The Meaning of the Shovel

In America, ideas about what poetry is, and what language it may employ, begin in England with Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Chaucer combined, in Italian forms of presentation, the Anglo-Saxon vernacular of the English people with the Norman French spoken at court by their rulers.  Chaucer liberated the English language.

Shakespeare’s plays expanded the English vocabulary to encompass every facet of life, from lewd barmaids making suggestive puns to angst-ridden princes philosophizing about death.  Shakespeare’s poetry was compressed in formalized sonnets, while his plays incorporated prose, rhymed verse, and blank verse.  The Bard purposefully used each mode to express a specific mood.

Generally speaking, poetry became associated with the upper classes, and prose with public life.

After the Revolution, Americans developed their own literary forms and regional dialects, while English poets (for the most part) modeled themselves on Byron, Shelley and Keats, and affected the mannerisms of empire, enlightenment, and romanticism.  Hardy and Housman embodied England’s signature Edwardian spirit, with its nod to the working classes and underlying assumptions of class, gender, and racial superiority.

Given that American English is increasingly imbued with African, Spanish and Native-American influences, among others, American poets since Whitman have evolved beyond their insular English cousins.  But they still struggle to free themselves from their stuffy heritage, and the class structures that inform it.

Academia as bureaucracy, as middle class arbiter of normalcy, serves to sustain class tensions in modern American poetry.  Each graduating class is molded into standardized forms and shipped to the private sector based on its commitment to maintain academia’s class prerogatives.  Central to this annual rite of passage is the English Lit or MFA student’s ability to articulate the ideology that poetry is the intellectual property of the ruling class.

This ideology is evident in the reception given by critics to Wallace Stevens’ 1934 poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.”

Stevens is highly regarded as a poet of infinite imagination and stylistic grace.  He sprinkled French phrases in his poems, appreciated Picasso, had a vast vocabulary that sent critics scurrying to Merriam Webster, and developed liberating forms of verse, as represented by “Like Decorations.”

Stevens was hailed as a sophisticated “poet’s poet.”  But he was a racist, which presented the poetry establishment with a problem.  Leftists slammed Stevens, but class struggle in Depression-era America was at a critical phase.  So the poetry establishment studiously ignored “Like Decorations,” and, when forced to confront it, praised the poem as ground-breaking in its sublime simultaneity, despite being “offensive.”

In this case, form trumped content.  In other cases, politically incorrect content is enough to get a poem banned, no matter how beautifully formed.  Put another way, the political elite manages “official” language to maintain its power.  It embraces and rewards the supremacist sensibilities that characterize Stevens’ verse.  If one has the proper accent, a big vocabulary, fashionable clothes, proper posture (not stooped from wielding a shovel), manicured fingernails, money and refined manners, one does not get evicted from one’s home, or homeland.  One doesn’t go to jail, or the front lines.

Eighty years after “Like Decorations,” the poetry establishment has further refined the subtle political action of defining “acceptable” from “offensive” speech.  The forces of reaction in popular culture, as well as among the elite, still decide – based on classist, sexist, and racist interpretations – what content poets may express and what words they may properly employ, in order to succeed.

America is changing, yes, but the forces of reaction are bunkered down in segregated communities and impenetrable media fortresses.  Thankfully we have a new movement of progressive poets gathering outside their gates.  Poets like Martín Espada.

Born in Brooklyn in 1957, Espada has published more than fifteen books as a poet, essayist, editor and translator.  In his book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (South End Press, 1998) Espada clearly and forcefully tells of the struggles of America’s Latino community to overcome racism, stereotypes, the repression of the Spanish language, poverty, and the vestiges of colonialism.   For telling these truths, the book was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) Program outlawed by the state of Arizona under House Bill 2281. (Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne targeted MAS, charging that it taught “destructive ethnic chauvinism.”)

Upon learning that the book was banned, Espada issued a statement, published on the website of The Progressive magazine, noting that the book had been banned before by the Texas state penal system, on the grounds that it might incite the inmates to riot.  “Being banned in Tucson,” he observed, “is a far greater honor.”

Espada is fearless in his philosophy, politics, and poetry.  In his statement he said: “On the list of banned authors, I am keeping company with the likes of César Chávez, James Baldwin, Henry David Thoreau and Howard Zinn, four great icons of resistance in this country.  I am keeping company with ancestors.  I am keeping company with some of the finest Latino and Latina writers alive today.  May our words always trigger the sweating and babbling of bigots.”

