A Space for Writers of the World
Hustle [verb] /ˈhʌs·əl/: 1. to move or work in a quick or energetic way; 2. to convey forcefully; 3. to make money doing something slightly shady.
As I turned the final pages of David Tomas Martinez’s first poetry collection Hustle (2014, Sarabande Books), I found myself overwhelmed with the weight of all that we have collectively, as marginalized peoples from many walks of life, endured. And if I had to distill, in one word, the very spirit of this book and this voice, I would put my money on “survival,” because that’s ultimately what Martinez’s poetics are all about.
Tapping into a rhythm that moves seamlessly from urban street corners where “A car wants to be stolen,/as the night desires to be revved”  to ghosting literary high-rollers like Pablo Neruda (“Tonight I can write the most violent lines” ), Martinez does more than simply offer us a window into his inner-city song. Instead of affording readers some voyeuristic glimpse into his world for curiosity or exoticism’s sake, which audiences who lack direct experience with urban violence are sometimes wont to do, Martinez renders narratives of struggle and heartbreak (see “Forgetting Willie James Jones” and just try not to laugh now and cry later) in such an intimate and humanizing tone that any and all onlookers are compelled to listen in from a space of unlikely reverence. Again—it goes back to survival, and I can’t help but hear echoes from the final stanza of Joy Harjo’s “Anchorage” as a kindred undercurrent of Martinez’s collection.
While Martinez’s work is, on first read, accessible and sure to engage a wide variety of audiences, the collection takes on a number of themes which might be of particular interest to readers in the fields of Chicano/a literature, slam poetry, labor studies, and social work. I was personally drawn to the poet’s structural complexities, where poems like “The Cost of it All” are rich in parallelism, and elsewhere as Martinez expertly works couplets, gut-punching cadence, and prose features to his advantage throughout the bulk of Hustle.
However, it is his depictions of gender in the collection that I keep coming back to. I was struck as the speaker’s “grandmother wrinkled/with realization… how all she could do was chop onions//when love and silently turning the cheek/couldn’t stop uncles from touching nieces” . Here, too, are “homegirls”  and “mothers” enduring their bodies and the baggage that comes with them as they reveal “The letters passed from generation to generation;//a nepotism from fathers, from mothers:/violence is the oldest inheritance” . But ultimately it is the gendered experiences of Mexican-American boys and men which are foregrounded in Hustle, where the speaker “dreamed of sleeping/perfectly still—/a macho’s rest” . Oscillating between images of microaggressions associated with the policing of masculinity and scenes of overt gang and drug violence perpetuated by men and boys both behind closed doors and out in the open on the blood-soaked pavement, Martinez artfully and urgently portrays these and many other gendered scenarios while somehow resisting fetishization but, at the same time, honoring the remarkable hustle of everyday life and survival on the streets and on the page.