by Gabriella DePinho, Senior Writer
The special thing about poetry is that no matter who you are, what your life story is, or where you’re going, poems hold a universal truth within them, which allows audiences across identity spectrums to connect with them. So when the English Department’s Major Author Reading Series (MARS) hosted Richard Blanco, a gay, Cuban-American poet, for a virtual reading on March 3, students and faculty of all walks of life attended and could connect with his poetry.
Blanco was born in Spain to Cuban parents, and just 45 days after his birth, his family moved to America, eventually settling in Miami. At 27, after a short career in civil engineering, Blanco decided to try his hand at poetry and by 44, he was reading at President Obama’s second inauguration. His work largely deals with topical yet personal issues, such as the blending of cultures, family relationships, his queer identity, his sense of place within America, and how all of these things often meld together.
Blanco was originally supposed to come to the college for a MARS event in April 2020, but due to the early stages of the pandemic, the event was canceled. However, he was able to make his way to the college virtually, and was still greeted with a sizable audience. The event had 90 attendees, which included faculty, staff, students and alumni, and all of whom stayed for the whole reading. Several of those attendees actually had groups of people gathered around a computer screen to share in the reading together.
Dominika Wrozynski, an associate professor of English, introduced Blanco, narrating an instance in which she first heard him read at a writing conference, even though he wasn’t originally on the list of panelists.
“He graciously agreed and read ‘Looking for the Gulf Motel’ and I sat and cried because as unique as that memory of the Gulf Motel and its retrieval is in Richard’s voice, that repetend of all the things that he should still be able to recollect and reconstruct,” Wrozynski said. “Richard’s masterful narratives do, of course, make us think about our own parents, siblings and that tricky and fraught thing — memory.”
After she introduced him rattling off his works — The Prince of Los Cocuyos, Looking for the Gulf Motel, and How to Love a Country — she invited the audience to welcome him.
“I hope tonight you insist on the beauty of this moment, albeit virtual and maybe seemingly far away,” she said, before handing the reins of the event off to Blanco.
After a brief round of silent applause, he thanked Wrozynski for the introduction, shared his own memory of that serendipitous reading, thanked the audience for being there and prefaced them on what to expect for the next hour.
“I like to say that every poet is in some way writing one poem all their life, and by that I mean there’s some kind of central obsession that informs the work and usually some big question that’s never really answered and keeps on getting asked in different ways and for me that question is of course what is home?” he said. “That big word home and all that word calls into mind in terms of family, community, cultural heritage, even my sexuality, as I’ll talk about later. All that big word calls into mind. It’s like asking what is love to me? It’s inexhaustible for me.
He started off the reading with “América,” which was one of his very first poems that he wrote during his master of fine arts after his professor assigned his students to write a poem about America. He wrote about “the most traumatic thing in most Cubans’ lives which is Thanksgiving.” In the poem, he tells the tale of his family, how he spoke English but his family didn’t, how his family figured out what to do with peanut butter and how in trying to please his childhood self by making “traditional” American food, his grandmother cooked the turkey “as if committing an act of treason.”
The next poem he read was “Mother Country, Madre Patría” a poem about his mother, who left her entire family behind in Cuba while she was pregnant with him.
“In a way, my mother is my lifeline or my storyline to Cuba because of the family belongs there but she’s also in a way, a very strong lifeline and storyline to the United States, to America because that act of faith, that leap of faith, that sacrifice she made quintessentially for the American dream makes her more of an American in my eyes than I could ever be,” he said.
The poem asks the reader to step into his mother’s shoes and see the country through an immigrant’s eye, when many of those born in the country may take it for granted. The poem’s three stanzas all start with “To love a country as if you’ve lost one” and tells his mother’s story as he imagines it, and as he lived it with her. The poem ends, quietly and thoughtfully, with a quote from his mother, a moment in which she turned to him and said, “You know, mijo, / it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where / you choose to die — that’s your country.”
The next poem he read was “My Father in English” which Blanco said he wrote because he wrote the one about his mother so he “had to throw dad in there.”
“It’s a poem of thanks, of homage,” he said. “He didn’t leave his whole family behind but he gave up a lot too as an exile, a lot of dreams. He was a sailor in Cuba. I don’t think he really ever quite captured his spirit back, but anyway, a good father.”
The poem narrates his father’s leaving Cuba behind and coming to learn the English word “indeed,” never quite knowing what it means, but using it to sound like he knew English better than he did. Indeed was “the word I most learned/to love and know him through” and in this poem Blanco gets to say “what I always meant to tell him in both languages: / thank you/gracias for surrendering the past tense / of your life so that I might conjugate myself here / in the present of this country, in truth/así es, indeed.”
