Feature Stories

“The Republic of Poetry”

Making the invisible visible and shedding light on the struggle for social justice
  • Selection of Espada's published works spread out on table.

Poet Martin Espada gives voice to the hearts and souls of the underrepresented in society.

Award-winning poet, essayist, editor and translator Martín Espada (Professor of English) uses the power of poetry to give voice to the unheard.

Considered the “Latino poet of his generation,” Espada cites poets Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman as major influences, along with his Puerto Rican heritage. Espada is the author of more than fifteen books, including The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006), a collection of poems that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is the winner of the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, an American Book Award, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, among many other awards. His poetry has appeared in The New York Times, New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, and Best American Poetry. His latest collection of poems, The Trouble Ball (Norton, 2011), received a Massachusetts Book Award, the Milt Kessler Award and an International Latino Book Award. His works have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Espada describes his interest in social justice as “practical, philosophical, and political.” The experience of Latino immigrants is a constant presence in his writings. A self-proclaimed independentista—a believer in the independence of Puerto Rico from the United States—he weaves the political into his work and sheds light on untold histories. He takes a bilingual approach, utilizing the Spanish language within an English language structure.

“There are certain words… certain concepts…certain experiences that are untranslatable…and yet we try to communicate, understanding that different audiences will appreciate different layers of the poem,” Espada says.

Espada’s most acclaimed poem is “Alabanza,” dedicated to victims of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. He chooses to tackle the subject from an unlikely angle by dedicating the poem to the food service workers who died at the Windows on the World restaurant that morning. Repeating one Spanish word, “alabanza,” meaning “praise,” Espada weaves together their stories and perspectives to bring alive the memories of these workers.

“My focus is on them…because they were mostly immigrants, many undocumented, invisible in life and even more invisible in death. I consider it a mission of mine as a poet to make the invisible visible,” Espada says of the poem.

Espada’s focus on immigrant workers is informed by his family history. His father emmigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico, settling in New York, where Espada was born. His father was a leader in the Puerto Rican community and the civil rights movement, introducing him to political activism at an early age.

Espada’s career has long been shaped by advocacy. From 1987 to 1993, he worked as a housing lawyer for Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Since then, Espada has been giving voice to the hearts and souls of the underrepresented in society.

At UMass Amherst, Espada teaches a range of courses including, “Creative Writing: Poetry,” “Pablo Neruda in Translation,” and “Poetry of the Political Imagination.” When working with students, he tries to communicate the power of poetry and the ideas embedded in the poetry.

“What I hope for… is that a poem becomes part of the atmosphere when you read it or hear it, like the air we breathe. And that it has some kind of impact or consequence as a result,” Espada says.

Diana Alsabe ‘15