Poet Martín Espada has won many awards over his long career but not a National Book Award until this fall. Espada took home the prize for his 2021 collection, “Floaters,” which takes its title from the heartless term some Border Agents call migrants who have drowned while trying to cross into the United States. The Brooklyn native worked as a tenant lawyer in Boston representing the city’s Hispanic community until he became a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He lives in Shelburne with his wife.
BOOKS: What are you reading now?
ESPADA: I’m in the middle of “Deaf Republic,” poems by Ilya Kaminsky, who was born in the former Soviet Union and now lives in Atlanta. There has been a battle this week between this book and my grading. The book keeps winning. I should have been done with grading by now.
BOOKS: What other poetry collections have you been reading?
ESPADA: I have more than 3,000 books. They are everywhere. One of the things poets do is trade books, so I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books that I have swapped over the years.
BOOKS: How do you keep all these books?
ESPADA: I’m a stacker for sure. I have a table for books in my living room. Sometimes my wife will start looking askance at my stack because she can’t even see me behind it anymore. If it gets too high it starts to bother me, too. I start to think about other people stacking my book and not reading it.
BOOKS: What’s at the top of the stack?
ESPADA: Some of the books are there because I’ve taught them. I’ve been teaching a course for years called poetry of the political imagination. For that course this fall we read “Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry,” by John Murillo, who grew up in LA during the riots. He’s brilliant. This fall I added poems from “Fugues” and “Halting Steps,” by Claribel Alegria, a Salvadoran-Nicaraguan poet. I knew her. She was very brave. Her books were burned. She was exiled more than once. One of my favorite workshops to teach is on broken sonnets, ones that depart from the traditional form. To do that, you have to teach traditional sonnets first. I give students Marilyn Nelson’s “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” which is a powerful, gorgeous series of sonnets about Till, who was lynched in the 1950s.
BOOKS: Who are some of the poets you read the most?
ESPADA: One poet who’s like a second father to me, Jack Agueros, a New York Puerto Rican poet, essayist, translator, playwright, and community organizer. I teach his collection “Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers,” but even if I didn’t teach it I’d keep coming back to it. Another is Paul Mariani. My poem “Be There When They Swarm Me” is a response to his poem “Hornet’s Nest.”
BOOKS: What else do you read?
ESPADA: I’m a huge Red Sox fan. I bought “Pedro,” a memoir by Pedro Martinez, the greatest pitcher I saw with me own eyes. You don’t expect a lot out of a baseball memoir but he’s so funny and frank and blunt. It was an especially good companion this year when the Red Sox suffered from a variety of pitching maladies. I could read that book and yell at my television.
BOOKS: Who influenced you as a reader?
ESPADA: My father, Frank Espada, absolutely. He only had a high school education but he was a voracious reader. He accumulated books about history and politics and, of course, photography, since he was a major photographer. There were books everywhere, and if I saw him reading a book that would make me want to read that book.
BOOKS: Do you have any of his books?
ESPADA: I have a lot of photography books. I have his copy of Walker Evans and James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” I have works by lesser-known photographers who were friends of his. A photographer who really influenced my father was Dave Heath. I have his “A Dialogue With Solitude,” which is considered one of the great books of photography. For me, Sebastiao Salgado is one of the greatest living contemporary documentary photographers. I have his book “Exodus.” I keep it on a coffee table. All I have to do is start turning the pages, and I’m transported. This is the stuff of poetry, too.
BOOKS: What will you read next?
ESPADA: I want to finish “Deaf Republic” but I have to finish grading first.