Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Poet As Public Citizen: Martín Espada

A few weeks ago, during AWP, Split This Rock hosted two extremely successful panels: The Dream the Dreamers Dreamed: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, and Undivided: Poet as Public Citizen. For those of you who missed the talks, Blog This Rock will be posting the transcripts. First up: Martín Espada.

Details about the events can be found here.

Undivided: The Poet as Public Citizen

(AWP, Washington, DC, February 5, 2011)

Martín Espada

Adrienne Rich, in her essay, “Poetry and Commitment,” writes:

I’ll flash back to 1821: Shelley’s claim, in “the Defence of Poetry” that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.” Piously over-quoted, mostly out of context, it’s taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power--in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay, “A Philosophic View of Reform,” Shelley had written that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged” etc. The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded…

And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority…

Shelley saw powerful institutions, not original sin or “human nature,” as the source of human misery. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the “struggle between Revolution and Oppression…”

He did not say: “Poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world.”

By this definition, many of our greatest poets have been unacknowledged legislators. This is what Whitman meant when he said: “I give the sign of democracy.”

Poets should have no trouble identifying with being “unacknowledged.” They grouse about being ignored, about paltry attendance at readings and royalty statements that would cause most novelists to jump off a bridge. Yet poets also contribute to their marginalization by producing hermetic verse and living insular lives, confined to the academy or to circles of other poets, by refusing to embrace their role as unacknowledged legislators.

The only antidote to irrelevancy is relevancy. The British poet Adrian Mitchell famously said: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” Mitchell lived his principles as a pacifist and unacknowledged legislator; in fact, he was declared the “Shadow Poet Laureate” of the UK. In February 2003, he read his anti-war anthem, “To Whom It May Concern,” to a quarter of million people in the streets of London, gathered to protest the pending war in Iraq.

Across the Atlantic, a former Marine and conscientious objector, Sam Hamill, was invited to participate in a Bush White House symposium called, “Poetry and the American Voice.” That symposium was cancelled when word leaked out of Hamill’s plan to collect a batch of anti-war poems and present them, like a bouquet of sorts, to First Lady Laura Bush. Hamill responded by founding an organization called Poets Against the War

Hamill also edited an anthology by that name. In the foreword, he writes:

Can (thousands of) poems inhibit this or any administration planning a war? It is only one step among many. But it is an important step, as each is. We join physicians against the war, teachers against the war, farmers against the war, and others. Poets Against the War helped bring about hundreds of poetry readings and discussions around the world while compiling a document of historic proportion…A government is a government of words, and when those words are used to mislead, to instill fear or to invite silence, it is the duty of every poet to speak fearlessly and clearly…Since most poets write in the same language politicians are given to abuse, in the language of everyday common speech, they must struggle to reveal clarity by way of musical and imagistic expression, and by transparency of emotion.

If phrases like weapons of mass destruction bleed language of its meaning, then poets must reconcile language with meaning and restore the blood to words. World War I poet Wilfred Owen uses the phrase an ecstasy of fumbling to describe the action of fitting on his gas mask before the deadly poison reaches him. Thus, as Gregory Orr observes, Owen takes back “the experience of war from the jabbering propagandists and patriots.”

Consider the state of our nation today, in a plummeting spiral. Could poets do any worse than the legislators? Would poets strip away our constitutional rights in the name of security more vigorously than the lawyers who sit in the House and Senate? Would poets, those perfectionists of the word, so quickly and eagerly resort to corruptions of language like “enhanced interrogation” to describe torture, by way of explaining that some tortures (and torturers) are better than others? Would poets be any less ethical than the politicians who grovel before lobbyists for the insurance and drug companies, triggering a health care crisis without end? Would poets with empty pockets vote repeatedly to pour billions of dollars into one catastrophic war of plunder after another? Should poets leave politics to the Republicans and the Democrats, or should all of us—poets included—grapple with the world?

Poetry humanizes in the face of dehumanization. Poetry frees a voice caught in the collective throat. Last night, three organizations of poets—Split This Rock, Acentos, and Poets Responding to SB 1070—collaborated on an event at the True Reformer Building called “Floricanto in Washington.: A Multi-Cultural Reading in Response to SB 1070.” I took part in this event with more than twenty-five unacknowledged legislators. I’ll read the poem I read last night. The racist backlash against immigrants in this country today triggered in me the memory of an incident from my own life thirty years ago. That’s the basis of the poem. A “corrido” is a Mexican narrative song, and the poem itself is called…

Isabel’s Corrido

Para Isabel

Francisca said: Marry my sister so she can stay in the country.
I had nothing else to do. I was twenty-three and always cold, skidding
in cigarette-coupon boots from lamppost to lamppost through January
in Wisconsin. Francisca and Isabel washed bed sheets at the hotel,
sweating in the humidity of the laundry room, conspiring in Spanish.

I met her the next day. Isabel was nineteen, from a village where the elders
spoke the language of the Aztecs. She would smile whenever the ice pellets
of English clattered around her head. When the justice of the peace said
You may kiss the bride, our lips brushed for the first and only time.
The borrowed ring was too small, jammed into my knuckle.
There were snapshots of the wedding and champagne in plastic cups.

Francisca said: The snapshots will be proof for Immigration.
We heard rumors of the interview: they would ask me the color
of her underwear. They would ask her who rode on top.
We invented answers and rehearsed our lines. We flipped through
Immigration forms at the kitchen table the way other couples
shuffled cards for gin rummy. After every hand, I’d deal again.

Isabel would say: Quiero ver las fotos. She wanted to see the pictures
of a wedding that happened but did not happen, her face inexplicably
happy, me hoisting a green bottle, dizzy after half a cup of champagne.

Francisca said: She can sing corridos, songs of love and revolution
from the land of Zapata. All night Isabel sang corridos in a barroom
where no one understood a word. I was the bouncer and her husband,
so I hushed the squabbling drunks, who blinked like tortoises in the sun.

Her boyfriend and his beer cans never understood why she married me.
Once he kicked the front door down, and the blast shook the house
as if a hand grenade detonated in the hallway. When the cops arrived,
I was the translator, watching the sergeant watching her, the inscrutable
squaw from every Western he had ever seen, bare feet and long black hair.

We lived behind a broken door. We lived in a city hidden from the city.
When her headaches began, no one called a doctor. When she disappeared
for days, no one called the police. When we rehearsed the questions
for Immigration, Isabel would squint and smile. Quiero ver las fotos,
she would say. The interview was canceled, like a play on opening night
shut down when the actors are too drunk to take the stage. After she left,
I found her crayon drawing of a bluebird tacked to the bedroom wall.

I left too, and did not think of Isabel again until the night Francisca called to say:
Your wife is dead
. Something was growing in her brain. I imagined my wife
who was not my wife, who never slept beside me, sleeping in the ground,
wondered if my name was carved into the cross above her head, no epitaph
and no corrido, another ghost in a riot of ghosts evaporating from the skin
of dead Mexicans who staggered for days without water through the desert.

Thirty years ago, a girl from the land of Zapata kissed me once
on the lips and died with my name nailed to hers like a broken door.
I kept a snapshot of the wedding; yesterday it washed ashore on my desk.

There was a conspiracy to commit a crime. This is my confession: I’d do it again.

(Thank you.)

No comments: