Martín Espada, poet and professor of English, is a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry for his collection “Floaters.”
Five books are now shortlisted for National Book Awards in each of five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature. Winners will be named in November.
“Floaters” takes its title from a term used by some border patrol agents to describe migrants who drown trying to cross the Rio Grande at the U.S./Mexico border.
The book’s eponymous poem—which Espada read on an episode of Democracy Now! in January 2020—was written in response to the deaths of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month old daughter Angie Valeria.
A photo of the drowned Salvadoran father and daughter caused outrage and drew attention to the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border. The poem also responds to allegations that the photo was faked posted in "I’m 10-15," a Facebook group used by border patrol officers.
The collection has received critical praise. The Boston Globe calls it “A work of grace-laden defiance,” and describes how “Espada lands jabs of bright, hard wisdom” with his verse. Earlier this year, the Chicago Review of Books named “Floaters” one of the “12 Must-Read Books of January,” saying, “Both elegiac and irrepressible, this is an essential read for anyone interested in poetry as a form of protest.”
“Drawing on history, personal experience, and keen observation,” notes Publishers Weekly, “this impressive collection is unique for the way it captures the world-weary voice of a poet and political activist who doesn't simply call for change, but offers a sense of the long, difficult struggle toward justice.”
Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957. He earned a B.A. in history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a J.D. from Northeastern University. As an attorney, he served as supervisor of Su Clínica Legal, a legal services program for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
The poet has dedicated himself to the pursuit of social justice and fighting for the rights of Latino/a communities. He cites his greatest influence as his father, Frank Espada, a community organizer, civil rights activist, and documentary photographer who created the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project.
In addition to the Ruth Lilly Prize, Espada has received a Shelley Memorial Award, a Robert Creeley Award, a National Hispanic Cultural Center Literary Award, a PEN/Revson Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His poetry collection “The Republic of Poetry” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Espada will offer the fall 2021 plenary lecture for the Commonwealth Honors College on Friday, Oct. 15, at 5 p.m. in the Campus Center Auditorium. He will read from various works, including “Floaters,” and engage in a discussion of poetry as a form of persuasion that stirs the emotions, awakens the senses and acts as a force to convey ideas that change the world.
Read about Espada's nomination in the New York Times.