Poet Richard Blanco on 'How to Love a Country'

On the Why We Write podcast: One of America's most popular poets, Richard Blanco explores family, place, and his Cuban-American identity with his latest book.

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Episode notes

Richard Blanco is the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history—the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. In this interview, he speaks with former Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges during a visit to campus this spring.

Born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity and place characterize Richard's body of work. He is the author of the poetry collections Looking for the Gulf Motel, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and City of a Hundred Fires; the poetry chapbook Boston Strong and more. His latest book of poems, How to Love a Country, both interrogates the American narrative, past and present, and celebrates the still unkept promise of its ideals. He has also authored the memoirs The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood and For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey.

Richard Blanco visited campus as part of our Strauch-Mosse Lecture Series. Watch the full lecture on our Facebook page.

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  • Transcript

    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you in conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books writing and the writing life. On today's episode, Lesley faculty member and former Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges speaks with Richard Blanco, who recently visited our campus.

    Richard was the presidential inaugural poet for Barack Obama and the youngest, first, Latino immigrant and gay person to serve in that capacity. A Cuban-American engineer turned poet, he is the author of a memoir and a number of books of poetry including this year's How To Love A Country. Without further ado, here's his conversation with Danielle.

    Danielle Legros Georges: Richard Blanco, happy National Poetry Month.

    Richard Blanco: Happy National Poetry Month to you too. [chuckles]

    Danielle: Thanks.

    Richard: The cruelest month as I'd say. [laughs]

    Danielle: Yes, it is. Thank you for being with us at the Lesley MFA Program. You have recently published a book entitled How to Leave a Country (sic). This is hot off the presses, and there's a poem in it that I find poignant, and I hope you wouldn't mind reading it and then we could talk about it a little after.

    Richard: Sure. That Como tú. I want to say something that's really funny because it's How to Love a Country, but I say the same thing all the time, How to Leave a Country, which maybe we can get into later. [laughs]

    Danielle: Did I say "how to leave a country"?

    Richard: Yes.

    Danielle: No. [crosstalk]

    Richard: I do that all the time, because I think there's something subconscious. Because in a way the book is about how to deal with how not to leave the country and how to leave it all the rest. [laughs]

    Danielle: Wow.

    Richard: It's funny. [crosstalk] exactly. I got myself to like-- and I wrote the thing. I've done it a few times. This poem was dedicated to the DACA DREAMers and all our nation's immigrants. Basically, I arrived here when I was 45 days old in my mother's arms and I've always identified with the dreamers and that sense of-- luckily as a Cuban exile immigrant, I had special status, I was documented and all that, but I often pause to think, "What if someone were to make me go back to Cuba, because it's not even really sort of going back. A place that's certainly maybe a cultural home, but it's not my country per se." This is a conversation within, and empathy and then camaraderie and then compassion. It begins with a epigraph by Roque Dalton, who's a Salvadoran poet and it says,

    mis venas no se terminan en mí

    sino en la sange unánime

    de los que luchan por la vida

    My veins don't end in me,

    but in the unanimous blood

    of those who struggle for life,

     

    Como tú, like you, like me.

    Como tú, I question history’s blur in my eyes
    each time I face a mirror. Like a mirror, I gaze
    into my palm a wrinkled map I still can’t read,
    my lifeline an unnamed road I can’t find, can’t
    trace back to the fork in my parents’ trek
    that cradled me here. Como tú, I woke up to
    this dream of a country I didn’t choose, that
    didn’t choose me—trapped in the nightmare
    of its hateful glares. Como tú, I’m also from
    the lakes and farms, waterfalls and prairies
    of another country I can’t fully claim either.
    Como tú, I am either a mirage living among
    these faces and streets that raised me here,
    or I’m nothing, a memory forgotten by all
    I was taken from and can’t return to again.

    Like memory, at times I wish I could erase
    the music of my name in Spanish, at times
    
I cherish it, and despise my other syllables
    clashing in English. Como tú, I want to speak
    of myself in two languages at once. Despite
    my tongues, no word defines me. Like words,
    I read my footprints like my past, erased by
    waves of circumstance, my future uncertain
    as wind. Like the wind, como tú, I carry songs,
    howls, whispers, thunder’s growl. Like thunder,
    I’m a foreign-borne cloud that’s drifted here,
    I’m lightning, and the balm of rain. Como tú,
    our blood rains for the dirty thirst of this land.
    Like thirst, like hunger, we ache with the need
    to save ourselves, and our country from itself.

