“Put the Blood Back In”: Martín Espada on Poetry, Book Banning, and Radical Politics

Image by Freddy Kearney.

“If the language of power – medicalese, legalese, bureaucratese, corporatese – drains the blood from words,” poet, essayist, and translator, Martín Espada, said when I interviewed him, “Poets can put the blood back in the words.” Our conversation took place merely weeks after Espada won the National Book Award for his latest collection of poetry, Floaters.

There are few living artists who can better execute the magic of simultaneously dissecting and enlarging language than Espada. A former tenant lawyer and committed activist, the “left wing, Puerto Rican poet,” to quote his self-identification, manages to hover between two planes, with one foot always in the territory of the imagination, and another firmly dug into the mud of politics, oppression and defiance, and history. The imagination, especially with an orientation toward hope, as Espada would have it, performs the essential service that his late friend, Howard Zinn, described with characteristic eloquence on the closing page of his memoir, “If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

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David Masciotra is the author of five books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (Bloomsbury, 2020).

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