On Saturday, September 13, 2014, Martín Espada was presented with the 2014 Busboys and Poets Award by Sarah Browning, Director of Split This Rock. The following is the text of the speech.
“It’s a thrill to be here with you all tonight, on this momentous occasion. For many years Martín Espada’s bio included a quote from a prominent critic calling him “the Latino poet of his generation.” And of course that was an accurate statement. But let’s make no mistake about it: Martín Espada is one of our great American poets, writing and publishing over the past 25 years more than 15 books as a poet, editor, essayist, and translator. He inspired, made the path for – indeed, busted down the door for – an incredible flowering today of what Martín calls “poetry of the political imagination,” a flowering that would have been almost inconceivable to Martín and me when we first met 20 years ago.
But this is how we make change – we imagine, write, we speak, we persevere. The work of this new generation would not have been possible without the richness, the imaginative power, the sheer beauty of the poems of Martín Espada. His accomplishments in such poetry collections as The Republic of Poetry, Imagine the Angels of Bread, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, have been recognized with a Massachusetts Book Award, an International Latino Book Award, the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, an American Book Award, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, among many others. His poems give voice to our struggles, they celebrate resistance, they give hope to all who believe we can make another, a better world.
One of Martín’s early contributions to North American letters, and one that had a profound impact on me – a scared young poet told by her writing teachers, as we all were in those days, that politics, our great aspirations for our world, were not an appropriate topic for poetry – was as editor of Poetry Like Bread, an anthology of poets published by the pioneering Curbstone Press. In his forward Martín wrote: “Any progressive social change must be imagined first, and that vision must find its most eloquent possible expression to move from vision to reality. Any oppressive social condition, before it can change, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses.”
It was this manifesto that inspired the tag line for Split This Rock: poems of provocation and witness, poems that both bear witness to injustice and provoke change.
A few years later, Martín put this manifesto into stunning poetic form, in the now iconic poem, “Imagine the Angels of Bread:”
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
I have read this poem aloud and used it to inspire visions for a radically more just world in prisons, with low-income high school students, at Occupy DC, at a women’s fast for immigration justice. The Director of the National Guest Worker Alliance recently told me they read the poem to kick off all their activist planning sessions. In other words, Martín Espada is the people’s poet, his words passed from poet to poet, activist to activist, low-wage worker to low-wage worker throughout the country.
Martín wrote “Imagine the Angels of Bread” on commission from NPR, to celebrate the new year. But when they received the poem, which ends so stirringly,
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
A couple of years later, though, the good people of NPR refused another poem from Martín – perhaps at the behest of their corporate sponsors such as Goldman Sachs and Monsanto. So perhaps it was no surprise to Martín that his book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple, was later banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona.
When faced with these forces of reaction and repression, happily for us Martín continues to speak out, fearlessly. In his essay, “The Unacknowledged Legislator: A Rebuttal,” published in his most recent collection of essays, The Lover of a Subversive Is Also a Subversive, he writes:
“Consider the state of our nation today, in a plummeting spiral. Could poets do any worse than the legislators?” He gives us several examples on which poets would clearly improve upon the mess in which we find ourselves, finishing with, “Would poets with empty pockets vote repeatedly to pour billions of dollars into one catastrophic war of plunder after another? Should poets leave politics to the Republicans and the Democrats, or should all of us—poets included—grapple with the world? Poetry humanizes in the face of dehumanization. Poetry frees a voice caught in the collective throat.”
In a just world, Martín Espada – for his extraordinary work freeing a voice caught in the collective throat – would have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and would have been named the nation’s Poet Laureate long ago. But instead we must make the world we wish to see. So let us name Martín Espada the People’s Laureate, as we celebrate this great American poet with an award named in honor of that other essential, visionary voice of the American people, Langston Hughes.
It is now, therefore, my very great honor and privilege – on behalf of Busboys and Poets and its owner Andy Shallal, and on behalf of all who work to build the just and beautiful “Republic of Poetry” – to present to Martín Espada the 2014 Busboys and Poets Award in Poetry. “