Floaters, by Martín Espada, offers masterfully crafted narratives from one of the essential voices in American poetry, exuberant odes and defiant elegies, songs of protest and songs of love.

Floaters takes its title from the term used by certain U.S. Border Patrol agents to describe migrants who drown trying to cross over the Río Grande. The title poem addresses the viral photograph of Óscar and Valeria, the Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in the Río Grande in 2019, and charges posted in a Border Patrol Facebook group that the photo was faked.

​Espada bears eloquent witness to confrontations with anti-immigrant bigotry as a tenant lawyer years ago and sings the praises of Central American adolescents kicking soccer balls over a barbed wire fence in an internment camp founded on that same bigotry.

Espada is a poet who “stirs in us an undeniable social consciousness,” says Richard Blanco. Whether celebrating the visionaries—the fallen dreamers, rebels and poets—or condemning the outrageous governmental neglect of his father’s Puerto Rico in the wake of the hurricane, Espada invokes fierce, incandescent spirits.

Here’s what the National Book Award judges had to say:

Martín Espada’s Floaters manages to address the concerns of our times through a timeless voice that can be heard above “this cacophonous world.” These poems remind us of the power of observation, of seeing everything—what’s in front of us, what’s behind us both in memory and in heritage, and what we can only imagine—believing all are worthy of song, all are worthy of taking seriously within our song. This is a collection that is vital for our times and will be vital for those in the future, trying to make sense of today.


Martín Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His new book of poems from Norton is called Floaters, winner of the 2021 National Book Award. Other books of poems include Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006) and Alabanza (2003). He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump(2019). He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His book of essays and poems, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona, and reissued by Northwestern. A former tenant lawyer in Greater Boston, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. www.martinespada.net

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Interview with Martín Espada

“I see the poetic imagination as essential to the political poem. For poetry, truth is necessary but not sufficient.”

Watch Martín Espada read an excerpt from Floaters at the (virtual) 2021 National Book Awards

Watch Martín Espada accept an award at the (virtual) 2021 National Book Awards