     

    Danielle: It's a beautiful poem and it's serving as a witness to current political events in the United States, our country. Yet, it reaches back in time and across geography with the reference to Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran poet and political writer. It's beautiful how it is a political poem and a universal poem simultaneously. How did you think about writing this poem?

    Richard: Of course, this happened during that whole period when they were repeating the argument. I've read it a million times, but there's layers and layers of complexity to the legislation or whatnot. It's a poem again of empathy, but also just started thinking about-- In a way, this is something that's happening. I didn't want it to be just too specific either, but actually it's broad enough. This is something that we're seeing across the world. There's movements and migrations of people, displacement of people for various reasons, for reasons that- more reasons that are coming on the horizon as well as start thinking about climate change.

    It's always the people caught in the crossroads of some of these geopolitical powers that are creating these migrations. That sense of displacement too, right? Again, even though I feel like I have, of course, a special privilege and also a different time, it was 1968. I just started thinking about those relationships and then Roque Dalton, that poem was always just admired and I just, Como tu was perfect in a way that epigraph started that sense of empathy and connection and realizing that my own privilege in a way too, but in the way that I hope is a generous and so says, "Hey, I'm right by your side, if not legally at least in spirit."

    Danielle: Yes. I think that affinity and understanding absolutely comes through. In part, because of the literary device you use, "like you," it's a reaching out to the other, to the reader, to the person that can margin or at the interest, this is the brother and the sister. I think that sense of connection is also reinforced with the use of the word "like" and creating similes. One thing becomes another. The poem keeps transforming and I think in really remarkable ways the similes are rocking in the poem, [crosstalk] like memories, like thunder, I'm a foreign--

    Richard: Well, that was the other layer, yes. I kind of like wanted to set this folding over of like how one image leads into another and connect to another in the same way there, because it's also like you and like me. It's like I'm also saying like, "I'm like you, but you're also like me, and how would things have-- weaves into the next weaves, how we're all in a way woven. I'm saying this, you're making me think about that as you say this. That was a device that was just like-- and it keeps the image going because are we really the separate people. The language is not separated. It's just one triggers the other, one triggers the other, and you can't isolate that incident. We can't isolate ourselves and the things that are happening not only right here, but across the globe.

    Danielle: That's right and our histories are not separate and our borders have not always been the same.

    Richard: Especially in my region, yes, in the southern United States. Yes.

    Danielle: Yes. It's a really remarkable poem. Richard, in 2012, you received a phone call from the White House with an invitation to write and deliver a poem for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. You discussed this in your memoir, For All of Us One Today. I note that you were the youngest, the first Latino, the first gay person, the first immigrant to be selected for this honor. What was it like to receive that phone call?

    Richard: Well, in some ways, it was unbelievable. In fact, I was driving from New York City, I think up to Maine, and I thought it was a joke. [laughs] I thought somebody was pulling a prank on me because you just don't realize. They just call you. There's no application process. You're not a semi-finalist, you're not anything of that nature. It was just so out of the blue, and then the other piece of it was that, that they had asked me like, "Are you available that day?"

    Danielle: "Let me check my calendar." [laughs]

    Richard: Let me get the Queen of England and the pope too, right? Maybe we can switch them for later in the week. It's very cordial, which kind of speaks interesting to that presidency in, like you're not expected to do it because the king said. You're asked and accept. First, it was very surprising after all that, and I Google the person. I realized it was the person from the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

    I was really overwhelmed by something that caught me by surprise, this overwhelming sense of gratitude. Not for myself, or like my honor or whatnot, but this kind of do for my parents, my grandparents, and in their insistence on education, all the sacrifices that they made to leave their country. The whole immigrant exile story.

    Realizing that in some ways, that moment, which I knew was going to be life changing was only possible because of them, and the decisions that they made in my best interest and my father and my brother's best interest for a better life, the quintessential sort of American dream story, right?

