyone else. Moreover, why we should invent and repeat our own clichés, like every other community of writers? My language, though "lyrical," is hopefully accessible, available to the community that provoked these poems in the first place. When I gave a reading just the other day at the local jail, the Puerto Rican inmates responded strongly. The experience, the point of view of the community, is still reflected in the poems. I’m ultimately more interested in what unites the Puerto Rican community, and its writers, than in what divides us.
IS: There is often among Latino writers a perceived sense of burden. As a so-called ethnic writer, one is destined to become the spokesperson for your people. You're destined to use political tools and infuse your work with that. You don't share this concept of burden. It is for you something all together different. It comes naturally. It comes from also the tradition in Latin America of the writer that represents the voiceless. Do you feel a constraint for Latino writers forced to represent, forced to speak out for others? What does that create in you?
ME: I don't feel that this is a burden. I don't feel that it's something I'm forced to do. It's a privilege. It's a responsibility, but also an honor. I have a subject. I have something to say. For me one of the great dilemmas of contemporary poetry in this country is that most poets don't have anything to say. They're writing poems instead of putting down new tile in the bathroom, or horseback riding, or tending the garden, or something else that could have been done just as easily. I feel blessed with a certain kind of gift, which is the gift of a tale to tell. There is a story. That's a gift. It's not a burden at all.
IS: Tell me how the story comes to you and how it gets formed? How is the poem born and how does it mature? How does it become an entity? And once published does it keep on evolving or does it stop evolving?
ME: Many of my poems are narrative poems, so it does begin, quite literally, with a story. Over the years I’ve developed the same eye for a story that a journalist might develop. There are certain instincts. You watch events unfold before you, or someone tells you the tale, and you find yourself translating it into poetry. There's a reflex action which takes over.
I think of it as a kind of internal tuning fork. I sometimes think that sound, that “ting” I'm hearing, can only be heard by poets and dogs. It’s a very high-pitched sound.
It's a combination of instinct plus experience, plus practice, practice, practice. All of that creates the impulse towards a poem. There are situations where I'll sit up in bed at three o'clock in the morning and realize that something that happened to me when I was 16 years old is, in fact, a poem.
IS: And how long does it take to become a fully developed poem? How long do you work and rework?
ME: The poems are so idiosyncratic. Some of them come quickly. In fact, some of the poems that have gained the most circulation for me are the ones that came most quickly and easily.
IS: As if they were dictated to you?
ME: As if dictated. It almost feels like cheating. I feel as if I didn't work hard enough on that kind of poem; why would anyone want to read it? I wrote a poem about a janitor called "Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits", in the voice of a janitor friend who worked at a church in Harvard Square, Cambridge, years ago. One night he had had enough and walked off the job. When I found out that he had done this, I was so angry about it that I sat down and wrote the poem on the back of a napkin in about ten minutes.
IS: And that was it?
ME: That was it. I remember another occasion when I wrote a poem in my head, while I was sitting with my wife watching a production of the Nutcracker in Boston (her idea, not mine). I was so bored. After staring at the Exit sign for a good long time, I began to develop a poem about a totally unrelated scenario. After we got out of the theater I said: “We've got to get someplace fast.” We went to a nearby restaurant. Then I said: “I need something to write on.” She gave me a paper bag; that's all she had in her purse. Then I said: “I need something to write with.” She found a magic marker. I tore the bag open lengthwise, so I would have enough space to write on. I wrote this poem on the bag with a magic marker. It was called, “Portrait of a Real Hijo de Puta,” about an abused child my wife worked with as a swim coach at the Dorchester House in Boston.
IS: But others take longer?
ME: Others take much longer. Often, I'm scratching and chipping away at anything that doesn't look like a poem. That could take years. If I don't feel like it's ready, I'll hold it back. I won't send it out or include it in a book until I have it in its least objectionable form.
IS: You speak Spanish and English or better, English and Spanish. These are two universes, these are two ways of life, these are two languages. And as far as I know you mostly or only write in English, although your poems are infused with Spanish. What's your relationship--love/hate, passion--towards the two languages, Shakespeare's language and Cervantes'?
ME: I have the entire range of emotions you describe with respect to both languages. I love both languages and struggle with both languages. English is my first language and Spanish my second language, but they blend into each other. They influence each other. I find more and more with my poetry that this is the case. The relationship between the two languages has taken various forms over the years. There are poems I’ve written in English which have been translated into Spanish, where I serve as the co-translator. There are other situations where I will combine the two languages and bounce them off one another. I recently did a poem called "En La Calle San Sebastián," about a street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is famous for its music. I alternate one line of Spanish with one line of English throughout the poem. The alternating line in Spanish is “En la calle San Sebastian:” On Saint Sebastian Street. I'm trying to evoke the sound of the music by using this refrain, because Spanish has that great musicality.
IS: And when you do that as you do in that poem, are you conscious or even perhaps paralyzed by the fact that someone in the audience might not speak Spanish, and that there might be a line in that case or a few words sprinkled in other cases that might pass by that person's understanding? Do you feel compelled to explain everything that is in the other language?
ME: I try to be accessible. I try to communicate. That accessibility can be achieved in a variety of ways when it comes to the use of Spanish in the body of an English-language poem. I think of it in terms of "the three C's": context, cognates and crossover words. I will employ some of those devices in the process of putting a bilingual poem out into the world. Oftentimes that seems to be enough.
On the other hand, I don't feel obligated to explain all the time. I don't feel obligated to translate all the time. There's a point at which I think the reader must do some of the work. Hopefully, the poet can motivate the reader to do that work. If I get the reader engaged, then the reader will want to know what certain words mean. Thus, I may use the word “alabanza” in a poem, and repeat that word, emphasizing its importance. If the reader in English doesn’t know that “alabanza” is “praise,” he or she might just be compelled to look it up in the Spanish dictionary, even if that means buying the dictionary first.