Photo by Alissa Morris
About two weeks after the 2016 presidential election, poet Richard Blanco came to Bucks County Community College for a reading to kick off the college’s Many Voices, Many Stories writing conference. Before the reading, Blanco and I sat down in a little stone cottage on campus to discuss the role of poetry in society, his own writing process, and some of the challenges facing people who enjoy the craft.
After immigrating from Cuba to the United States as an infant with his parents, Blanco grew up in Miami, FL. In college, he studied civil engineering and then, later, poetry. He’s the author of three poetry books. His most recent collection, Looking for the Gulf Motel, won the Patterson Poetry Prize, the Maine Literary Award for Poetry, and the Thom Gunn Award. In addition to poetry, he’s also written a memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood.
At the 2013 inaugural ceremony for President Barack Obama, Blanco read his poem “One Today” for a crowd of over one million people. Currently, he serves as Education Ambassador for the Academy of American Poets.
GC: You’ve talked a lot in other interviews about how people lean on poetry, especially in tough times like now, and how poetry can be a social tool. You also are on a kind of mission to open more people up to poetry. How’s that going? What are the biggest challenges?
RB: I think poets, writers, and artists in general are always doing the quiet work, regardless of what’s going on at the moment. They’re ahead of the curve, in some ways, because they’re taking the time as artists to pause the world, and to think about what’s really going on. Some of us have the luxury of doing that. Some of us find time to do that, but we do it. When something does happen that makes us question who we are, the poetry is there for us. It’s not like we’re just writing it for the moment. Part of what poetry does, what the arts do, is scratch the surface. So, whenever something becomes polarized, there’s usually a third option: to ask, “what’s the real problem?”
I think poetry and the artist personality is to ask questions that haven’t been asked; and, in that way, offer a different point of view, some hope, some unity, to be able to think about things in a different way. Mostly, because it’s a different kind of language. It’s not the language of rhetoric or politics. It’s the language of humanizing our experiences. In that process something different happens. That’s what I’ve always done. I’m like this gay kid who grew up in a suburb in America. It’s not unique. It’s universal. That’s what I try to do with my work: to get us to understand that regardless of the details, at the end of the day, we need to come together and think about our shared humanity. We all feel the same things: love, hate, displacement, yearning for home, yearning to belong. That’s what I feel I do in my work.
GC: Outside of artists, getting people to talk about their shared humanity is something a lot of people don’t want to do. How do you turn that around? Where did poetry go wrong that lead to it being such a distant, oblique thing for most Americans?
RB: It has a lot to do with education and how poetry is taught, or mistaught, and the general disregard for arts throughout the decades. People are scared of poetry because they think they don’t understand poetry; because they’ve been told it’s hard and told they don’t understand. Often you ask people when was the last time they read a poem? They say they haven’t read a poem in 35 years. Well, that’s like saying they don’t understand Picasso, but they’ve never seen a Picasso.
What I try to accomplish as the Education Ambassador for the Academy of American Poets is to help teachers who themselves haven’t had much experience with poetry, and who have been taught themselves not to teach poetry as an art but as an analytical thing. It’s amazing the response, because teachers’ eyes will open up and they’ll be like, “wow, nobody told me this before.” So, it’s part of where I’m focusing my energy.
Now there’re other historic reasons. In Latin America, poetry is a less elite state. It’s become part of the folklore. It’s more entrenched with the lives and deals with the lives of the people. And, somewhere along the lines in America that got away from us. I’m not going to point any fingers at anyone, but it really hasn’t been that long. Everybody knew who Robert Frost was in his lifetime. You had the beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, and so I think it’s been in the last thirty or forty years. It all has to do with education. In a different way, too. In the sense that the Academy sort of took over poetry; in the sense that poetry—sort of being popular—went one direction; and, in the sense that poetry—being this thing we keep from the masses–went the other.
GC: Poets’ role in society—do poets have any obligation outside their obligation to themselves?
