Kinds of Work: Martin Espada in Conversation
An excerpt from an interview with Martín Espada, originally published by Verse Wisconsin
Wendy Vardaman: You've written many poems about work—your own and the work lives of others. A favorite of mine, "Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper," has as its subject the production of the legal pads that you later encountered as a law student. Could you talk about the importance of poetry about work?
Martín Espada: Poetry about work is very important. I've been deeply influenced by poets who wrote about work and the working class, but did so in a way that was very concrete and grounded. It's easy to write about the working class in the abstract, but that impulse tends to produce bad poetry. It's very different to write about working class people in terms of the work they do.
I didn't invent poetry of work as a genre. Look at Carl Sandburg or Sterling Brown. Brown wrote in the form of the work song. There is a sense out there that poets can write about everything but work. Why not write about work? Why not write about the things we do to occupy our time all day long? You can write about any kind of work, even if you work in an office and think it's the dullest kind of occupation. You can still find something to say about it. You can write about power relationships, about human relationships, about what you create. For me, my string of jobs ranging from the bizarre to the dangerous was invaluable. In the process of doing these jobs—whether as a bouncer or as a grunt in a primate lab—I became invisible, but I never stopped observing my world, or writing down what I saw and heard.
The same would be true of "Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper," as a poem about working in a printing plant. [In that environment,] you're only seen for what your hands can do. The rest of you is rendered invisible. Yet, in some ways, that's very helpful if you happen to be a writer. People will say and do anything in front of you. I remember when I worked in a gas station, soaked in gasoline, people would stand right next to me and light a cigarette. That's how invisible you are. But you still have eyes to see and ears to hear. You can write about things that matter. I didn't seek out jobs for the experience. When I took a job, I needed the job.
WV: You've spoken about a working-class aesthetic—can you talk about what might characterize that aesthetic in terms of form or content?
ME: Primarily, it has to do with content. I don't argue that there's a working-class form. I'll leave that to others. You can talk about Blues, I suppose, as a working-class form, or hip-hop, but I'm interested in a working-class perspective.
Class influences the way you perceive the world— not just your work, but everything. We have to begin with that. That's what I mean when I talk about a working-class aesthetic. It goes beyond poetry. When I participate in a conversation or debate in the academic world, I'm very conscious of the fact that I don't come from the same class background as most of the people taking part in that dialogue or debate.
WV: Would you recommend that a young poet get an MFA and teach or study something else and then do other work while writing?
ME: It depends. There are all kinds of work. If you find work that's rewarding, that involves a contribution to the community, that involves social justice, the poetry will grow from your experience. I would love to see more poet-lawyers.
My favorite poet-lawyer in the 20th century is Edgar Lee Masters. He was Clarence Darrow's law partner in Chicago, before Spoon River Anthology made him famous. I can tell, just by looking, that Spoon River Anthology was written by a lawyer; those are poems of advocacy, of testimony. That's a lawyer's way of seeing the world. Think of Charles Reznikoff, or Lawrence Joseph, a terrific contemporary poet who teaches law school.
What about poet doctors? Everyone thinks of William Carlos Williams, but let's not forget Rafael Campo, a doctor at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston who has written beautiful poems about the community he serves, his patients and their life-and-death struggles. He couldn't do that if he simply got an MFA and taught poetry to others who want an MFA.
It's possible to get an MFA and be a decent, passionate human being, but it's not the only way. There are other ways. I've met and been impressed by a whole variety of people who write poetry and do other things for a living. I did a reading once with a poet-mailman. Recently, I met a poet-firefighter. It's not just a matter of writing your autobiography. You see the world from a certain point of view because of the work you do and the community of which you are a part.
The system of MFAs has run into an economic snag: there are more and more credentialed people for fewer and fewer jobs. What is it for? Is it about community? There are lots of ways to find community. Poets, if nothing else, do tend to organize themselves. That's where the community is. It's all about organization. You don't need an MFA for that.