Physician-poet Rafael Campo has commended Espada’s courage, praising him as one of the few poets who “take[s] on the life-and-death issues of American society at large.”

Language is indeed one of those life and death issues.  In his essay titled “The New Bathroom Policy at English High School,” Espada tells about a reading he gave in Tucson on Columbus Day, 1996:  “The reading was co-sponsored by Derechos Humanos, a group that monitors human rights abuses on the Arizona-México border, and was coordinated with the Latino March on Washington that same day.  At 7 PM, the precise time when the reading was to begin, we received a bomb threat. The police arrived with bomb-sniffing dogs, and sealed off the building. I did the reading in the parking lot, under a streetlamp.  This is one of the poems I read that night, based on an actual exchange in a Boston courtroom.”


Mariano Explains Yanqui Colonialism to Judge Collings


Judge: Does the prisoner understand his rights?

Interpreter: ¿Entiende usted sus derechos?

Prisoner: ¡Pa’l carajo!

Interpreter: Yes.


A graduate of Northeastern University Law School, Espada’s sensibilities were shaped in large part by his experience as a legal services lawyer in Greater Boston during the 1980s and 90s.   In his forthcoming collection of poems about work, The Meaning of the Shovel (Smokestack Books, 2014), he tells what it was like representing poor people and immigrants in court, battling heartless landlords and judges in a system rigged to elevate property rights over human rights.  His words are eloquent and passionate, his imagery compact and vivid, depicting the reality of life in rundown tenements, and the rage and frustration it engenders.  Consider these lines from the poem, “City of Coughing and Dead Radiators”:


Quiet and dutiful

as spectral troops returning,

they file into the courtroom,

crowding the gallery:

the patient one from El Salvador,

shoemakers’ union refugee,

slapping his neck

to show where that vampire

of an army bullet

pierced his uncle’s windpipe;

the red-haired woman

with no electricity

but for the drug’s heat

swimming in the pools

of her blue bruises,

white-skinned as the candles

she lives by,

who will move this afternoon

for a hundred dollars;

the prostitute swollen

with pregnancy and sobbing

as the landlady

sneers miscarriage

before a judge

poking his broken hearing aid;

the girl surrounded by a pleading carousel

of children, in Spanish bewilderment,

sleepless and rat-vigilant,

who wins reluctant extermination

but loses the youngest,

lead paint-retarded;

the man alcohol-puffed,

graph of scars

stretching across his belly,

locked out, shirt stolen,

arrested at the hearing

for the rampage

of his detox hallucinations;

the Guatemalan boy, who listens

through the wall

for his father’s landlord-defiant staccato,

jolted awake

by flashes of the landlord

floating over the bed,

parade balloon

waving a kitchen knife.


For all those sprawled down stairs

with the work boot’s crusted map

printed on the back,

the creases of the judge’s face

collapse into a fist.

As we shut files

and click briefcases

to leave,

a loud-faced man

trumpets from the gallery:

Death to Legal Aid.


Espada understands the guilt, rage, and loss of self-esteem that oppression imposes.  His father, a presence throughout his work, was jailed for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Jim Crow Mississippi and went on to become a leading organizer in New York’s Puerto Rican community.  Espada’s cast of characters in The Meaning of the Shovel features people with similar problems, as well as Espada himself, the poet-lawyer come to restore light to a woman brutalized by the system in the poem “Thieves of Light”:


so far from the leather-bound books

of law school, the treatises

on the constitution

of some other country.


The poems in The Meaning of the Shovel are more than an attorney’s testament to America’s injustice system.  They chronicle Espada’s working class experience as a gas station attendant, bouncer, bindery worker in a printing plant, desk clerk at a transient hotel, caretaker in a primate lab, and telephone solicitor.  They are wide-ranging, deeply personal, wildly imaginative, witty, and beautifully nuanced.  They track the growth of the poet’s personal and political consciousness.   One has the sense that these poems have been waiting to emerge as a unit, that they are the summary of every fight he fought.  Some memories are like scars: a man kissing a woman’s deformed face; a floating bone in his finger, a reminder that the skull is harder than the fist; an old woman in Puerto Rico (the poet’s grandmother) handing a five dollar bill to a junkie who only yesterday stole the battery from her car.

