Sunday, April 15, 2007

WHAT UP, PITTSBURGH? Poet of the People, Martin Espada, read to a room full of history scholars, 4/14/07

Frankly, I was embarrassed. A Puerto Rican poetry student traveled here from Erie to see Martin Espada, one of his very favorite poets, read on Saturday April 14th at Posvar Hall, but almost no one from Pittsburgh’s literary community came. As far as I could tell no one outside of University of Pittsburgh (and some visiting University of Toronto history scholars) attended, and even then the audience was almost exclusively comprised of people who were involved in a History Department symposium to which the poetry reading was connected.

The reading was not sanctioned by the Cultural Trust or the Thomas Merton Center; it did not take place at the Shadow Lounge, or at the Brillobox, or at a Union meeting. But each of those audiences should have been there, and then some. Martin Espada is a poet who looks at history and its lessons (learned and unlearned), who has served as a lawyer for tenants’ right and immigrants’ rights and bilingual education, who grew up poor in a wretched neighborhood in Brooklyn, who has never stopped working for a living, and who writes to include working-class men and women--their resistance and their creativity and their humanity--in the annals of an American history which seeks to exclude them. “Most people are not aware that poetry in this country used to be closely tied to resistance and to a political and working-class spirit, especially in the 30s and 40s,” Espada told us. “That history was suppressed by something called McCarthyism. We are only now beginning to bring those writers and that history out of obscurity.” He marveled at the fact that “the Republican states--the people in power, using language for power--are referring to themselves as Red. It wasn’t so long ago that you could ruin a person’s life by calling him Red. Red was always our side, the color of revolution.”

Espada spoke with some disdain about the poetry that is most lauded today, which is “hip, cynical, detached, or worse, obscure in its meaning.” When asked about his own writing process, he made sure to warn of “anyone who tells you that ‘If you don’t write every day, you’re not a writer.’ If they claim that they get up at 5am every day and write for several hours, they are not telling you the whole story, which is that someone else is cooking for them, cleaning for them, doing their grocery shopping, someone is taking care of them. The vast majority of us will never have that luxury. Most of us, are, in fact, caretakers.” He went on to say that he usually writes on trains and planes, and in the terminals of those trains and planes. “I make a living, not from poetry royalties, but from running workshops and doing readings. That means I’m often traveling.” He said that “being a poet is the art of being a time bandit. This is a mercantile society. But I don’t get paid to write a poem. So I have to steal time from my life to write a poem. I steal time everywhere I can.”

Espada read us beautiful, lyrical, and impassioned poems, poems that held both outrage at injustices and a deep faith in human resilience, in vitality. Espada was a talented performer of his own poems, which often almost-literally sang off the page in his baritone English and Spanish. He read to us of his father, arrested in 1950s Mississippi for not moving to the back of the bus; he read to us of the Vietnam veteran-poets whose warnings about the nature of war were not heeded;he read to us of “Local 100,” the 43 union members who died working at Windows on the World, the World Trade Center, on 9/11; he read of the little-known Palm Sunday Massacre in Ponce, Puerto Rico; of the first 9/11, in 1973--the murdering, torturing, Nixon-sanctioned coup in Chile; of digging latrines in Nicaragua and watching a woman wash her dress and herself at the same time, for scarcity of running water. He spoke of the importance of bearing witness, the importance of not forgetting what came before, and the importance in his writing of combining memory and experience with analysis and meaning-making. “I have seen people live through powerful experiences, and not grasp what they mean, not understand where they fit into the scheme of things.”

When asked if he ever gets in trouble for the strong political stance he takes in his writing, Espada said no, that he “enjoys the freedom” of saying what he wants because no one is much threatened by poetry in America anymore. “The best place to hide a poem is between the pages of a book.”

On the other hand, Espada was once commissioned to write a poem for NPR. The finished work was written about an unnamed prostitute who was then the latest witness to come forward in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s innocence. The poem was banned from airplay.

Espada further spoke of the many people who had told him at his readings, “Poetry saved my life.” “And they mean it quite literally. People who were living as alcoholics, as addicts, people in prison, people living self-destructively, people living in hell and headed, literally, to an early grave, have told me that they discovered poetry, and that wanting to read it, and write it, and share it with other people, turned their life around. It made them want to live.” He shared a story of a poetry reading he gave in L.A., “A large man came up to me, a Puerto Rican covered in tattoos. He was intimidating--he was bigger than me! Then he told me, ‘Your poetry saved my life.’ He told me that he had been in prison, and he found one of my books. He said it gave him hope, and turned him around. Now he was studying poetry in college and planning to teach it in prisons and elsewhere. But the different thing in this story is that, he started to thank me, and then he began to cry. He broke down in deep, loud, racking sobs, in the middle of a crowded room! I took him aside where we could talk more privately, and he apologized for crying. I told him, ‘No, I am a poet. To a poet, tears are coins of gold! I’ve hit the slot machine right now.’ ” Espada continued, “There are people who are invisible in our history, who desperately need a mirror held up to them. I try in my poems to be the mirror that shows them that what they are doing, these working people all over the world, has creativity and dignity.”

So, Pittsburgh artists, event organizers, writers and poetry audiences—-was this low turn-out (among the non-history majors) a result of target marketing, or a ghettoized attendance? Was it too much to cross a bridge or a mountain, or just too much to cross the threshhold of perceived sub-divisions? Is Pittsburgh just big enough for its writers and audience of literature to be this complacent when such a relevant voice, in the prime of his creativity, comes through to speak and read? Is it some lack of communal forum, that there is not really a BUZZ off campus? I must admit, I’m truly baffled.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well Flux was going on at the same time - and that was certainly hopping - I suspect many potential attendees were at that