WV: Are there enough connections among different kinds of poets, e.g., those at universities, performance and spoken word artists, poets in prison, homeless poets? How do we build those connections?
ME: I think many more bridges need to be built. All too often, poets are sheltered and insular. I'm one of those poets who builds bridges and crosses bridges. I find myself participating in a dialogue with many communities of poets. I'm often dismayed at how segregated the poetry community is, even now. One of the things that has to change is the segregation of Latino poets. We are still largely invisible in the landscape of American poetry. I'm always amazed when I look at the table of contents of a reputable literary journal and don't see a single Spanish surname. I mean not one. How is that possible? There are approximately 50 million Latinos in the US, and yet their expression of themselves in the form of poetry is almost completely invisible. Where is it? Why is it that no Latino poet has won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award?
To a large extent, this schism exists because there's a perception in society as a whole that Latinos are not literary people, that Latinos don't read and don't write. If we don't read or write, then no one is under any obligation to read us. It's very easy for students to pass through English Departments and MFA programs without reading a single Latino poet. Why is that? We have to ask these questions, and they have to be answered.
WV: You've also been very interested in poetry activism, though, and I wonder where are some of the areas where poets' services might be most needed.
ME: There are so many things that poets can do to serve the community. It's a very broad question. First of all, poets should go where poetry is not supposed to go, where poetry, allegedly, would not be well-received at all. Think of prison as the classic example: you would think that poetry wouldn't be welcome at a place where the literacy level is so low. Yet the opposite is true. The most energetic, enthusiastic audiences for poetry are in prison. There are more poets per capita in the prison system than in the academic system. They have a lot of time on their hands, but they also have an urgent need to define themselves, to explain themselves, to present themselves to the world.
Poets should go into such places—into the prisons, the nursing homes, migrant labor camps, factories, wherever programs have been set up to make it possible for poets to offer what they have. I'm not advocating that poets wander in off the street; there has to be a system in place. But there are more and more of such programs. A generation ago it was not as easy for a poet to visit a prison as it is today.
WV: You speak of having a mission as a poet to make the "invisible visible," and that mission drives both the form and the content of your work—from your focus on certain people and situations, to your poetic accessibility, to your craft and use of literary elements like dialogue, setting and narration. Have you always had that mission? Do you ever write outside of it?
ME: Well, there is a sense of mission in my work, but I think it's important to articulate that mission without becoming a missionary. First of all, no one's going to listen. Secondly, it doesn't make for very good poetry. It's important to strike that balance. There's a mission, a sense of purpose, but that has to be balanced with a sense of the aesthetic, the image, the music in poetry.
Do I ever write outside the mission? Of course. And yet, because of the way I see the world, that perspective is present in almost every poem. Not all my poems are political, but they're all coming from the same point of view, which is unique to me. I've written, as you know, a number of very personal, very intimate narratives. It's easy to see that I'm influenced by Neruda or influenced by Whitman. It might not be as easy to see that I'm influenced by a poet like Sharon Olds, who is so brave and willing to risk everything. I find that really admirable, and I aspire to write the same way, especially when it comes to my own personal experience. So, yes, there is a mission, but it comes out of a broader context.
WV: It's a serious mission; many of your poems are political, and it seems there's a stereotype that political poems aren't funny. But a lot of your work is extremely funny—I'm thinking of poems like "Thanksgiving," "Advice to a Young Poet," or "Revolutionary Spanish Lesson," and I wonder if you could talk a bit about your use of humor and how you see that relating to your work.
ME: Well, humor can be a political tool. It relaxes your audience. It lowers defenses against ideas that might otherwise be resisted. You can use humor subversively to smuggle ideas that might otherwise be refused at the border. At the same time, I write the way I do because I find the world to be a very strange and funny place. I don't think you can impose that on a subject. You can't impose that on a poem. It has to be organic.