    I just pulled over to the side of the road and just started weeping. I am freaked out, yet my nerves weren't. It was just this idea of-- as I wrote in the memoir that I realized that I was-- This was the fifth act of a play, or this was the continuation of the story that was started a long time ago. It was almost like that, that pivotal moment, that threshold was the handing off of the reins of that story. I knew now was my story to finish writing, and maybe we're not finished, but continue adding to it and pass on that story to someone else or many others. That really caught me by surprise, and then sheer terror, so.

    [laughter]

    Thinking about what am I going to write about? Or how do you even-- who do you call? Ghostbusters? [laughs] I mean, luckily, I somewhat knew Elizabeth Alexander was able to have somewhat of a conversation with her were email, but you just don't pick up the phone and call Maya Angelou to compare notes.

    Danielle: It must have been really challenging to write an occasional poem. I know that this is not-- This type of poem is not the easiest poem to write because it presumes an audience.

    Richard: Right, right. I've had a lot of time to think about that. I only had three weeks back then. Three weeks, they asked me to write three poems, actually. It says a poem a week. I think there are several layers. One is that, yes, there are very, very few examples as we said. In this idea. Even in landmark and culture, the Caribbean cultures, there's this idea of declaim. You sit around and you telephone.

    Danielle: At the public problem.

    Richard: The performance aspect to it. That was interesting. I think the process I went through has really taught me a lot about writing poetry. Everybody would taste the kiss of death, blah, blah, blah, because here's the fundamental thing I learned, in a way, it's not that much different than writing the most autobiographical poem you can. In part, you have to go there. You have to go to the spaces that you don't want to go there. Because, yes, it's about the occasion, but it's about the way you feel about the occasion, in between the lines.

    The hardest part about writing the poem was to get in part, that kind of personal, emotional connection, so that is important to you. You can't fake sharing about something, or not caring about something, right? The most important questions that I had to ask was like, do I love this country? Does this country love me back? Am I really part of this narrative? I didn't want to go there. I didn't want to go there because here I am, right?

    I finally had to admit to myself, I don't know, and contemplated calling the White House and saying I can't do this. At least daydreamed about it. I'm not sure I'd be allowed to or would do it, but that broke opened up that door. That's when I put in the more autobiographical elements in there. That's when I felt like this is a poem that I felt I agreed with my own voice into it as much as I could. Realizing that, yes, there is an audience and there is an occasion, but it's ultimately what your emotional relationship is to the occasion. In a way, the poem is an answer to those questions, right? Not an answer but their response to that question of, "Do I belong?"

    I just opened it up a little bit, more like maybe like Comu Tú too. It became more generous in saying, “I want to be one of us in this- through this day moving and connected, even though we don't always acknowledge it or haven't acknowledged it for centuries, maybe. Even though I don't feel-- we may not feel part of this, we will have to realize that we are part of this grander whole and so in a poem, that's what it became in a way. It became completely thematic, thematically-related to everything I've ever written about, which is about home-place belonging. Until I allowed myself to question myself in that, and they were drafts. They were drafts. Like they started with the pilgrims.

    [laughter]

    it was that disembodied poetic voice that. That's why, in other words, I needed to become vulnerable in the poem. I think that open-- and knock on wood with five amazing readers that were my trusted readers at the time. You can tell anybody what was going on. I learned that, and I teach a course-- I've taught courses on what can we learn from that, from more autobiographical or personal or private writing? The fact is that we're always writing with a sense of audience, right? That sometimes we forget to consider that audience meaning that, in a sense, okay, it's not a million people sitting in front of the-- standing in front of the National Mall, but the idea of an audience that were always writing with the sense that you were trying to bridge some kind of communication.

    How we do that, is by instinctively finding something that we care deeply about or feel deeply that we know another human being will, who does not want to belong, who does not want to feel a sense of homeland security in place- in a country? When those two things meet, I think that's when a poem happens, right? I think we do that even in our most private homes like, "Okay, so my life is this, but what about my experience, in a way, is ultimately a shared common human denominator." You know by instinct, you start realizing, it's also the way you craft the poem and shape it, and all the rest.