These are not “complacencies of the peignoir” on a lazy Sunday morning.   One surrealistic poem is about the Shakespearean “Hard Handed Men of Athens,” “actors in the forest, off the grid, surrounded/ in the dark by fairies and spirits, snakes and coyotes.”  Another fantastic poem is titled “The Chair in the Dragon’s Mouth,” about a fire that destroys a pizza shop.  “For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Where My Cousin Esteban was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks,” is a poem begging to be read.

The Meaning of The Shovel begins with the poet in Barrio René Cisneros, Managua, Nicaragua, in the summer of 1982, three years after the revolution.   The poet is digging.   He sees things.  He remembers things.  He understands the meaning of things in the context of his life’s experience, because he empathizes:


I dig because I have hauled garbage

and pumped gas and cut paper

and sold encyclopedias door to door.

I dig, digging until the passport

in my back pocket saturates with dirt,

because here I work for nothing

and for everything.


The meaning of the shovel, of the digging that compels his activism and forms his social consciousness, is found in epiphanies like the one depicted in the second stanza of the poem “Rednecks,” set in Gaithersburg, Maryland:


Another pickup truck morning,

and rednecks. Loitering

in our red uniforms, we watched

as a pickup rumbled through.

We expected: Fill it with no-lead, boy,

and gimme a cash ticket.

We expected the farmer with sideburns

and a pompadour.

We, with new diplomas framed

at home, never expected the woman.

Her face was a purple rubber mask

melting off her head, scars rippling down

where the fire seared her freak face,

leaving her a carnival where high school boys

paid a quarter to look, and look away.

No one took the pump. The farmer saw us standing

in our red uniforms, a regiment of illiterate conscripts.

Still watching us, he leaned across the seat of the truck

and kissed her. He kissed her

all over her happy ruined face, kissed her

as I pumped the gas and scraped the windshield

and measured the oil, he kept kissing her.


Martín Espada is devoted to the pursuit of justice through poetry that is practical, as well as a spiritual force for the benefit of anyone without a voice, stranded in some dark place.   He is currently a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  I recently had the honor of talking with him about his politics, philosophy, and poetry.

DV       Zapata’s Disciple was banned in Tucson, the same place where you received a bomb threat.  The censors never even read the book, but banned it simply because it was on a list. “Theirs is the logic of fear, the reasoning of racism,” you said, reminiscent “of the repressive apparatus of McCarthyism…We will gather ourselves in the dark, and keep reading to each other in whatever light we can find.”  How does poetry help us find this light?

ME        Poetry brings us together, and the light comes from within us.  When I think of those who provide the light, I think of Librotraficante ( This is an organization based in Houston and directed by Tony Díaz. Librotraficante won’t let this story die. Quite the opposite: this organization of “book-traffickers” smuggles the banned books back into Arizona, and sets up underground libraries there and elsewhere, from Tucson to Louisville.  I was honored to give a reading for this organization at a bookstore in New York last September. There I presented Tony Díaz with a copy of Zapata’s Disciple.  We should follow Librotraficante’s example, organizing readings and libraries and even courses around the list of banned books.  However, I think of poetry more in terms of blood than light.  As I’ve said elsewhere, we live in an age of hyper-euphemism, the vocabulary of power imposed on us by government and business. Phrases like enhanced interrogation bleed language of its meaning. Poets must reconcile language with meaning and restore the blood to words.

DV         NPR commissioned you to write a poem, and then refused to air the work when they found out you’d written a defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the African American journalist on death row.   Did NPR back out due to something specific you said in the poem, or simply because you wrote about Mumia?   How do you feel about being censored in this fashion?   What is the impact of this sort of censorship on political and poetic thought in America?

ME           In April, 1997, NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered commissioned me to write a poem as a kind of correspondent for National Poetry Month. I could travel anywhere I liked, and write on anything I wanted. I traveled to Philadelphia, and wrote a poem about Mumia-Abu Jamal.  The subject was the problem. NPR had a history with Mumia; they had agreed to air a series of radio commentaries by Mumia, then backed out when they were denounced from the Senate floor by none other than Bob Dole.  When I turned in a poem about Mumia, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. A producer actually admitted to me, in a phone conversation, that NPR was refusing to air the poem because of its political content.  I ended up writing a cover story for The Progressive magazine called, “All Things Censored: The Poem NPR Doesn’t Want You to Hear.” The poem was published there and elsewhere, and aired multiple times on the radio, including, eventually, on NPR (though never on All Things Considered). There was a kind of boomerang effect. That’s the best-case scenario when it comes to censorship; most of the time, however, censorship works. We literally don’t know what we’re missing. There is a chilling effect on political and poetical thought. Not only do the censors quietly silence writers and artists, even in this country; quite unwittingly, we censor ourselves. On the one hand, it’s an honor to be censored rather than simply ignored. On the other hand, it’s not as romantic as it might seem.

