Mark K. Anderson: An Interview with Martín Espada

MARK ANDERSON: Tell me about the connections for you between the law and poetry.

What's your legal background?

You write of legal language often being used "not to clarify but to control." That would be, from most people's perspective, the definition of all legal language. Look at President Clinton's recent testimony: the epitome of evasion.

What are the problems and issues raised when you bring in a second language--in this case, Spanish? How does that complicate matters both in regards to poetry as law and law as poetry?

Speaking in Shakespeare's English.

You call it, I believe, "code-switching."

            "Does the prisoner understand his rights?"

            "¡P'al carajo!"

This is exactly how it happened. There are volumes spoken when the translator says "Yes." As in, yes, he understands his rights. His rights are carajo. His rights are worth nothing here. He is worth nothing here. For me, that made sense because for most Latinos, the legal system is just a series of mistranslations anyway. So what's the best way to convey that? Well, the best way to convey that is through the use of bilingualism. It's the most appropriate poetic tool for the moment. But I'm not just trying to provoke.

Obviously, the poetry and the politics overlap. But in essence, there are so many advantages to being able to use Spanish within the framework of the English language poem, that it would be self-defeating not to. You consider all the possibilities, what you can get in terms of humor, irony, music, authenticity, and intimacy. All those factors play into it.

Of course it's a false dichotomy. Why should there be a contradiction between diversity and quality? That's nonsensical. At another point in the essay, speaking of Shakespeare, I allude to the notion of Shakespeare vs. Swahili. Or even worse, Shakespeare in Swahili.

When the defenders of the status quo talk about what they're defending, they talk about Shakespeare. But they don't talk about the host of writers who we probably shouldn't be reading or shouldn't be reading that much. All those mediocrities out there that we read for years and years because they had the right cultural and racial makeup.

I could think of an almost endless supply of poets who fit that description and who bored me to paralysis when I was an undergraduate. We, the advocates of multiculturalism, are not about displacing Shakespeare. For one thing, it isn't happening. Pick up a typical college catalog. The English department will invariably offer something about Shakespeare and what we call the canon. There are a number of courses on Shakespeare at this very university, which is as it should be. At the same time, look in those same catalogs, in those same departments, and look at the courses you could categorize as multicultural. There are very few in number.

Yes. I am very suspicious of people who establish literary and cultural standards the same way you would measure a human body for a suit. This is not nearly as scientific or objective as the list-makers would have us believe. I realize that they're sitting up on Mount Olympus and passing down these great tablets of wisdom. At the same time, I think there were some very good reasons why a movement towards a more diverse and multicultural curriculum evolved. It had to do with the fact that we weren't getting wisdom. We were getting the same old stuff. Growth and change for a curriculum is not only good but necessary. I take it rather personally when conservative professors denigrate the literature of which I am a part.

There are a lot of names for it. I belong in this movement for multiculturalism. I'm a part of that. I also obviously come out of a vein of Puerto Rican literature. Latino literature. Political literature. Urban literature. There are a lot of names for it. We could be referred to as American Studies. We fall under that rubric. I don't think of these as labels, because I don't think of it as confining or defining. There are many different ways to describe what I do. But sometimes I hear people talk as if the literature of which I am a part has no place in any educational forum. And that's a way of saying that I have no place in any educational forum. Either as a teacher or a writer or a student. So I do take it rather personally.

Well, no one says that right to my face. I read the newspapers, and I read the interviews and I read what people say. And the bottom line is that it has to do with power. Who rules. Who controls. What color are the faces in the classroom. What color are the faces all around us.

That's the trick of metaphor. How do you find the moment that stands for a century? How do you find the face that stands for many faces? That's what I try to do. But the poem also speaks to a theme that surfaces from time to time in my collection of essays, which has to do with feeling caught between mainstream culture and counterculture. Feeling caught between right and left. I obviously associate myself with the left. I have done so for many years. At the same time, there's an ongoing debate with certain elements of the white left.

I do often feel like I am betwixt and between in a lot of ways. I'm not Marxist enough for the Marxists. I'm not poetic enough for the poets. By becoming a cultural hybrid, a racial hybrid, there's some solitude. Some isolation. That you participate in some circles but you don't belong to any particular one of them. You're marginalized in all of them.

