from Italia, fishmonger, anarchist, shook the hand of
and thanked him for everything. I wish to forgive some
people for what
they are now doing to me, said Vanzetti, blindfolded,
to the chair that would shoot two thousand volts
through his body.
—from "I Now Pronounce You Dead," Winter 2017
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I wrote my first poem when I was fifteen. My tenth-grade English teacher asked us to create our own version of The New Yorker. Keep in mind that we were all New Yorkers, but this was a very different New York. We passed the magazine, hand to hand, section by section, down the hierarchy of thuggery, till it came, at last, to me. The only thing left unclaimed was a poem. I was not pleased. Yet, I had failed English in the eighth grade, and did not wish to replicate the spectacular fireworks that ensued. I sat by the window. It was raining that day, so I wrote a poem about rain. I don’t have the poem anymore—I was unaware of its literary significance—and I only remember one line: “tiny silver hammers pounding the earth.” I had just invented my first metaphor. I also discovered something else that day: I loved words. I loved banging them together and watching them spin around the room, and maybe jump out the window into the rain.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The historical narratives of Pablo Neruda and Eduardo Galeano certainly influence my own historical narratives, such as my poem about Sacco and Vanzetti in the current issue, or the sequence of sonnets in my last book about the Paterson Silk Strike of 1912, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. (That’s also the title of the book.)
What other professions have you worked in?
Before I started teaching at the University of Massachusetts in 1993, I was a housing lawyer. I served as Supervisor for Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, outside Boston. I also worked at many colorful occupations during my youth, from night desk clerk in a transient hotel to bouncer in a bar. A renowned NPR interviewer once asked me: “Why did you choose to be a bouncer?” I replied: “Because I thought it would look good when I came up for tenure.”
What inspired you to write this piece?
August 2017 marked the ninetieth anniversary of a historic injustice: the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. I wanted to draw a connection between the repression of immigrants past and present. This is nothing new, and it doesn’t work. It so happens that the former site of Charlestown Prison, where Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, is the current site of Bunker Hill Community College—a school with a sizeable immigrant population, speaking in many tongues. As the saying goes: Aquí estamos y no nos vamos. Here we are and here we stay. The poem is also about the paradox of a good man in a bad system—the warden at the prison, in this case—and the compromise with lethal injustice that will haunt him for the rest of his days.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I was born in New York and my father was born in Puerto Rico. Both places have always influenced my writing. There is no contradiction, by the way, between a place being real and imagined. New York is real and imagined for me; Puerto Rico is real and imagined for me. The last poem I wrote deals with Hurricane María and the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, as told to my father—who is four years dead.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
The only music I listen to while I write is the yapping of Pomeranians.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write
I read aloud as I write. If it doesn’t sound right to my ear, out it comes. I don’t crumble up the pages and toss them over my shoulder, the way writers do in the movies, but only because I don't use a typewriter anymore.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My partner, the poet and fiction writer Lauren Marie Schmidt—whose work is also featured in this issue—is my first and best reader.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’d sing. I’ve seen the way singing moves people. I know the way singing moves me. But I can’t sing. When I sing, all the moose come stampeding down from Canada.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been reading Paul Mariani, poet, biographer and critic—and a dear friend. Most recently, I read his autobiographical essay called “Class,” followed by his essay called “Kinnell’s Legacy: On ‘The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World.’” Brilliant. I also read a new poem he sent me called “Hornet’s Nest,” and I responded with a poem of my own, taking a phrase from the last line of his poem as the title of my own poem: “Be There When They Swarm Me.”
MARTIN ESPADA'S latest collection of poems is called Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball, The Republic of Poetry, and Alabanza. He has received the Shelley Memorial Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple, was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the State of Arizona. Espada teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.