RB: I think that’s an individual choice. The mere act of not letting life pass us by and stopping to think about things is saying something regardless. Poets like Allen Ginsberg or Robert Frost, for example, they both were doing what they needed to do, and the effect is the same: to get people to look at themselves in a different way, or to get people collectively looking at things in a different way. To dig deeper. Whether you get a thousand people to pause and listen to you, or just one person, doesn’t really matter. The idea is that you show up, and the showing up itself is part of your obligation. You could just watch TV and not do anything. The act of picking up a pen is already a protest.
I think we are seeing poetry enjoy a little more of a place in our society. The school of spoken word, of performance poetry went one way; the Academy went another. But in the last decade or so, they’ve been meeting halfway. I think there’s been an appreciation of each other, of spoken word poets or slam poets. Some of whom would previously refuse to publish books are now publishing books on reputable presses and doing book tours. If you look at the poets who are more known, they are poets who have great engagement with their audiences. They have the sense of connecting. You’ve been seeing more of that coming together.
GC: “One Today, your poem for the Obama inauguration, included feelings of solidarity and inclusiveness. I’m thinking specifically of lines like “one country—all of us—facing the stars…” I assume those lines came out of what you were seeing and feeling from the nation at the time. Given the recent election, and some of the occurrences orbiting it, have your thoughts about the state of the country changed?
RB: Nope. What follows that line is “hope, waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it together.” We’re always on the cusp of thinking about who we are and hoping for the freedom of all… it’s the ideal for which we’re striving. In that sense, I don’t see the poem as saying we’re all happy people holding hands and riding off into the sunset. One of the hardest things in writing that poem was to create some tension because, obviously, we have not reached that ideal. Perhaps we were closer back then. Maybe we weren’t. Maybe there’s a lot more work to do than we thought. But, all in all, there’s still the sense of bearing witness to us getting there.
GC: Can you contrast that poem with your more recent poem, “Election Year,” which includes an image of weeds rising from the darkness and killing the garden you worked hard to cultivate?
RB: Obviously it’s an allegorical poem with the garden as our democracy and we as citizens as its gardeners. There’s no other way to sort of write around what was going on that year, in terms of the division and the things that were happening. But, it’s larger than that to me. It’s about examining and coming to terms with what is a democracy. Like any social construct, it’s an artifice, just like a garden. A garden is only as good as its gardeners. We weren’t tending the garden the way we should. As a whole, our democracy hasn’t gotten it exactly right. Now we’ve got to keep on looking at the weeds and pulling at the weeds. I think it’s important to understand how the weeds are relevant, and to whom. What constitutes as a weed to one person is not a weed to another. Collectively, the garden is a complex system of things going on and we have to believe that the garden will survive.
GC: In terms of your artistic life, does the garden also need to be nourished?
RB: Constantly. We get very lazy with our garden of language, so to speak, especially with so much useless language floating around on social media, in emails, in texts. It’s very easy to get lazy with language. The antidote for me is to read poetry, to reset that button, and then to write, so as to keep struggling with words.
GC: Many of your poems, especially in Gulf Motel, are centered around personal stories. Do you believe it is necessary to make a personal story engaging with an audience? In other words, what makes something connect with readers? Or, do you not consider that when composing?
RB: Yes and no. It’s the irony of creating art. As I tell my students, writing a poem is the most selfish, arrogant, stupid thing you can do; and, it is the most selfless, generous, gregarious, important thing you can do. The heart of all art is this irony that you have to be so passionate about your own life and experiences, and you have to care about them so much. But, you care about them because you realize it’s about the human experience. You have to tell that story with as much detail and passion as you can to essentially transcend the very story that you care about. You can’t be universal if you can’t be personal. Why do we still watch Romeo and Juliet? Why West Side Story, which is just Romeo and Juliet retold. The core of it is love, hate, joy, despair. It is those things about which all people care, no matter what country or village someone came from or what language he speaks. We all basically have one experience. If people set out to focus on the human condition it usually is a failure. The way is to focus on the honest, the raw; on drilling into your own life to the point that it becomes universal.