    I think I learned that it's a very similar process, and the biggest, I think, for power, where people I think-- and of course, I tend to do many other occasional poems since then, because I've been asked to do Boston Strong, Freedom To Marry, or marriage equality, another one for Silicon Valley, another one for-- and things that I've just taken, a poem for Pulse, the Pulse nightclub shootings, the Parkland High School shooting.

    I’ve really gotten to love this idea of how can I-- what do I care about and how can I make more care about public in a different way, that's not just through the “I,” the romantic “I”. What I feel like what I think and what I'm doing and what I'm thinking about. I think it teaches us something interesting about how to make our own private phones a little more generous.

    Danielle: Then it becomes public intellectual, right? In a country that has, I think, has had difficulty with the notion of the public into like intellectual. I think this is a really beautiful position to occupy.

    Richard: Thank you, from your mouth to God's ears.

    [laughter]

    It's like it is a very hard space and there is an empty intellectual reserve element in America. Ironically, that may come I think from our sort-- even my own sort of family, sort of working class-- not ideals, but working class or ethic and like, "Well, don't get too fancy for your own pants candidate."

    Danielle: Why?

    Richard: Sometimes it's misunderstood. Then, there's always-- then it becomes higher or it becomes-- When you look at Latin American countries, at least in my experience, right? I always tell my mom like José Martí was like a poet, an essayist, a children's book, [laughs] liberator. They call him the apostle in Cuba. He’s the psychological liberator of Cuba from colonialism.

    Danielle: And when Neruda died,

    [laughter]

    Thousands of people, right? Tons of people like went out.

    Richard: It is interesting. I think we need that space more and more as-- I don't like to even bring up Trump's name, because I think it's just part of a process of democracy is going, but we're increasingly getting more complex. Just if you see a pendulum swing of what just happened in these three years, I know from one president’s unit, that says a lot about we're going through some growing pains and some complexities that we need popular intellectuals that I can reach across all classes, right? Because all diversity or-- You know what I'm saying?

    Danielle: Yes, I have.

    Richard: [laughs] We're nodding here like-- [laughs]

    Danielle: Perhaps, you catapulted into this civic, public sphere and then you have the nerve to entitle your most recent book, How to Love a Country. That is a bold title, which suggests an imperative, this is how one loves it, but also I think suggest the question, how does one love a country or how does one love this country? Richard Blanco, how does one love a country?

    Richard: [laughs] Or how does one leave a country.

    [laughter]

    Danielle: That's already taking place, so.

    Richard: You hit it on the nose, because that's exactly what I think that term is supposed to incite. It's both a question, a statement, a prayer, a pleading, a how-to book [laughs], a self-help book. I wanted it to ripple with all those kinds of those kinds of implications, right? I think that's what I wanted the book to do, so we used between very angry poems or poems that are just really more outright about or more enraged or more ranting, shall we say.

    Poems that are then more tender and loving and thinking, well, yes, this is terrible but let's go back to that space that we need to go back to because at the end of the day, there is a very strong ideal and institutions in this country that we need to continue to believe in, right? There's a very autobiographical home and the perspective of immigrants like my parents who are still indebted, feel indebted to this country for the opportunities that it gave them and gave their children.

    I wanted it to be all those things, like how do I, how do I not, how do I leave it. I want it to go through the whole range of those emotions and the book was serve in a way organized or structured, that way it begins more in a historical routing and understanding of, "Hey, this is nothing new." [laughs] What's happening is absolutely nothing new. It's always been in our history. To learn how to love a country, you have to also know it, right?

    Like a lover, you have to know the good, the bad and the ugly, right? It's not that patriotism doesn't save, but I love the country, it means you're looking at things blindly. How do we grow from that to the present issues and how those are connected and how can we maybe find a way out, and not out of the country, but--

    [laughter]

    Danielle: Not leaving the country.

    Richard: But get back to that space. I’ve got to say, again, this may be a little far out for me, but all that being said, what I think what the book has taught me, this might be the next poem. We're also in a weird way, I think we're at a stage in human history at the very beginnings of this, in a weird way, the death of the nation state, right? There's this sense of, how do you love a country and be part of something, but still have the same realize that it really doesn't matter that much anymore.

    We're a globally connected world where everything is fighting each other in infinite ways. Even immigration is changing. We're tied to economies through modes of communication, modes of transportation, I mean--

    Danielle: Climate?

