There are poetry readings, and then there is a Martin Espada poetry reading. From the moment he took the podium (he started off with a joke about being cited for jaywalking in downtown Seattle), he had me.
He introduced himself as a guy who grew up in the projects of East Brooklyn. He told us about his father, a soldier turned civil rights activist, a photographer, a revolutionary.
He read a poem about Tito Puente, the Puerto Rican musician who brought mambo to the general public.
He shared his idea for a cockroach coffee table book ("a Republican National Convention of Roaches! An Indianapolis 500 of roaches!").
He read a hilarious poem titled "Thanksgiving" about the first time he met his cannon-possessing, culturally clueless, Yankee in-laws in Connecticut.
He talked about Chile and Pinochet's evil regime ("If you want to know how torture worked, all you have to do is look to Chile . . .")
He read a poem about returning to his childhood projects building in E. Brooklyn, and true to Frost's dictum about surprises, it ends up being an anti-war poem.
"Poetry makes nothing happen? That only applies to poets whose work makes nothing happen."
"The poets I respect most are the poet spies, the ones who bear witness. Neruda was a poet spy, and so was Whitman. They bear witness and testify."
His swan song to Neruda during the Q&A was worth the price of admission.
And in his signature booming barotone, he belted out "Alabanza," his opus about the "army of shadows" who worked atop the World Trade Center at The Windows on the World Restaurant.
I went home energized and found a short interview of him on YouTube. Watching and listening, tears streamed down my face as I learned about Victor Jaba, Chile's version of our Woody Guthrie, tortured and gunned down by militants during the 1973 American-backed coup.
We need to know about the stuff Martin is writing about. We all need to share a little more about where we come from, who our ancestors are (or who they might have been). We need to share what has hurt us and what has made us stronger, with particulars, with language that leaps, that explodes from the page. Not rhetoric and abstractions, but with images and music. With passion.
Obama, you put one on the Supreme Court; why not make a Puerto Rican the United States Poet Laureate? If anyone qualifies for that position--a true poet of the people--it's Martin Espada.