DV      In an interview with Bill Moyers, you “spoke to the impact of poetry on the lives of second-generation immigrants who discover the power of their own experiences through the form,” saying: “Poetry will help them to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self-respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think…poetry makes a practical contribution.”

Do you think there is the possibility of a “movement” forming in America of poets like yourself who, to varying degrees, address political issues and advocate on behalf of immigrants and the working classes, and against the militarism that defines our culture?  Is it possible that younger poets could carry forward this progressive tradition, in the absence of a self-defined movement?

ME       There is a long progressive tradition in American poetry, going back to Whitman in the mid-nineteenth century.  In this century, we’ve witnessed poets in this country come together under the rubric of Poets Against War, founded by Sam Hamill, a movement that produced hundreds of readings, a major anthology and an online data base of more than 20,000 poems and statements against war.  (I was involved with that organization, and served on their Board.) What we haven’t seen lately is that broad-based and self-defined movement to which you refer. Progressive poets, at this historical moment, find themselves relatively isolated, even from one another.  (This is another by-product of censorship; even we don’t know we’re out there.) I expect that will change, as younger poets bring their youthful energy to bear and organize themselves, along with the rest of us, to take part in the next cycle of resistance.

DV      Your forthcoming collection of poems, The Meaning of the Shovel, is divided into six sections, each with a number of poems.   Why did you organize the book this way, and why did you select these particular poems?  

ME       This is a collection of poems about work, in one form or another, based on my experience and the experience of others, published by Smokestack Books, a radical small press in Northern England founded and directed by Andy Croft ( Most have been published in previous collections from W.W. Norton—and I must thank them for permission to reprint—but this is the first time these poems have been collected together in one book around the common theme of labor. I define that theme broadly, beyond what might be expected in such a compilation. There are, indeed, six sections.  The first section, called “The Meaning of the Shovel,” features a series of autobiographical work poems. The title poem of that section and the book, based on my experience digging latrines in Sandinista Nicaragua, embraces a vision of revolutionary change and sets the stage for everything to come. Other poems in this section reflect the work experiences you mentioned earlier: bouncer, gas station attendant, primate caretaker, and so forth. The second section, “The Legal Aid Lawyer has an Epiphany,” consists of a series of poems based on my experience as a tenant lawyer in the Latino community. Section three, “My Native Costume,” is a series of poems about the work of performers: poets, actors, dancers, musicians. Section four, “The Toolmaker Unemployed,” brings together poems about unemployment—my joblessness and the joblessness of others—since no collection of work poems would be complete without some out-of-work poems. The fifth section,  “Huelga” (“strike” in Spanish) consists of a series of farmworker poems, with a focus on Latino immigrant labor; the title poem of the section is a homage to César Chávez and the United Farm Workers. The sixth and final section, “Alabanza,” also concentrates on Latino immigrant labor, but the setting is industrial and urban. There are two janitor poems in this section, and two poems taking place in restaurants, including the title poem of the section, “Alabanza,” an elegy for the forty-three members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 100 who were killed at the Windows on the World restaurant (atop the World Trade Center) on 9/11.

DV     In the section titled, “My Native Costume,” there is a poem about the death of Carmen Miranda.


The Death of Carmen Miranda


Dying on television,

on The Jimmy Durante Show,

spinning another samba for the tourists,

she staggered beneath the banana headdress

and dropped to one knee.

The audience began to giggle

at the wobbly pyramid of bananas,

but the comedian with the fat nose and the fedora

growled Stop the music! and lifted her up.

I cannot find my breath, Carmen said,

fingers fanning across her chest.

The mouth of the camera opened

to chuckle at her accent, but then

widened into an astonished Oh.


Later that night, at the mansion,

her maid found Carmen sleeping without breath,

could not unlock the mirror from her fingers.

