Subversive Poetry

So I’m not slacking in my book-a-day goal, though yes, I’m slacking on posting here. The book I finished a few days ago was Martín Espada’s The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive. It was (as I expected it would be) extraordinary.

Martín is, for anyone who doesn’t know, an incredibly prolific contemporary Puerto Rican poet who writes in English and teaches at UMass Amherst. He started his professional life as a lawyer, and in the first essay draws the connection between lawyer and poet in their function as advocate. It’s a connection that makes sense – I have a good friend who has recently decided to leave academia for advocacy, and I admire him for the decision. Martín’s trajectory went the other way. In my opinion, Martín is the most important poet of his generation.

Espada as always shines in his egalitarian, democratic, engaged understanding of poetry’s political and social responsibilities. This collection of reflective essays mixes poetry, criticism, history and anecdote to sketch a comprehensive worldview in which poets respond to the silencing of their own voices by speaking for others, where poets are advocates and historians writing the collective memory those in power would sooner elide. There are startling facts presented, and anti-war poems so wrenching that I found myself crying in a cafe to the confusion of those around me. The compelling argument that politics always has and continues to occupy a necessary place at the heart of poetry is made especially in the essay “A Rebuttal” in which the sanitized history of poetry in the 20th century is exploded as the result of self-censorship by the collective academic memory in response to the fear of the McCarthy era inquisitions.

And since my current project is translating Puerto Rican and Dominican Republic poets, here’s a passage that stopped me in my tracks:

If Puerto Ricans cannot read, the logic goes, then they cannot write, and therefore there are no Puerto Rican writers. The literati are not exempt from these assumptions. The Puerto Rican community hs been a significant presence in New York–the literary capital of the country–for more than seventy years, which makes the invisibility of the community’s writers all the more inexcusable. … To date, no Puerto Rican writer in this country has ever won a Pulitzer Prize, or a National Book Award, or a National Book Critics Circle Award, or a MacArthur “genius” grant.

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