    Richard: Climate is the big thing. If we don't get our ass together, [laughs] all bets are off and so there's this organic narrative that's decaying at the idea of a nation state. What's the knee-jerk reaction to that? Things like Brexit? Things like our current president. I'd say we're going back to an older narrative that's saying, "No, no, no, we're not like that. No, no, we're separate, we're autonomous. The sea is not going to rise on the U.S. coast [laughs]. It only happens in Mexico.

    In a way, the book is also a farewell. I think that's where I try to end. The book is like it's great to move on, but it's also time to let go or not necessarily like evolve that sense of what nationhood means to us individually and us collectively. Pride and traditions of preachers would be beautiful but it would be very limiting as the world gets more complex, right?

    Danielle: You just made a statement that this is possibly connected, these ideas are possibly connected to the next book. Have you written a poem or two or where are you going?

    Richard: No, I haven't. There is what I call a curlicue at the end of every one of my poems. It's like usually a book that needed be in a poem and probably needn't be in the book, but it's kind of my little curlicue. This book ends on a poem called Calm Until We Are Clouds. It's this idea of thinking about, shall we say, until we are clouds that tear like bread, but then break bones. It talks about not a simplistic idea of nationhood, but the idea that it is a complex weaving in and out and there are storms and there's things, but at the end of the day, it's one thing and one organism and thinking about maybe ways to have a conversation about nation or politics, and become this more on a-- sort of this very figurative metaphorical plateau of I guess, in a way, sort of a little Neruda-esque. Thinking about-- and you're making me think right now at this spot which is great, I love it like, but just maybe that's how do we let go of a country? For that, you need a different kind of language, right? I think the book ends in a whole different kind of language.

    Danielle: Which is a really beautiful segue to my next question, which is-- Switching gears a little bit and getting into a poetry and geeky language-y kind of space. You do a lot of code mixing, mixing words, phrases between two languages or language varieties. You do some code switching from one language to another to create a special effect. You write bilingual poems.

    There's one I'm especially curious about, a poem entitled, Habla Cuba Speaking. It's a bilingual poem of eight stanzas, four in Spanish, four an English, a stanza in Spanish followed by an English one which serves as a translation with the exception of one stanza. In it, this speaker considers himself, had he stayed in Cuba, here you are the other son. I'm wondering if you could read portions of it including that those stanzas that include those lines and then talk a little bit about it.

    Richard: Shall we begin?

    Danielle: Yes, start at the top and then maybe this.

    Richard: Okay. Habla Cuba Speaking.

     

    Aquí eres el otro nieto

    no se te olvida el nombre de tu abuelo

    ni sus cuentos entre los naranjales

    el perfume de las gardenias en el jardín de tu abuela

    sus ojos claros como ópalos que ves en el oscuro de tus ojos.

     

    Here you are the other grandson

    you don’t forget your grandfather’s name nor his stories among the orange groves

    the perfume of the gardenias in your grandmother’s garden

    her hazel eyes like opals you see in the dark of your eyes.

     

    Aquí eres el otro hijo

    conoces tu madre como niña barriendo su piso de tierra

    y tu padre cortando caña

    bañándose en las zanjas del valle

    eres monte entre los montes, una décima entre guajiros

    ola entre olas que nunca llegó a otra orilla.

     

    Here you are the other son

    you know your mother as a girl sweeping the dirt floor of her home and your father cutting sugarcane

    swimming in the valley swales

    you are a mountain among the mountains

    a décima among guajiros

    a wave among waves that never reached another shore.

     

    Danielle: Richard, you have eres monte entre los montes, una décima entre guajiros

    and we are waiting the English translation and we get, you are amountain among the mountains a decima among guajiros. Richard, what's going on here?

    Richard: [laughs] Interesting choices you make. There was something I brought up, I really butted up against it as well. There's certain words that I refused to translate and that's why you see in other poems are peppered in primary English text, or poem that's just conceptualized and originated only in English and the Spanish are just those words again that are so culturally rooted that I can't translate them and/or they're also sound bites, in a way, their a poetic device just to move-- There's a narrative about a big Cuban meal family gathering where you want to hear it all in Spanish.

