Martin Espada sets the standard for today’s poets of conscience in America. Puerto Rican by ancestry, New Yorker by birth, Chilean via inclination and world citizen by acclamation, Espada stands tall in the long line of poets engaged with the history alive around them.
Often called “the Pablo Neruda of North American authors,” Espada produces work not so much political (though it is often that) as passionate. Whether writing about food service workers killed on Sept. 11, 2001 (in “Alabanza”), or the Sept. 11, 1973, overthrow of Chile’s Allende democracy by Pinochet, the poet seeks larger context in matters of the human heart. In “The Republic of Poetry (for Chile),” he writes, “poets rent a helicopter / to bombard the national palace / with poems on bookmarks, / and everyone in the courtyard / rushes to grab a poem / fluttering from the sky, / blinded by weeping.”
History connects with personality in poems about his own life as well, as in “Return”: “Forty years ago, I bled in this hallway. / Half-light dimmed the brick / like the angel of public housing. / That night I called and listened at every door. / In 1966, there was a war on television.”
Espada’s work history, often a subject in his verse, ranges from gas station attendant to bouncer to tenant lawyer, to his current position as professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He has authored eight collections of poetry, including the recent The Republic of Poetry, and published five other books as essayist, translator and editor. Among his many honors are the Patterson Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, an American Book Award and a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Martin Espada will share his conscience as the concluding event of the 16th Annual Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts on April 27, 7 p.m. at the Indiana History Center’s Basile Theatre. Espada will also award the festival’s annual prizes for poets 21 and younger in a Po-Rap-Try Concert Thursday, April 26, 7 p.m., also at the History Center. Both events are free of charge. The poet will apply his expertise with middle and high school writers, conducting workshops on Thursday and Friday mornings at Crispus Attucks Middle School; educators should call 317-275-4410 for information on registering their students. Visit the festival’s Web site at www.ekfestival.org for a complete schedule of events.