Yes. The presence of class consciousness is much more apparent in the poetry of Latinos or African Americans or Native Americans than it is among most--I stress most--Anglo poets. And I've had an opportunity over the years to take a broad overview of contemporary poetry. I was on the panel for the NEA, for example, and read I don't know how many hundreds of manuscripts from people from novice poets to very established poets. Then I was also on the panel for Lila Wallace, reading not only poetry but novels and plays. My sense of it was that there is a distinctive vision based on race and class. I quote Tom Disch that class is the official dividing line of American poetry--and all the more so for being officially invisible. I think that's absolutely true. Where there is a class presence or consciousness in most Anglo poetry it's the consciousness of the upper middle class or the upper class.... In my work and in the work of other Latino poets, we're writing about class, but the people in our poems suffer from the class system rather than benefit from it.

Why is that? I think the answer is fairly straightforward. Being, in my case, Puerto Rican is a political circumstance. By definition. I did not ask to fight in this battle. I was drafted. I think I would rather write silly poems about my favorite food. But there are much more compelling voices calling to me. Those voices are coming from all the places I've been, where being Puerto Rican is a political circumstance. It's funny too, because I would be defined as a political poet even if I went out of my way to elude that definition. If I looked out the window of the law office in Chelsea where I worked, and I simply made a list of everything I saw on that corner over the period of a single afternoon and then gave it a title, the average reader would look at it and say, "Oh. That's a political poem." I have just described my environment, and my environment is by definition politically charged. Because on the very face of that environment, you can see all forms of injustice.

Who, ironically, was part of the original American invading force in Puerto Rico.

You write that we don't see as much Puerto Rican interest in independence as we might expect, in part, because of intimidation.

That's a great term--"repression of the idea"--because it seems it's almost a necessary ingredient to hindering any kind of struggle.

Number one, this is classic colonial dependency expressing itself — and that can be and has been resolved in the past in other situations. Number two, and I think this is very important, it's a myth that the United States has elevated Puerto Rico above its neighbors economically. That Puerto Rico is better off for the U.S. presence in economic terms. Eleven Caribbean countries have a higher per capita income than Puerto Rico. So what that says is that we do not need the United States as an economic presence in Puerto Rico. We in Puerto Rico continue to be a captive market for U.S. goods at outrageously high prices. A captive economy in terms of the labor force. A captive nation in every way which is significant politically and economically. And that has to end. Making it a state won't absolve the problem. What it will trigger, in all likelihood, is another wave of repression, so that those who favor independence and organize to achieve that end will be seen as seditious and as secessionist as the Confederacy was in the middle of the 19th century. And they will be punished.

The governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rosselló, has scheduled a plebiscite for the late fall. But Rosselló was hoping that Congress would approve this plebiscite and it would be a binding referendum, which Puerto Rico has never enjoyed in its history with the U.S. Puerto Rico has held two previous plebiscites on status, which were not binding on Congress. Congress could do whatever the hell it wanted with it. But in 1967, there was one plebiscite in which the Commonwealth party prevailed, and a couple years ago, there was another plebiscite held with the same result — although the margin of victory was much more narrow for the commonwealth forces. Now, mind you, these plebiscites were only permitted after the independence movement had been safely squashed like a bug. It's very cynical that Puerto Ricans were permitted to have a say about their status after 70 years of occupation and only after the political threat had been eliminated or largely reduced.

What's the difference between "Puerto Rico libre" and "Puerto Rico gratis?"

<span "="">Libre versus gratis: they can both be translated as "free." But what I'm trying to do by using that bilingual wordplay is to compel readers to think about the meaning of the word "free." In particular, as it refers to Puerto Rico--but also in general, as it refers to all of us. We have "free" in the sense of gratis, rather than free in the sense of libre. Too often it is gratis — too often it's about what is given away, which in the case of Puerto Rico is sovereignty, self-determination, and democracy. What we have to think more about how to achieve libre, whether it's in Puerto Rico or in our own personal lives or in the streets of this country.

From Z Magazine. (December 1998).

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Criticism Overview
Title Mark K. Anderson: An Interview with Martín Espada Type of Content Interview
Criticism Author Mark K. Anderson Criticism Target Martín Espada
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Apr 2016
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Achieving Libre: An Interview with Martín Espada
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