    In this case, I butted up against like-- I refuse, I'm not going to-- I can't translate those two words ever. Guajiros is no-- it's like country folk or [laughs] not to say something like, it's just ingrained into the culture and decima too, which is a form itself, as elaborate verse improvised that is sang widely in the country, 10 syllable lines. I'm not sure I would-- I cannot do that.

    I didn't probably make some more compromises in here than I usually would in terms of just because I didn't want to, none of this, more than I did translate in versus not translate. This is something that no one would ever know as a reader. What this poem is really not necessarily a translation. I should have written a note on some of these poems. This is something I like to do with my language. I try to do one of these for every book somehow. It's actually co-created.

    When I go to a Spanish-speaking country, I start thinking in Spanish and I get very inspired in Spanish and I'll pen a few words in Spanish. Then, I'll translate it in-- like this one, I wrote the first stanza, then translate into English. Rewrote the English as I saw fit, reverse translated to Spanish. Changed to Spanish. Translated the second time and back and forth until I'm satisfied that I have said what I need to say in both languages as best I can. Then I'll move on to the second. That's why I present the text merged together, because it's really not a poem, it's translation. Though at the end of the day, it looks that way and no reader would ever know otherwise, right?

    Danielle: Including me.

    Richard: No. Of course, as I said, I should put a note on some of these poems, because it's the reflection of the bilingual mind. It's code-switching at its ultimate. We're always looking how to say something in the best languages that we have, whether we're bilingual or trilingual or whatnot. That, really, it's also reflecting my culture. We live in both cultures at the same time. I can always separate the languages that I can-- Sometimes I get so tired of speaking English sometimes. Especially at a school visit or something for a long time. Then my mind will just go into Spanish. I won't speak it, but in my head, I'll just think like Cuban's, just like no quiero [?].  Just like thinking to myself in-- because my mind needs to just have that other piece balance it out.

    Danielle: It is a lot of work to always think in a language that, I think, that is not for one's original or one's most comfortable language or most easy language.

    Richard: You’re making me think, as you say that, even though I was-- obviously, I don't consider myself a Latin American poet, it’s a whole literary tradition, how dare I even begin to think about that? One of my dreams is to write most like maybe Cuba's and write a poem, a book of poetry that just-- maybe that's the next book. It just begins that is written in Spanish first. For that, I would need a year of just exercising my mind and reading more of my Latin-American poets and stuff like that.

    You also made me think that I've always thought I'm more comfortable in Spanish than in English and Spanish. That's not necessarily true depending on different occasions. Now, you're making me think it, but that's part of life. In social atmosphere, sometimes English can be much more formal. There's always a little bit of a wall or an impasse. I may think in English, but I make love in Spanish. I curse in Spanish. With Spanish, it's the opposite. It's hard for me to discuss complex ideas. It's more of my culture, my family, my grocery store. [crosstalk] I never thought about how uncomfortable I can feel in English sometimes.

    Danielle: I'm interested in how you think about structure. You have written in your memoir, I discovered that language had to be engineered in a way just like the bridges and roads I was designing. You did the good Caribbean boy thing. You became a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. You became an engineer. Here, you have this profession as an engineer saying that language also has to be worked in particular ways. You write in free verse, you write forms, I've seen pantoums floating around, you write prose, the prose poem. Though, I think often privileging the story narrative, but I'm curious about how you think about structure. Do some structures impose themselves? Do you sometimes decide that X poem is going to take X shape or X form?

    Richard: Outside of a traditional fixed form like a pantoum, sometimes I just feel there's a subject matter that it really relates to and I'll try it or say what form fits function, so to speak. What I'm talking about somehow has a justification for using the form, not just out of the blue. Sometimes those poems work out and sometimes they don't. I think there's one villanelle now in the third book that's called Love Poem According to Quantum Theory and this idea that there's equal and opposite versions of me in equal and opposite universes.

    I thought that repeating line, it was something interesting to play into that. Those are interesting things or made of forms like this sort of bilingually created poems and these-- or form, in a way. I guess I'm always looking. I think it's a lot more than math… One is with so much math that you're constantly trying to look for logic and pattern. Yes, pattern, logic, structure and then breaking it. I'm looking to form my own skit like my own scaffolding to pull it down.

    Danielle: Like every good poet does, right?

