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‘I’m still stunned’: UMass poet and professor Martín Espada wins National Book Award

  • MARTÍN ESPADA



Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2021

AMHERST — It was an announcement that left him “stunned,” by his own account, and almost speechless, but also deeply honored: winning a National Book Award.

Martín Espada, a poet and longtime professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has won the 2021 National Book Award in poetry for his most recent collection, “Floaters,” which among other things takes a hard look at the fraught battle over immigration, including the harsh anti-immigration rhetoric that has often been part of the U.S. experience.

Espada, who’s also an essayist and translator, has won a number of previous awards for his work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $100,000 purse for lifetime achievement, and he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 collection “The Republic of Poetry.”

But as he said Thursday in a phone call from his home in Shelburne Falls, winning a major book award for a single collection was not something he was expecting.

“I’m still stunned,” Espada said, hours after the National Book Awards were announced Wednesday night in a virtual ceremony. “Part of it is that (the award ceremony) was entirely virtual, and we didn’t have the chance to talk to each other…. There was a little bit of unreality to it.”

“I mean, my wife was shouting in the next room while I’m trying to give an acceptance speech and babbling incoherently,” he quipped. “I just hadn’t expected this. But I’m deeply honored.”

“Floaters” takes its name from a term that some U.S. Border Patrol agents use to describe migrants who drown trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico to the U.S. The title poem itself was inspired by a 2019 photograph that became a symbol of horror: the bodies of two Salvadoran migrants, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his young daughter, Angie Valeria, lying face-down in the river after they tried to swim across it.

In the collection, Espada also offers reflections on his childhood in Brooklyn, New York, on friendships and community activists, and on his late father, a man whom he celebrated in his remarks at the awards ceremony as someone “who provided both an artistic and ethical example to me throughout my life.”

The National Book Foundation, the organization that sponsors the awards, said Espada’s new collection is a book “that is vital for our times and will be vital for those of our future, trying to make sense of today.”

Espada said he sees his award as an honor not just for himself but for people who have mentored him, as well as all those who continue to work in different ways for a more just world, whether on immigration or other issues.

He also hopes it can help remind us of Óscar Ramírez and his daughter, as well as all the other migrants facing huge challenges in trying to build better lives for themselves, “the ones whose names are not known.”

“It’s hard to measure the impact of poems,” he said. “You put them out there and you hope it helps…. You have to keep writing them.”

Espada’s National Book Award win continues a good run in recent years for local writers or those with a connection here, including novelists Andrea Lawlor and Genevieve Sly Crane (2020 Whiting Awards); poet/fiction writer (and UMass writing teacher) Ocean Vuong of Northampton, whose awards include a T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry and a MacArthur Fellowship; and fantasy writer Kelly Link, who won a MacArthur grant in 2018.

Novelist Lauren Groff, a 2001 Amherst College graduate, also was a National Book Award finalist this year in fiction — the third time she’d been nominated for the award — for her most recent book, “Matrix.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.