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NewsApr 9, 2019

Poems to change the world

Celebrated poet Richard Blanco speaks on immigration, democracy and the impact of public poetry

Richard Blanco standing at a podium with hands clasped and smiling.

By Georgia Sparling

It wasn’t until Richard Blanco faced a crowd of thousands as the presidential inaugural poet for Barack Obama that he finally saw himself as an American.

“The inauguration was really this culminating moment,” Blanco recalled as he finally realized that “my story as a little chubby gay kid from a working-class immigrant family…that was part of the American story.”

Blanco, then 44, leaned over to his mother on that cold January day in 2013 and said, “Mama, I think we’re finally Americanos.”

Speaking on Monday night as part of the Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series, Blanco recalled growing up in Miami as the child of Cuban exiles. They were not the stereotypical white family that Blanco envisioned as true Americans, perched on plush couches in their perfect living room. The word “blanco” may mean “white” in Spanish, but that was where the similarities seemed to end.

“Family night at the Blancos always turned into dancing and a lot of spandex,” joked Blanco, not to mention their sofas encased in plastic.

When the poet stepped onto the national platform to read “One Today,” however, he began to realize the transformative power of a poem as it becomes public and finally felt like the American he was.

Richard Blanco signs a book
Richard Blanco signs a book after the lecture.

See more photos from the event.

“Ultimately, something different and magical happens when we do this in community,” Blanco told the audience gathered at Washburn Auditorium. “I don’t think a poem can change the world. I think a poem can change a person and a person can change the world.”

With the 2013 inauguration, Blanco became one of America’s most prominent poets. He has written poems tackling racism, culture, class, immigration and politics in the American context for occasions such as the Boston Marathon bombing. His poems have appeared in numerous publications, including the “Best American Poetry” series, The Nation, The New Republic, and Condé Nast Traveler, along with seven of his own books.

Blanco’s poetry reflects on his experiences and that of his Cuban-born parents, creating space for conversation.

In Blanco’s poem “Mother Country,” published in his 2019 book “How to Love a Country,” he imagines the gut-wrenching emotions of his mother as she leaves her country and asks how we might learn to love our own country if we knew it could be taken away from us.

With “My Father in English,” Blanco writes about his dad’s efforts to learn English in his adopted country, living his entire life in translation.

Two stacks of books by Richard Blanco: The Prince of Los Cocuyos and How to Love a Country.
Two of Richard Blanco's books, including "How to Love a Country," released this year.

“Part of my motivation in writing …. is, in some way, to attempt some sort of healing for my parents,” Blanco explained. “If I understood them, if I documented what their lives were about, then their lives wouldn’t have been in vain.”

Speaking of immigration, Blanco allowed himself to get political for a minute, calling out “both sides of the aisle” for prolonging this important issue.

“This is the political ping pong ball that we have just got to stop. The only people that are suffering are the destitute and poor, as usual.”

Blanco then read “Complaint of El Rio Grande,” a poem about “the absurdity of borders,” written from the perspective of the river that thousands have crossed in an effort to reach the United States. The poem states:

“I wasn’t meant to drown children, hear
mothers’ cries, never meant to be your
geography: a line, a border, a murderer."

Blanco also spoke of his poem on marriage equality that was turned into a short film, “Until We Could,” which was particularly apt for Blanco, who is newly-engaged to his longtime partner. He read “Boston Strong,” a piece about the Boston Marathon bombing that he performed at an all-star benefit concert following the tragedy.

A hush fell over the rowdy crowd gathered to hear the likes of Aerosmith and New Kids on the Block as he recited the poem. It convinced Blanco, again, that there is a place for poetry in the public sphere and that no topic should be off limits.

“The world gives us these assignments when you are looking for them,” he said

With his final reading of the night, “Easy Lynching on Herndon Avenue,” a poem on America’s last recorded lynching in 1981 and hidden racism, Blanco issued a call to seek truth, to continue to pursue democracy and ultimately to dare “to look hard and deep and long enough.”

Watch the entire lecture on our Facebook page.