Then and Now: Martin Espada
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MARTIN ESPADA: This is an edition of Whitman that was actually published during his lifetime, and authorized by him.
RAY SUAREZ: Poet, college professor, lawyer, and like Walt Whitman, a Brooklynite, Martin Espada is on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts. He talked to us at his home in Amherst.
MARTIN ESPADA: Whitman tells us that the duty of the poet is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots. You know, I always liked that.
RAY SUAREZ: His work has won many awards and critical attention. His 1996 collection, “Imagine the Angels of Bread,” won an American Book Award. His poetry can be tender, fierce, political. After New York was attacked on September 11, he remembered the immigrants who filled the kitchens of the World Trade Center’s restaurants, members of one union local who caught the subway to work and never came home.
MARTIN ESPADA: The word alabanza means “praise” in Spanish, and this poem is called “Alabanza: In praise of local 100,” for the 43 members of hotel employees and restaurant employees, Local 100, working at the windows on the world restaurant who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center.
MARTIN ESPADA: “Alabanza. Praise Manhattan from 107 flights up like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium, praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations Ecuador, Mexico, Republica Dominicana, Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning where the gas burned blue on every stove and exhaust fans fired the diminutive propellers, hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans — alabanza. Praise the busboys’ music the chime, chime of his dishes and silverware in the tub — alabanza. Praise the dish dog the dishwasher who worked that morning because another dishwasher could not stop coughing or because he needed overtime to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs — alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen and sang to herself about a man gone — alabanza. When the war began from Manhattan and Kabul two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other mingling in icy air and one said with an Afghan tongue ‘teach me to dance we have no music here’ and the other said with a Spanish tongue ‘I will teach you; music is all we have.’”
RAY SUAREZ: For a long time after the attacks, one of the refrains that you heard constantly was “at a time like this,” as if all human activity outside of just the task at hand was superfluous. “How can you do that at a time like this?” Why do we need poetry at a time like this?
MARTIN ESPADA: Poetry humanizes. Poetry gives a human face to a time like this. Poetry gives eyes and a mouth and a voice to a time like this. Poetry records a time like this for future generations who want to know about a time like this in terms of the five senses, and in terms of the soul, I think.
RAY SUAREZ: And people who want to understand this time, understand September 11, should hear about Local 100?
MARTIN ESPADA: Absolutely. Absolutely. Again, when we think of these buildings, the WTC, these were, after all, office buildings in Manhattan. And a shadow army passes through every office building in Manhattan, making those buildings run and providing what we need. What could be more basic than food, than feeding us? That is what those food service workers were doing that very morning.
RAY SUAREZ: Has America’s reaction to this encouraged you, depressed you, inspired you? This was a place you knew well and a lot of people watching this broadcast tonight don’t know well. But then you watched your country react. What did you think?
MARTIN ESPADA: It is sad and scary on the whole. We are certainly attuned to the danger from without. We are less attuned, I think, to the danger from within. Ultimately, Osama bin Laden cannot restrict our civil liberties. Only we can do that to ourselves. Al -Qaida can not take away our freedoms. Only we can do that to ourselves. And this is the time for us to be especially vigilant about those freedoms and about what we now refer to as the Patriot Act.
RAY SUAREZ: And I guess I should mention that in addition to being a writer and a teacher, you’re a lawyer as well.
MARTIN ESPADA: Yes, and over the years I’ve been an advocate for the Latino community, for immigrants. It troubles me to see what has happened to immigrants from the Arab and the Arab American communities in this country, because eventually what starts out as a backlash against one immigrant becomes a backlash against all immigrants. This concerns me deeply because the only way the essential character of this country will change is if we permit it to change. We have choices, and we have to make the right choices.
RAY SUAREZ: Any hopeful note that you take out of this time? Any reaction that you actually found life-affirming?
MARTIN ESPADA: I’m encouraged by the fact that in spite of everything, there are people who seem to remember what the essential character of this country is about, or should be about. I’m encouraged by dissenters, particularly because this is such a difficult time to dissent. I am encouraged by people I’ve met such as Christina Olsen, who lost her sister on 9/11 and who subsequently has become very active in the peace community; who even went to Afghanistan to sing over there songs about peace– extraordinarily strong and sensitive individual. I am encouraged by all of that. I’m encouraged by the fact that, you know, there are many of us, in spite of everything, who seem to remember the principles to which this country aspires.
RAY SUAREZ: Martin Espada, thanks a lot for talking to me.
MARTIN ESPADA: Thank you.