#AWP19 Featured Presenter Q&A with Martín Espada
AWP | January 2019
Event Title: Filthy Presidentiad: Walt Whitman in the Age of Trump, Sponsored by the Poetry Foundation
Description: The 2019 bicentennial of Walt Whitman, democracy’s bard, falls in the shadow of a demagogic presidency. “What a filthy Presidentiad!” Whitman thundered. His jeremiad had Franklin Pierce in mind, but his words of outrage resonate today. Martín Espada, a poet in the tradition of Whitman, invokes “Song of Myself” and other works to celebrate Whitman’s vision of radical egalitarianism, his prophetic warnings against those “fat with wealth of money and products and business ventures,” and his empathy for “the rights of them the others are down upon,” those stereotyped and scapegoated in Trump’s America.
Participants: Martín Espada
Location: Portland Ballroom 253-254, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2
Date & Time: Friday, March 29, 12:00 p.m. to 1:15 p.m.
What are some of the conference events or bookfair exhibitors you look forward to seeing at AWP?
If there is an event honoring my dear departed friend Sam Hamill (on or off site), I want to be there.
If you’ve been to an AWP before, what is your favorite conference memory?
Boston, 2013: I gave a reading at a benefit for Split This Rock. A good friend of mine made a stunning entrance. The Hynes Convention Center will never be the same. I wrote a poem about it:
Here I Am
For José “JoeGo” Gouveia (1964–2014)
He swaggered into the room, a poet at a gathering of poets,
and the drinkers stopped crowding the cash bar, the talkers stopped
their tongues, the music stopped hammering the walls, the way
a saloon falls silent when a gunslinger knocks open the swinging doors:
JoeGo grinning in gray stubble and wraparound shades, leather Harley
vest, shirt yellow as a prospector’s hallucination, sleeve buttoned
to hide the bandage on his arm where the IV pumped chemo through
his body a few hours ago. The nurse swabbed the puncture and told him
he could go, and JoeGo would go, gunning his red van from the Cape
to Boston, striding past the cops who guarded the hallways of the grand
convention center, as if to say Here I am: the butcher’s son, the Portagee,
the roofer, the carpenter, the cab driver, the biker-poet. This was JoeGo,
who would shout his ode to Evel Knievel in biker bars till the brawlers
rolled in beer and broken glass, who married Josy from Brazil
on the beach after the oncologist told him he had two months to live
two years ago. That’s not enough for me, he said, and will say again
when the cancer comes back to coil around his belly and squeeze hard
like a python set free and starving in the swamp. He calls me on his cell
from the hospital, and I can hear him scream when they press the cold
X-ray plates to his belly, but he will not drop the phone. He wants
the surgery today, right now, surrounded by doctors with hands
blood-speckled like the hands of his father the butcher, sawing
through the meat for the family feast. The patient’s chart should read:
This is JoeGo: after every crucifixion, he snaps the cross across his back
for firewood. He will roll the stone from the mouth of his tomb and bowl
a strike. On the night he silenced the drinkers chewing ice in my ear,
a voice in my ear said: What the hell is that man doing here?
And I said: That man there? That man will live forever.
What book or books that you’ve read over the last year would you most highly recommend?
I've been reading The Complete Collected Poems (1906–1938) of William Carlos Williams. And I keep going back to Whitman—an edition of Leaves of Grass published after the Civil War that includes Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps.
Has public funding for the arts made a difference in your life and career as a writer?
Absolutely. Early on, I received grants from the NEA and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. That sustained me in more ways than I can say.
If you could run into any author, contemporary or historical, at #AWP19, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I'd run into Whitman and we'd talk about Trump. Coincidentally, my featured talk at AWP is called "Filthy Presidentiad: Walt Whitman in the Age of Trump."
If you’ve been to Portland before, what places do you recommend that our attendees should visit?
I haven't visited Portland in many years. Personally, I'm planning to make a pilgrimage. I want to find the memorial bench and plaque honoring the journalist John Reed, who was born in Portland, in Washington Park.
Martín Espada is a poet, editor, essayist, and translator. His latest poetry collection is Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball, The Republic of Poetry, Alabanza, and A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen. His many honors include the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the PEN/Revson Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A former tenant lawyer in Boston’s Latino community, Espada is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
(Photo Credit: David González)