Martín Espada, professor of English, has been awarded the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $100,000 award that honors poets for outstanding lifetime achievement. Espada is the first Latino poet to win the award since its inception in 1986.
As a poet, an essayist, an editor and a translator, Espada has published more than 15 books, including his latest poetry collection, “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed.”
“To receive a lifetime achievement award in the form of the Ruth Lilly Prize is a great honor that causes me to reflect: on my father, as artist and activist, who died four years ago; on Jack Agüeros, the first poet I ever met; on the days I sat outside the courtroom, scribbling poems on legal pads; on the people in the poems I write, Whitman’s ‘numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known,’” says Espada.
Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957. He earned a B.A. in history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a J.D. from Northeastern University. As an attorney, he served as supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea.
The poet has dedicated himself to the pursuit of social justice and fighting for the rights of Latino/a communities. He cites his greatest influence as his father, Frank Espada, a community organizer, civil rights activist and documentary photographer who created the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project.
“Martín Espada’s work and life tell the real and lived story of America, in which the importance of poems and legal rights go hand in hand,” says Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine. “A tenants’ rights attorney before he became a celebrated and cherished poet, Espada’s passions are as compelling and apt as his precisions—both now more timely than ever.”
Espada has received a Shelley Memorial Award, a Robert Creeley Award, a National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, a PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His poetry collection “The Republic of Poetry” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize is sponsored and administered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, and will be presented to Espada at a ceremony at the Poetry Foundation on June 11.