GC: In addition to being a writer and teacher, you’re an engineer. Is the building and problem-solving process similar? Do they complement each other?
RB: They completely complement each other. This gets back to the really weird, messed up sense of education: the idea that one thing has nothing to do with each other. Most people assume they have nothing to do with each other. They think that I was an engineer because I was forced to study engineering; and then, suddenly, I discovered poetry and started frolicking around picking daffodils by a lake. I started writing because of engineering. When I got to my engineering consulting job, my job was about 60 percent writing—reports, studies, letters, proposals. I realized that language was engineered, was designed, was built… something no English class had ever taught me. My job depended on writing, on telling a story in a proposal. I ended up realizing that there was much more writing in engineering than I thought, and that there was much more engineering in poetry than I thought. There’s so much left brain stuff going on in poetry. Remember, it comes from music. All these bits and pieces need to work individually and then work as a whole. In a way, I see a poem as a design problem. It’s taking abstracts like love, hate, and memory—something you don’t quite understand—and pulling it apart or building it piece by piece, constructing it.
GC: How much time has to pass for an event or memory to percolate before you feel ready to write about it?
I think what happens is that poets write a lot from memory because our subconscious is recording all this stuff. From childhood, there’s this endless wellspring of stuff that we’re recording and not judging. The more distance you have from that helps. Whenever I hear someone say “I should write about that,” I say no you shouldn’t. That’s when the idea is coming before the poem. We often write about the past because it’s fermented and we have less attachment to it. It’s rested in our subconscious long enough that it’s ready to be born. I think one of the hardest things at the beginning of a poem is hearing that voice; it’s getting that honest space of surrender, where it’s not about what you think this poem is about or what you want to prove in this poem. It’s about what you haven’t discovered in the poem and being able to trust that.
GC: What are the signs of a good poem to you?
RB: I don’t read poems that way, but to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, when I’m reading a poem and I feel that person has just taken off all their clothes and said let’s sit down, let me tell you a story, that’s a poem I want to listen to or read. Sometimes those poems aren’t technically or perfectly executed. A lot of very well-executed, very safe poems all sound exactly the same. But, when I hear that voice that is the heart of what makes art, art—it can be any style, and it happens from poem to poem even though sometimes we don’t get it right—that’s what I look for in a poem. Anything else just sounds like there’s no voice in the poem. Poems can be well executed and technically proficient, but it shouldn’t sound like noise in the room. I should be moved to feel or think something.
That’s my gripe with “show don’t tell.” I can’t stand that rule because we don’t qualify it enough. People have learned to show and show and show, and they’re not curating. They’re like that person at the party who won’t shut up. There’s no telling, and some of the best poems tell you something. There’s a moment in every poem that says THIS.
GC: What’s the hardest part of writing a poem for you? Where do you tend to get stuck: the beginning, nailing the ending, or making the pace or tone work?
RB: I think all of those. It depends on different poems. Sometimes it’s just finding the structure or form that the poem wants to be in. I’d say the hardest is to get to that point where you hear your voice in the poem. You could be scribbling a bunch of crap for days, but then there’s some line or some element in the poem that reflects you—the poet—and you recognize that voice. It’s like you’re tuning an instrument and you can’t find the right note. Then, you hear it. From then forward you can trust the poem. At that point, I’m committed. That’s the hardest part, getting committed, finding yourself, seeing your voice. It’s that plugging in to your other self—the poet— who is smarter than your everyday mentality. It’s accessing the split personality who is not you, who is not me. It’s complex, whatever the brain is doing.
Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of two poetry books, Necessary Myths (Broadkill River Press 2013) and The Trouble with Rivers(Foothills Publishing 2012). In 2010 he was named the Montgomery County Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. In 2014 he was a guest poet at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review and others. He also writes about electronics, teaches poetry at random places and chases trout with a stick. His blog is www.uniambic.com. Email queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.