Inaugural Poet? An Open Letter to President-elect Joe Biden

Dear President-elect Joe Biden,

You quoted Seamus Heaney, W. B. Yeats and Langston Hughes in your speeches, so we feel certain that you’re considering an inspiring poet to help bring the country together at the inaugural ceremony in January. You simply could make no better choice than Rhina P. Espaillat, and you will be ever grateful that you have brought her work into your world.

Rhina P. Espaillat is a bilingual poet whose verse is admired for its graciousness and warmth of humanity. The immigrant daughter of an exiled Latin American diplomat, she taught for fifteen years in the New York City school system, and has never really stopped teaching. Hundreds of poets across the nation consider her a mentor.

Espaillat’s major literary and political concerns are centered on the idea of inclusiveness. She writes, “A certain secret and eternal intuition tells us that we are one single family.” Her poetry is imbued with the sense of Everyman’s hidden nobility, exemplified in her own life by the image of her father working to assemble mannequins for department stores. It follows that her poems consistently connect personal subjects to universal themes with balanced, womanly wit and an absence of self-importance. “I’m after the meaningful ordinary,” she says of her work. “I’m after the ordinary that everyone else can understand and that can serve as a bridge between my life and everybody else’s.” So when it comes to patriotism, Espaillat’s personal, philosophical, and intellectual connection to the immigrant experience is fundamentally and intimately American. Her natural inclination is to celebrate the richness of cultural difference.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Rhina P. Espaillat was seven years old when her family was granted political asylum in the United States during the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. In October, 1937, under Trujillo’s orders, the massacre of thousands of Haitians took place on the Dominican border. Espaillat’s father and his uncle, Rafael Brache, were on a delegation to Washington, D.C., when Brache repudiated Trujillo in a letter condemning the massacre as a “criminal act.” Brache was consequentially declared “an enemy of the Fatherland,” which resulted in immediate exile for the entire delegation and their families.

At the height of the Great Depression, Espaillat’s parents settled in New York City, renting an apartment on West Forty-ninth Street in Manhattan. Her father found work as a porter, doing odd jobs, until he was hired at a mannequin factory, where eventually he became bookkeeper. Her mother worked at home as a dressmaker.

Espaillat attended Julia Richman High School in Manhattan. One of her English teachers there sent some of the fifteen-year-old Espaillat’s poems to Ladies’ Home Journal, which accepted three of them for publication in 1947. Subsequently, the same teacher submitted the poems to The Poetry Society of America, leading to Espaillat’s admittance, at the age of sixteen, as the youngest poet ever accepted to the organization.

On June 28, 1952, Espaillat married Alfred Moskowitz, who had returned from World War II in March 1946, having fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhine Crossing. Her husband taught Industrial Arts in the New York City junior high schools and took a highly active part in the formation of the United Federation of Teachers. Together they raised two sons born to them, both of whom attended MIT, and a third son, whom they adopted.

Since her retirement from high school teaching, Espaillat’s gift for teaching people of all ages has continued to bring invitations to conduct classes and seminars at schools and colleges around the country. In addition, she has thrown herself wholeheartedly into the essential work of translation. Her award-winning translations of the poems of Robert Frost have introduced the first U.S inaugural poet to the Spanish-speaking world, while keeping intact Frost’s richness of rhyme and musicality. And unlike most translators, she translates in both directions, as she considers both English and Spanish her native tongues. In reviewing Espaillat’s second book for Poetry, Bill Christophersen wrote, “English is Espaillat’s second language the way it was Conrad’s: she enriches it with every line she writes.”

Her translations into English of poems written in Spanish include those of San Juan de la Cruz, Miguel de Guevara, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Miguel Hernández, César Sánchez Beras and Juan Matos. In recent years she has dedicated herself to the great project of translating the poems of, among others, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur and Emily Dickinson into Spanish, with bilingual editions published in Mexico City of both Wilbur and Frost. Ever the cultural bridge-builder and literary ambassador, Espaillat is truly a poet for all the Americas.

Again, we can’t emphasize enough how suitable and inspiring the Dominican-American poet Rhina P. Espaillat would be for celebrating and commemorating Inauguration Day, a day when hope rhymes with history and, coincidentally, is also Rhina’s birthday!

With great respect for you and great hope for your administration,

Alfred Nicol & Leslie Monsour

Alfred Nicol’s review of Rhina P. Espaillat’s And After All appeared in Marginalia April 12, 2019.
Leslie Monsour’s The Colosseum Critical Introduction to Rhina P. Espaillat will be published by Franciscan University Press in early 2021.

