Martín Espada, the speaker at the upcoming Michaelson, Briner & Kildahl Literary Symposium at Wartburg College, knows changing the world isn’t easy. 


Espada, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has long advocated for social justice as a tenant lawyer, essayist, and poet. Lately, he has used his platform to draw attention to the plight of immigrants at the border and Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane María, featuring both in “Floaters,” winner of a 2021 National Book Award. 

“I wish all I had to do was win an award,” said Espada. 

Though his subjects may be unfamiliar – not many can claim to have visited Utuado, a town of 28,000 in the mountains of Puerto Rico that serves as the backdrop for “Letter to My Father” – Espada picks out details that resonate broadly. 

“I am making intentional connections between the particular and the universal. I’m writing narratives often based on personal experience – or on the experiences of people close to me – that resonate outward to encompass multiple identities, communities, histories and nationalities,” Espada said. “Ultimately, I’m a humanist, and that’s the resonance I want: humanism.” 

Take the things Espada lifts up about father and daughter Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos in the titular poem of “Floaters”: his fingers, burnt from making pizza; her delight in a toy guitar. 

He practically dares the reader to look away as he describes Óscar’s and Angie’s bodies on a bank of the Río Grande, as captured in a famous news photo. His words make a mockery of those who would suggest this loss was staged, that these were merely “crisis actors.” 

“My poems seek to humanize the dehumanized, providing faces for the faceless and voices for the voiceless, through the language of poetry, that is to say the language of the senses,” said Espada. “That means details and more details. In those details – that which we can see and hear, taste, smell and touch – we will find common ground as human beings.” 

When Espada isn’t using his work for advocacy, he writes love poems for his wife, Lauren.  

“She gets poems for birthdays and holidays and anniversaries. In fact, I write love poems in the voices of mythical, extinct or rare animals, including a kraken, a moa, and a Galápagos tortoise,” Espada said. “That’s the other guy.” 

Espada’s reading at Wartburg will include some of those love poems as well as works from “Floaters” and the most recent issue of the North American Review, based at the University of Northern Iowa. The reading begins at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, in the McCaskey Lyceum, and Espada will sign books after. Raccoon River Press will sell copies of “Floaters,” and the North American Review will sell copies of its issue featuring Espada.


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