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All Are Worthy of Song

Editor's Note: On December 3, 2021, at the Old Chapel on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, friends, colleagues, and community members met to celebrate the work of UMass Professor of English and MR Contributing Editor Martín Espada, to recognize his singular achievements—during his long career but also in a single year where his most recent collection of poems, Floaters, received the National Book Award and where he received one of the inaugural Letras Boricuas Fellowships. Before a reading by the poet, the following introduction was provided by Barbara Krauthamer, Dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts and Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

It is now my pleasure and honor to introduce Martín Espada, professor in our English department and recipient of this year’s National Book Award for Poetry, and also one of the inaugural recipients of the Letras Boricuas Fellowship, created by the Mellon Foundation and the Flamboyan Foundation Arts Fund to enrich and sustain literary tradition in Puerto Rico and across the U.S. diaspora.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Professor Espada grew up in a family committed to both activism and art. Professor Espada cites his father, the late Frank Espada—a community organizer, a civil rights activist, and photographer—as his greatest influence, and his 2016 Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is a memorial to his father. And it is hardly an original observation when I note that in his poetry, Professor Espada offers his readers words, images, and scenes that, like his father’s photography, allow us to see and hear both the beauty and the pain of those who have been marginalized, dispossesed, and erased by mainstream society.

Professor Espada began his career as a tenant lawyer in eastern Massachusetts, where he served low-income, Spanish-speaking communities who faced eviction, housing discrimination, and inadequate public housing conditions. Surely his work, his advocacy, reflected his understanding of the power of representing those who have been dehumanized, and also the power of language and the language of the law to exclude, exploit, and disappear those who are vulnerable.

Professor Espada published his first volume of poetry, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, in 1982, and he has written, edited, and translated over twenty volumes of poetry and essays. He has won numerous awards, with the full list is too long for me to list here; his awards include: the Massachusetts Book Award; the Busboys and Poets Award; the International Latino Book Award; the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award; fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, United States Artists, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2018 he received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation.

And, of course, last month he received the National Book Award for Poetry. At the award ceremony, his book Floaters was described in part as follows:

These poems remind us of the power of observation, of seeing everything, what’s in front of us, what’s behind us, both in memory and in heritage, and what we can only imagine—believing all are worthy of song, all are worthy of taking seriously within our song.

This tribute reminded me of something Professor Espada said some fourteen years ago, I think to a class of high school students: “We sometimes think that poetry is something that happens to somebody else. That it happens on Mount Olympus, it happens to the gods. No. Poetry happens to you. Poetry is inside you, and it’s all around you.”

Tonight, we have the great pleasure and honor of being with Professor Espada while he shares his poetry with us.

Please join me in welcoming Professor Martín Espada.

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