The hair no one saw on television was unpinned,

grown long beneath the banana headdress,

bleached yellow like the bananas.


Like many of the poems in your collection, this one is very sad.  There’s a lot happening in it, from the crowd’s nervous insensitivity, to the camera’s fascination, to Jimmy Durante’s humanity, to Carmen Miranda’s hair “bleached yellow like the bananas.”   She died with a mirror in her hands.   What do you think she was reflecting on in those final moments?  What are you doing in the poem?

ME      Carmen Miranda had two heart attacks that day. The second one, at home, killed her. In effect, she worked herself to death. She did, indeed, die with a mirror in her hands, but that serves as a metaphor for self-reflection in the face of stereotypes she perpetuated, rather than any insight into her final moments. I can’t possibly imagine what she was thinking.

DV     The very next poem in book, “Latin Night at the Pawnshop,” (Chelsea, Massachusetts, Christmas, 1987), seems to draw some of its power from its placement beside the poem about Carmen Miranda:


The apparition of a salsa band

gleaming in the Liberty Loan

pawnshop window:


Golden trumpet,

silver trombone,

congas, maracas, tambourine,

all with price tags dangling

like the city morgue ticket

on a dead man’s toe.


DV      “Latin Night at the Pawnshop” has meaning about life and death that’s hard to express, about what it means to be Latino in Chelsea, Massachusetts, outside Boston.   What is about the imagery in this poem that makes it so effective?  Please elaborate about your feelings about being a Latino in America.

ME        I was walking down the street, on my way to court just before Christmas, when something caught my eye: a pawnshop window full of musical instruments. It was a ghost orchestra—a Latin jazz orchestra, to be exact. That was haunting all by itself. On another level, these instruments were tools of the trade for the musicians who had to surrender them; the loss of these instruments represented not only the loss of work, but also the loss of music, the loss of dreams. There is something about the images in this poem that speaks to the struggle of Latinos in this country, to work, to live, to maintain our culture and identity, to keep making our music, so to speak. No matter how far we’ve come, the majority of us are still one step away from the pawnshop.

DV     Ideas about poetry and what language it may employ are an important topic in this interview.  Please comment on the role Latino and Latina poets are playing, and will play, in the evolution of American English and America’s sense of national identity.   Please mention any particular poets we should pay attention to.

ME    That’s a big question. That question could be the subject of an entire conference.  Let me begin with the poets.  There is the older generation, some of whom are shamefully neglected: Jack Agüeros, Gary Soto, Rafael Campo, Diana García, Julio Marzán, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Luis Urrea, Julia Alvarez.  There is the new generation: Luivette Resto, Rich Villar, Aracelis Girmay, John Murillo, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Paul Martínez Pompa.  They all have something urgent and eloquent to say as advocates, speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard, and we should all be listening.  Latino and Latina poets are indeed changing the national language, the national identity, the national perspective.  When we write, when we speak, we become part of the public discourse, a discourse that usually excludes us.  Think about it: where are the Latinos and Latinas in the public conversation, in government, in education, in the media?  Simply by virtue of writing about the Latino community and the Latino experience from our point of view, we slowly but surely change the collective identity of this country.  We take the big abstraction known as immigration, and give it a human face, eyes, ears, nose, mouth. We humanize the dehumanized.  We take the popular association of the Spanish language with criminality, drugs, welfare and violence and melt that bigotry away, one drop at a time, replacing it when an appreciation for the musicality and lyricism of the Spanish (or bilingual) tongue.  We tell our stories and record our histories. We cross the borders of racism, which are the true borders of our experience in this country.  And we keep on coming, from México, from Puerto Rico, from Brooklyn, from East Los Angeles.  To borrow a phrase from Vine Deloria: We shall overrun.

DV Thank you, Martín Espada, for your courage, eloquence, and poetry.

Martín Espada’s latest collection of poems, The Trouble Ball (Norton, 2011), is the recipient of the Milt Kessler Award, a Massachusetts Book Award and an International Latino Book Award. The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006), which included a cycle of poems about Chile, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Earlier this year, he received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. His website is

His forthcoming collection of poems, The Meaning of the Shovel, will be available from Smokestack Books in early 2014.  For information about ordering it, contact Andy Croft at

One of Espada’s poems is featured in the forthcoming anthology, With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014)

For information on how to order the anthology, contact John Crawford at

To view the complete Political Poetry series, please visit