Bill Moyers
February 15, 2013
Martín Espada on the Power Behind Poetry

BILL MOYERS: There’s a familiar saying in politics that campaigning is poetry and governing is prose. Not on this broadcast. Here, poetry is poetry, period and holds a cherished place, which is why we maintain a sort of poet’s corner and welcome back to it our friend, Martín Espada.

Growing up tough and Puerto Rican in the city and then in the segregated suburbs of Long Island, Martín Espada wove his life’s experience into verse, compose even as he studied history and law and worked as an advocate for tenant’s rights in Boston.

Now he teaches poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and has published sixteen books, including his recent collection, "The Trouble Ball." Martín Espada welcome back.


BILL MOYERS: There's a very short poem in the book, four lines long, that I wonder if it's autobiographical. It's The Poet's Son.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes, it's in the book and yes it is.

The Poet's Son Watches His Father Leave for Another Gig

Once again you're choosing between dignity and Christmas

BILL MOYERS: That's it.

MARTÍN ESPADA: That’s it. It's like a sub-haiku. It is autobiographical. It is something my son said to me many years ago. Now my son is 21 years old. He's a junior at Bennington College. He's six foot seven. Fortunately he responds to voice commands. He said this about ten years ago. And I never forgot it, obviously. I finally chose to write it down.

BILL MOYERS: You were leaving?

MARTÍN ESPADA: I was literally walking out the door.


MARTÍN ESPADA: To do another reading somewhere on the road. Going anywhere and everywhere. It's what I used to call my tour of dying industrial cities.


MARTÍN ESPADA: "Hello Scranton."

BILL MOYERS: And he was 11 years old and--


BILL MOYERS: But he objected to your leaving.

MARTÍN ESPADA: He did, he did. I think to a certain extent, this reflects the sacrifices that parents make if they are artists or if they are activists or if they are simply workers. And you have to walk away from your son or your daughter. The last person in the world you should walk away from. And yet you realize at the same time that you must. Without the act of walking away, this person's world will be impoverished. And yet at the same time, there is no escaping the impoverishment of absence. You're not there.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, well this is universal.


BILL MOYERS: And I wonder how much it is due to vanity as well.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah, absolutely. The gig calls. Well, there's a kind of ethic of the road, you know? You go out there and you do the gig. And it doesn't matter what kind of condition you're in. Some of the gigs I've done have, you know, I once did two readings at a prison with an abscessed tooth. And after that, the librarian at the prison rushed me to an oral surgeon for emergency surgery.

But what was I going to say to the inmates, "I have a toothache"? So their need outweighed my own at that moment. I once did a reading in Houston with a collapsed lung. And literally was coughing all night and was in so much pain. I remember that I ruptured a muscle from coughing. I had to sleep sitting up. And yet I went, I did the gig. Now, I learned something over the years. The gig is not God. The gig is not all. You can on occasion postpone a gig or cancel a gig.

BILL MOYERS: So with that in mind, read that again.

MARTÍN ESPADA: The Poet's Son Watches His Father Leave for Another Gig

Once again you're choosing between dignity and Christmas

He was right of course.

BILL MOYERS: Dignity whereas you're being true to your commitment outside. Christmas was his notion of where you are with him.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, what he perceived, what he captured was that there was some indignity in what I was doing. And indeed, there is. You know, life on the road is very undignified in a lot of ways. And anyone who's ever done battle with a continental breakfast knows that.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, tell me about it.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah, you know, that jammed dispenser of Raisin Bran, or the microwave oven where the door doesn't close all the way, or the broken toaster. I could go on.

BILL MOYERS: Been there, done that.


BILL MOYERS: Read me The Playboy Calendar.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Ah yes. This is a poem that's really about me and my father, my father was trying to reach out to me at 17 years old, I was a mystery to him, as I imagine all 17 year olds are to their fathers. And he was trying everything he could think of to see what would stick. And this is what stuck.

The Playboy Calendar and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

The year I graduated from high school, my father gave me a Playboy calendar and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. On the calendar, he wrote: Enjoy the scenery. In the book of poems, he wrote: I introduce you to an old friend.

The Beast was my only friend in high school, a wrestler who crushed the coach's nose with his elbow, fractured the fingers of all his teammates, could drink half a dozen vanilla milkshakes, and signed up with the Marines because his father was a Marine. I showed the Playboy calendar to The Beast and he howled like a silverback gorilla trying to impress an expedition of anthropologists. I howled too, smitten with the blonde called Miss January, held high in my simian hand.