Signatories Beyond the Authors

Diogenes Abreu: poet, painter, playwright, cultural activist; New York, NY
José Acosta: poet, short story writer, journalist, cultural activist; Bronx, NY
Julia Alvarez, Middlebury: poet, novelist, essayist; Weybridge, VT
Kianny Antigua, Dartmouth College: novelist, poet, short story writer and author of children’s literature
Ned Balbo: poet; Baltimore, MD
Melissa Balmain: poet & editor, Light; Rochester, NY
Bruce Bennett, Professor Emeritus, Wells College: poet, editor, Aurora, NY.
Meredith Bergmann: poet & sculptor of Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, Central Park, NYC,
Memorial to September 11th, and other public art; Ridgefield, CT
Rei Berroa, George Mason University: academic; Fairfax, VA
Robert Clawson: poet, founder of the Robert Creeley Foundation; Acton, MA
Robert W. Crawford: poet, Director of the Frost Farm Poetry Conference; Chester, NH
Professor Daisy Cocco de Filippis, President of Hostos Community College -CUNY; Bronx, NY
Cally Conan-Davies: poet; Garden Island Creek, Australia
Christina Cortez: poet, essayist, and activist for the handicapped; Watertown, MA
Dick Davis, Ohio State University: poet, editor, and translator; Columbus, OH
Paula Deitz: cultural critic and editor, The Hudson Review; New York, NY
Claribel Díaz: psychologist, poet, essayist, teacher; New York, NY
Gregory Dowling; professor, writer; Venice, Italy
Christian Dupont, Burns Library, Boston College (home of Espaillat’s archives): archival librarian, Newton, MA
Kevin Durkin: poet; Santa Monica, CA
Peggy R. Ellsburg, Barnard College: poet & biographer; Ossining, NY
David Ferry, poet & translator; Brookline, MA
Erica Funkhouser, MIT, poet; Essex, MA
Dana Gioia, Poet Laureate of California 2015-, NEA chairman 2003-09; Santa Rosa, CA
Timothy Green, editor, Rattle; Studio City, CA
Midge Goldberg, poet; Chester, NH
Emily Grosholz, Pennsylvania State University, poet and philosopher; State College, PA
Rachel Hadas, Rutgers University, poet, author, translator; New York, NY
Dolores Hayden; writer and poet; Guilford, CT
Ernest Hilbert, poet, book critic for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post; Philadelphia, PA
Dr. Nancy Kang, University of Manitoba: co-author of a study of Espaillat’s life & work; Winnipeg, MB, Canada
X. J. Kennedy, poet, translator, anthologist, editor & author of childrens’ books and textbooks; Peabody MA
Don Kimball, poet, New Hampshire Poetry Society president 2014-2020; Concord, NH
Jenna Le, poet, physician and educator; New York, NY
Sydney Lea, Poet Laureate of Vermont 2011-2015; Newbury, VT
Paul Mariani, University Professor Emeritus at Boston College: poet and biographer; Montague, MA
Roberto Marquez, Professor Emeritus of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Mt Holyoke College; Amherst, MA
David Mason, poet; Colorado Springs, CO
Juan Matos, teacher and Poet Laureate of Worcester, MA; Lunenburg, MA
Susan McLean, poet & translator; Iowa City, IA
Marianela Medrano: poet, writer, psychologist; Stamford, CT
Josh Mehigan, poet; Brooklyn, NY
Frank Osen; poet; Pasadena, CA
Jay Parini, Middlebury College: Poet, novelist, biographer, screenwriter, and critic; Middlebury, VT
Alex Pepple: Publisher and Editor, Able Muse Review; San Jose, CA
Minelys Sanchez: novelist & poet; Worcester, MA
César Sánchez Beras: poet, playwright, novelist, and author of children’s literature; Methuen, MA
Jane Satterfield, Loyola University: poet and professor; Baltimore, MD
Robert B. Shaw; professor, writer, poet; South Hadley, MA.
Edgar Smith, poet, writer, translator, publisher; New York, NY
A. E. Stallings, poet and translator; Athens, Greece
Timothy Steele, poet; Los Angeles, CA
Luke Stromberg, poet; Upper Darcy, PA
Marilyn L. Taylor, Poet Laureate of Wisconsin 2009-10; Madison, WI
Dr. Juan Nicolás Tineo: poet; Jackson Heights, NY
Estaban A. Torres Marte: academic, Queens, NY
Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, Syracuse University: co-author of a study of Espaillat’s life & work; Syracuse, NY
Catherine Tufariello, poet & writer; Oklahoma City, OK
Jimmy Valdez Osaku, painter, poet, cultural activist, museum exhibition professional; Queens, NY
Wendy Videlock, poet; Palisade, CO
Deborah Warren, poet; Nahant, MA
Caroline Rob Zaleski: Chair, Preservation League of New York; New York, NY