floaters book cover
Honors and Awards

UMass Amherst Professor Martín Espada Garners National Book Award for Poetry for “Floaters”

AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst English professor and poet Martín Espada has won the National Book Award for his book “Floaters,” a collection of poetry that runs from scathing socio-political commentary to homages of family and love.

Espada was recognized in the poetry category. His collection was named a 2021 finalist in October. A five-judge panel chose “Floaters” for the National Book Award, which was announced today.

A black and white photograph of a bearded and smiling Martín Espada at Bowery Poetry (photo by David González)
UMass Amherst English professor and poet Martín Espada

“Floaters” takes its title from a term used by certain Border Patrol agents to describe migrants who drown trying to cross the Rio Grande at the U.S./Mexico border. The title poem responds to the viral photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria, a Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in the Río Grande, and allegations posted in the “I’m 10-15” Border Patrol Facebook group that the photo was faked.

"I am sometimes struck speechless. You sometimes wonder if words are going to be enough," Espada said. "But then you write the next poem. What choice do we have? Silence is not acceptable."

Espada bears eloquent witness to confrontations with anti-immigrant bigotry as a tenant lawyer years ago, and today he sings the praises of Central American adolescents kicking soccer balls over a barbed wire fence in an internment camp founded, he says, on that same bigotry. He also believes that times of hate call for poems of love – even in the voice of a cantankerous Galápagos tortoise.

The collection ranges from historical epic to achingly personal lyrics about growing up, the baseball that drops from the sky and smacks Espada in the eye as he contemplates a girl’s gently racist question. The poems have been described by reviewers as “both sardonic and breathtaking” and “a work of grace-laden defiance.” The Chicago Review of Books named “Floaters” one of the “12 Must-Read Books of January.”

“Martín Espada is one of the most important poets of his generation, and with good reason,” said UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy. “His poignant and powerful work touches our souls. He is a shining light in the arts and humanities on our campus, and his extraordinary writing and commitment to social justice is an inspiration throughout the world.”

Espada has published more than 20 books as a poet, essayist, editor and translator. Other collections of his poems include “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed,” “The Trouble Ball” and “Alabanza.” His honors include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, a Robert Creeley Award, a National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, a PEN/Revson Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Earlier this week, Espada also was named in the inaugural cohort of the Letras Boricuas Fellowship, a new award created by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Flamboyan Foundation’s Arts Fund. It aims to enrich and sustain literary tradition in Puerto Rico and across the U.S. diaspora.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1957, Espada 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, Mass.

Espada 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.