Yet, alone at night, I memorized the poet-astronomer of Persia, his saints and sages bickering about eternity, his angel looming in the tavern door with a jug of wine, his battered caravanserai of sultans fading into the dark. At seventeen, the laws of privacy have been revoked by the authorities, and the secret police are everywhere: I learned to hide Khayyám and his beard inside the folds of the Playboy calendar in case anyone opened the door without knocking, my brother with a baseball mitt or a beery Beast.

I last saw The Beast that summer at the Marine base in Virginia called Quantico. He rubbed his shaven head, and the sunburn made the stitches from the car crash years ago stand out like tiny crosses in the field of his face. I last saw the Playboy calendar in December of that year, when it could no longer tell me the week or the month.

I last saw Omar Khayyám this morning: Awake! He said. For Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight.

Awake! He said. And I awoke."

BILL MOYERS: To whom or to what do you owe that defining choice of Omar Khayyám over the Playboy calendar? Because that's the story of your life.

MARTÍN ESPADA: I certainly owe those who came before me. In particular, I owe my father. My father did not have a college education. There were not books of poetry all over the house. But there was this book. It was significant and profound for someone to hand me a book of poetry. I was surrounded already by the images in that Playboy calendar. And they were not as meaningful to me as the images in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. And so I'm very grateful to my father for giving me that that book.

BILL MOYERS: I really like the poem in here, Blessed be the Truth Tellers. Tell me about that and read it for me.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Jack Agüeros is a Puerto Rican poet, fiction writer, playwright, community organizer, translator. He was for many years the director of El Museo del Barrio was at the time the only Puerto Rican museum in the continental United States, in East Harlem.

And every year, Jack would organize a Three Kings' Day parade. Real camels and sheep marching right through the streets of East Harlem. Talk about visionary. Jack was the first writer I ever met. He was a political colleague and ally of my father. And he came to visit us one day in the projects of East New York where I was born and raised.

Blessed Be the Truth-Tellers for Jack Agüeros

In the projects of Brooklyn, everyone lied. My mother used to say: If somebody starts a fight, just walk away. Then somebody would smack the back of my head and dance around me in a circle, laughing

When I was twelve, pus bubbled on my tonsils, and everyone said: After the operation, you can have all the ice cream you want. I bragged about the deal; no longer would I chase the ice cream truck down the street, panting at the bells to catch Johnny the ice cream man, who allegedly sold heroin the color of vanilla from the same window.

Then Jack the Truth-Teller visited the projects, Jack who herded real camels and sheep through the snow of East Harlem every Three Kings' Day, Jack who wrote sonnets of the jail cell and the racetrack and the boxing ring, Jack who crossed his arms in a hunger strike until the mayor hired more Puerto Ricans.

And Jack said: You gonna get your tonsils out? Ay bendito cuchifrito Puerto Rico. That's gonna hurt.

I was etherized, then woke up on the ward heaving black water onto white sheets. A man poking through his hospital gown leaned over me and sneered, You think you got it tough? Look at this! and showed me the cauliflower tumor behind his ear. I heaved up black water again.

The ice cream burned. Vanilla was a snowball spiked with bits of glass. My throat was red as a tunnel on fire after the head-on collision of two gasoline trucks.

This is how I learned to trust the poets and shepherds of East Harlem. Blessed be the Truth-Tellers, for they shall have all the ice cream they want.

BILL MOYERS: It just occurred to me as you were reading that I happen to know that you've been through the last couple three years a very, death-defying ordeal, illness.


BILL MOYERS: You're better, I can tell, your color's come back, there's energy in your voice. I mean, you read these poems the way you did the first time.

MARTÍN ESPADA: There's something about poetry that saves me. There's something about poetry that energizes me, that brings me to another plane. That fires all the hormones, I don't know what. Something intangible, and yet tangible at the same time. There is something to poetry and activism which has the same energizing effect.

BILL MOYERS: Does illness of that kind rob you of an identity that poetry gives you back?

MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely. Catastrophic illness destroys not only the body but the spirit and the identity in particular. You no longer know who you are. When the lights go out and you undergo that general anesthesia for whatever the surgery might happen to be, you wake up again, you are not the same person. But you don't know who you are.

It's certainly, your name is on that I.D. badge, right the bracelet that you're wearing and you're desperate to cut off. But you don't know. And it will take some time to figure it out. Two schools of thought, one is "Oh, you'll be the same guy you always were." And the other is, "You'll be somebody completely different." And I still don't know how that story's going to end.

BILL MOYERS: The book is "The Trouble Ball," the poet is Martín Espada. Martín thank you for being with me.

MARTÍN ESPADA: Thank you very much.

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