Espada: In order to write poems, you have to make yourself very vulnerable. There are many poets today who are afraid to take risks, who are terrified of expressing emotion openly. They are terrified of appearing vulnerable on the page. They are ultimately afraid of being accused of sentimentality. That’s the greatest crime in our contemporary world.
Rail: You have to be a cool customer.
Espada: Exactly. Detached, hip, cynical, and absolutely invulnerable. And we all know that that’s a dishonest pose.
--from "A Bard From East New York," interview with Martín Espada, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2007.
I have become that cynical bastard. This is not what a poet should be.
I don't know if I can or should blame high school, or college, or anywhere else I learned how to hide my skin from the world, or how to tell jokes, or how to sniff the air.
Mind you, I never hid my skin for its brownness. I've always been the brown guy and I've been okay with the ignorance thrown at me, because no one else knew, the way I did, how amazing it is to be Cuban, and Puerto Rican, and Latino, and Hispanic.
Never had a problem playing the Spanish music, never had issues with picking up and learning where jazz used to live and lurk in the shadows of the Caribbean, never had issues pretending how to mambo on any dance floors.
I would say these things loudly to anyone who pricked their ears close enough.
But if you've ever stood in line at the grocery store and heard a little kid ask his mother why that man is so fat, and mean you;
if you've ever had your face three inches from another guy's ass because he is hovering over it, because you are trapped between seats on the bus and it's fun to torture the crying boy for being sensitive;
if you've ever been ignored because why not, because he's strange, or smart, or smiling;
maybe you'd hold your heritage high too, because it was the one thing no one faulted you for, since you were surrounded by brown boys and girls similarly situated. Maybe this is another essay.
Or maybe it's not.
Maybe the urge to insulate yourself from feeling reaches into the realm of empathy now. Maybe you live long enough in college, learning or not learning enough to understand that you will never understand why the world can't be fixed.
So you drown your hopes in Immanuel Wallerstein. You explain capitalism and communism to yourself and understand that it's all the same, really, so why bother trying to get it.
You invest heavily in your need to know and finalize and explain.
You question God so many times, you forget you ever had a religion. You nail religion to the same cross that freaked you out as a child.
You eliminate mystery from your life. You know without being told why no woman would ever find you attractive in your twenties, and you are okay with it.
This is not the story to get you to hit the "like" button or comment a thousand times on Facebook, or to be in solidarity with me,
or offer to help me heal, even though I have friends that would do so, in a heartbeat, and I am immensely grateful for them.
I'm here to tell you that even when we are aware of past hurts, even when we change our behaviors, there are ways to see the world that affect the way you write, the way you react, the way you empathize.
Which is to say, often you forget to empathize.
You know how. You love someone and your love tells you how. Reminds you how. Is angered by your forgetting, and rightfully.
Your heart still turns one way or the other when you realize your parents are aging, and cannot do or act or feel how they used to.
You remember an ideal. You used to write the ideals down in your journal. You used to fight for them.
And, you used to speak.
You used to feel.
You used to document, and criticize, and mean things.
You used to use language that was concrete and specific.
You would listen to your teachers, you would hear a theory, and you would know why you rejected it or accepted it because you have weighed what you know to be right and wrong.
You didn't have stock answers.
You used to know who you were, but somewhere it became easier to simply be a gear in a clock, a piece of something, and not something, or somebody.
Everything I know, I know because of language.
When I was three, my father wrote in the sand of Luquillo, Puerto Rico, to prove that I could read.
In elementary school, I learned how to fill a page with words, that they could do whatever I asked them to do.
In high school, when my friends failed me, I had poems.
When I could not speak out loud, I knew I could write the way e.e. cummings wrote and have it make sense to no one but me.
When all I did was speak out loud, I knew I could write the way Martín Espada wrote, and Willie Perdomo wrote, and have everyone in the room listen.
When I wanted to speak in Spanish, I wrote what I heard growing up. When I wanted to speak in English, I wrote what I knew to be a lie.
The world is not a thing all its own. It is made up of human beings that love, and think, and feel, and live, and can be killed.
My senses are only mine because they relate to the outside of me, because someone poured a sidewalk to walk on, because molecules are shaped into taste, because the absence of all other colors is the presence of yellow.
All choices are collective choices. I got off lucky.
I am alive enough to tell you what the air smells like after a rainstorm.
I have enough imagination, enough empathy and humanity, to know the ears of the dead and the poisoned. I know what 50,000 pairs of eyes feels like as you speed through Havana, in your American skin.
How could I live so long imagining that what I am really matters in the long run? Why else am I here?
Am I here to churn out a book every two years because writers are producers of writing?
Did the boy on the bus live through what he lived through so he could grow up and be silent? Or can he speak for the boy who assaulted him, who grew up into drugs and escaped somewhere, and managed to find God too?
Can you tell me what terrorism is? Can you show me what it smells like to starve to death? Can you sing to me in the voice of my brother, resurrected and dancing?
You dream some things, and you love a seer who loves you enough to say things out loud. You live here, on this earth, in this age, where we don't seek out reality so much as meta-reality. This is not the time to forget where you came from, but neither is it the time to spend so much time weeping for one person, for yourself. Language itself is under attack from every quarter, from politicians to advertisers on bathroom walls, to the very writers themselves.
If you reach back through your own history to the sand of Luquillo, you must tell her about the sand under your fingernails, the halo of grey encircling the rain forest. And she will either love it, or hate it, and she will speak back to you. In a world growing more and more inhuman, we need you to give humanity back to language, and language back to humanity, and color back to your dreams.
You haven't done that. But you can. You are a poet.
And you are a poet because someone named you so. As God once did. As we have done in succession, again and again, through history, through fire, to where you are, where I am.