Blanco then shifted gears a bit to talk about his sexuality before reading a poem entitled “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother.”
“I never really wrote about my sexuality until ‘Looking for the Gulf Motel’ until that book and it kind of really bothered me and I wasn’t sure why and then I realized, I wasn’t sure what the connection between my sexuality and that question, obsession of home was,” he said. “And then it was like ‘duh’ it hit me that there’s another kind of home that you long for, or I did as a gay kid. Home in another way, home as in a safe space.”
It also occurred to him that his culture also informed a story that he had to tell about his sexualitty. His grandmother, who was truly one of his best friends and his primary caretaker, was also homophobic and xenophobic; if something was odd to her, she called it gay.
“Oatmeal was gay, the Brady Bunch was gay, the Cub Scouts were gay, anything in English — gay, macaroni and cheese — gay,” Blanco joked before diving into the poem.
The poem is a persona poem in the voice of his grandmother which, though it has some gravitas, is actually quite a humorous poem. As Blanco rattles off things that are or aren’t gay, there is an echoing and eerie refrain of “I’ve seen you…” throughout the poem.
The next poem Blanco read seemed to be the crux of the event: Looking for The Gulf Motel. It was the poem that named one of his collections and that moved Wrozynski to tears the first time she heard it, was a poem that came from Blanco’s deep-seated obsession with home. So deeply missing Miami after leaving it, he moved back for the first time since leaving to find the Miami of his childhood had changed, and so from it came this poem, ladened with rich imagery of his mother and father still deeply in love, his brother still 13 drawing women’s bodies in the sand, his father’s terry cloth jacket and cigars, his family lugging “smelly” Cuban food into the hotel because even on vacation they cannot afford to eat out. In the poem, there is the subtle refrain of “There should be nothing here I don’t remember…” except Blanco has found, at 38, looking for the Gulf Motel, there is nothing there he does remember.
When he was livid to find the Miami of his childhood gone, his partner told Blanco that he sounded just like his mother.
“First of all, wrong thing to say in any situation but I caught myself realizing that loss is universal,” Blanco said.
Now Blanco lives between Miami and Maine, the two ends of I-95, which sounds as poetic as it could for a man obsessed with the idea of home.
After learning to accept that he was going to “live in the question” of home, Obama called. Obama asked him to write a poem for and about America — which brought Blanco back to his first MFA assignment. As he was grappling with the task, Blanco was grappling with his own identity as a gay, Cuban American, wondering if he really did belong to the country.
“I wasn’t sure I loved the country enough to write a poem and I wasn’t sure if this country loved me back enough to write a poem,” he said. “And there were points where, well I wasn’t really going to do this, but I thought I just gotta call ole Obama up and say ‘hey, I can’t do this buddy, how about I just read you a poem I’ve already written?’ but the poem I did write was a response to all of those questions. As I tell my creative writing students, the question is the poem. It’s what you find out by asking the poem. It’s like a crystal ball, you ask the poem what it is. And it was ‘no, dammit, I am part of this narrative.’ That little chubby gay kid from the working class family, that’s America.”
Blanco, in 2013, along with other poets, knew that there were voices being left out of the narrative of America and saw the opportunity before him as a chance to insert one person’s and one family’s voice back into the mainstream narrative. In fact, Blanco, half-joking, half-serious, said that the government should listen to poets more.
“If they would just have a poet in chief, we’d be all set,” he said. “I’m going off tangent but dammit we need a cabinet administrator in the humanities.”
So Blanco completed the task, and at 44, he was, at the time, the youngest inaugural poet to read at the event. He read excerpts from the memoir-ette “All of us, one today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey” and excerpts from the poem itself.
Blanco’s experience, in which he realized “we’re a little baby country, we’re nothing,” helped inspire his next collection “How to Love A Country” a title he considers a question as much as he considers it a directive. From that collection, Blanco ended the reading with “The Declaration of Interdependence.” Explaining this poem’s inspiration, he said that it seems like the country is finally having a true reckoning with its history and is starting to understand and value the idea of interdependence. The poem takes excerpts from the text of the Declaration of Independence and builds around it.
“I’m sick of the commodity of hope, this commodity of American hope, not sick of it, I get it, but let’s grow up, that idea we’re the best country, that whole nationalistic thing, especially in a century where those borders are becoming more and more artificial and absurd,” he said. “I think it’s keeping us from growing sometimes.”
After the last poem ended, students and faculty had the chance to ask questions. Blanco doled out advice for young writers — practice! — and fielded a few questions from excited attendees about the issue of identity, place and culture — things that popped up in the work he shared with the audience. There is hope that in the future, in a post-COVID-19 world, Blanco can come to campus, and maybe even share a drink with professors at An Beal Bocht.