    Richard: That's what I mean. I think that that's the way I'm able to process it in my mind in terms of those languages, in terms of that vocabulary. I think we all do that in some ways. We're building some structure or parameters. This is one of the hardest things to teach students, especially the free verses, that there has to be some kind of parameters, but nothing on parameters you have to create. It's what's great and horrible about a free verse. You got to do it for every single poem. It's got to find its own internal logic and you got to find it and then break it and find it, and break it in a way that it gives a payoff.

    Danielle: I thought my experience of your poems is that many of them are stories. Sometimes, we fall into a vortex. Like Como Tú, as in the case of Como Tú, but often there is a linearity it seems to me. You seem to be a storyteller in verse. There's that long sequence in how to love our country.

    [laughter]

    I don't know. There seems a long line, a long-- a length to [crosstalk]

    Richard: I think that's personally-- I thought about that too. Everyone's okay. There'll be, like you said, a breakout on that a little more lyrical or less. Of course, there's always a little bit of a subtext that's a narrative. I think culturally in a way too, whether you were storytellers, one of my favorite things is when I remember growing up is everybody eats, you make coffee, you all sit around just telling stories. In Cuba especially, all the neighborhood, when we go visit, the entire neighborhood comes over. We just sit around telling stories, gossiping, remembering, telling when this happened when we remember.

    You're used to like this idea of storytelling. Also, in the way that even my first book was really motivated to tell the story. The emotional story at least of my generation as a Cuban-American fifth generation. My professor, Campbell McGrath, always taught me this idea of being an emotional historian. In a way, the storytelling is by telling the stories of our lives, other people's lives, of communities' lives, that storytelling is a way of documenting. When you feel the other or when you are engaged in wanting to be the other, in my case, wanting to be Peter Brady, cause I didn’t know any better [laughs].   

    Danielle: I wanted to be Peter Brady. You don't know?

    Richard: Then, later on, I wanted to be Marcia Brady, but that's a little bit later. I think you start naturally questioning all narratives, right? It's like, "Well, what's that story? Where did they get that story? Why do we have this story?" Then, it's something like holding that and honoring it by moving forward the story.

    Danielle: One more question. Our Lesley varsity podcast is called Why We Write. Richard Blanco, why do you write?

    Richard: [laughs] The mike, drop the mike. [laughs] It's interesting. I've always battled with it. Let me give you the answer first off. I write because every time I write something, I learned something new about myself, about the world, about someone in my life, about history. I am addicted to that discovery. I feel like I have my fingers on the pulse of life. In the grandest of ways and sometimes in the smallest of ways. If I don't learn something new in a poem, I don't think it's a poem.

    There's that adage of like, because I have to or I need to. I get it, and that's great because I am addicted to writing poetry, but it also I think gives a wrong sort of romantic impression of writing that, "I'm driven by the gods to write poetry." I love the idea if I choose to write. I think that is such an important-- in a way, that making that choice is so powerful, because we can just all or most of us can spend much of our lives not challenging ourselves in any way, and will be fine in some ways.

    The idea of sitting down and choosing to investigate yourself, your world and the people in your life and the people around you. Then, making a choice to me is more of a powerful statement than saying that I have no choice that I'm compelled to do that. Definitely, why I write is, as I said, I have to learn something new. It just blows my mind this time because it's like, "Who wrote that? Who taught me that?"

    Danielle: Like you do.

    Richard: That part of you that's connected to the eternal, right? We don't know the mystery of wherever. However, it connects us to our inner selves and the world itself.

    Danielle: Thank you so much, Richard.

    Richard: This is wonderful.

    Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. For more information on Richard Blanco, including a link to his lecture at Lesley, head over to our podcast page. The link is in the show notes. Next week, you'll hear more from Danielle as she interviews Joel Christian Gill, a graphic novelist and illustrator who has written a number of books on uncelebrated narratives from black history. Here's a clip from that interview.

    Joel Christian Gill: I want to tell a story. I feel like that's what makes us human is telling stories, and I feel like if I can tell these stories, to make these stories known, to tell people what it's like to be who I am, to think the way I think, then I can make a difference. I always tell people I'm a cartoonist who's trying to change the world, and I think I can do that with one story at a time.

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