Martín Espada: stacks of books, from poetry to photography

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 was a battle this week between this book and my grade. The book continues to win. I should have been done with grading by now.

BOOKS: What other books of poetry have you read?

ESPADA: I have over 3,000 books. They are everywhere. One of the things poets do is swap books, so I have hundreds and hundreds of books that I’ve swapped over the years.

BOOKS: How do you store all these books?

ESPADA: I’m a stacker for sure. I have a book table in my living room. Sometimes my wife starts looking askance at my stack because she can’t even see me behind it anymore. If it goes too high, it starts to bother me too. I start thinking about other people piling up my book and not reading it.

BOOKS: What’s at the top of the stack?

ESPADA: Some of the books are there because I taught them. For years I have been teaching a course called Poetry of the Political Imagination. For this class this fall, we read “Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry,” by John Murillo, who grew up in Los Angeles during the riots. He is 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. His books were burned. She was exiled more than once. One of my favorite workshops to teach is on broken sonnets, those that deviate from the traditional form. To do this, you must first teach the traditional sonnets. I give students “A Wreath for Emmett Till” by Marilyn Nelson, a powerful and beautiful set of sonnets about Till, who was lynched in the 1950s.

BOOKS: Which poets do you read the most?

ESPADA: A poet who is like a second father to me, Jack Agueros, a Puerto Rican poet, essayist, translator, playwright and community organizer from New York. I teach his collection “Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers”, but even if I didn’t teach it, I would come back to it over and over again. 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’ve seen with my own eyes. You don’t expect much from a baseball memoir, but it’s so funny, candid, and direct. He was a particularly good companion this year when the Red Sox suffered from various pitching ailments. I could read this book and scream at my television.

BOOKS: Who influenced you as a reader?

ESPADA: My father, Frank Espada, absolutely. He only had a high school diploma, but he was a voracious reader. He accumulated books on 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, it would make me want to read that book.

BOOKS: Do you have one of his books?

ESPADA: I have a lot of photography books. I have his copy of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by Walker Evans and James Agee. I have works by lesser known photographers who were his friends. A photographer who really influenced my father was Dave Heath. I have his “Dialogue with Solitude”, which is considered one of the great photography books. 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. It is also the stuff of poetry.

BOOKS: What are you going to read next?

ESPADA: I want to finish “Deaf Republic” but I have to finish scoring first.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the most recent author of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and can be contacted at [email protected]

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