Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Work of Immigrants: Richard Blanco and the Rest of Us

Yesterday, I heard that Richard Blanco had been selected to be the poet for Obama's inauguration.  I thought, that name is familiar.  I knew our paths had crossed somewhere down here in South Florida but where?

In the fall of 2007 (or was it 2008?), Florida International University offered a workshop with Blanco that was open to the community if we paid $50; I assume that MFA students could attend for free.  Back in those days, my school had money for professional development, and so, my poet friend and I went to the north campus of FIU, where the creative writing program is housed.

This morning, I looked through some folders, but I have nothing left from that workshop, even though I remember that Blanco gave us handouts.  My memory, which may be faulty, is that the workshop was to be about how to put together a book-length manuscript.  I remember Blanco talking about poetry presses that publish books, about contests, but I don't remember concrete advice.

I vaguely remember that we were supposed to bring our own poems.  Did we do any workshopping of poems?  Workshopping of poems would not have been as interesting to me as getting insight about book-length collections.  I remember a fierce conversation about the use of fairy tales in poetry--was it in response to my friend's Sleeping Beauty poem?  I'm fairly sure that we each brought a poem.  I don't remember the poem that I brought, and I don't remember anyone's responses.

I remember my friend and I leaving the workshop and driving north; I remember us being a bit shaken by the assertions by a young, female graduate student who was very derisive and dismissive of the use of fairy tales and feminist themes.

I remember that the workshop attendees were an even mix of grad students and those of us teaching college classes in community colleges and for-profit schools (my friend and me and maybe one other person).  I remember being impressed by the optimism of the grad students who assumed that the world would notice every poem that they wrote.

Richard Blanco was a graduate of the MFA program at FIU, and it was not lost on me that his work life at the time came about because of his engineering degree.  I think it may have been lost on the graduate students, although I suspect they've learned that life lesson by now.  Poetry is wonderful, but it rarely feeds the bulldog.

I remember being impressed with Blanco's ability to speak to all of us in the audience.  Some people competed for his attention, but he was good at making sure that everyone had a chance to participate.

My overall impression was of kindness and encouragement from Blanco and from most of the workshop participants.  I remember being impressed with Blanco's work.

But most of all, I remember feeling a sense of wonder that I had come to be at that place, in that time, surrounded by so much diversity.  In some ways, I remember that late afternoon workshop as a tale of multiple immigrants.  There was my friend who immigrated from India and her poems that are so deeply entwined with both western and eastern mythology and fairy tales.  And then there was Richard Blanco and his biography that is so much an archetypal story of the Cuban diaspora.  There were the grad students, immigrants of a different sort, who would soon be leaving on new immigrations of their own.

And then there was me, also an immigrant of yet a different sort, a monolingual woman who left the U.S. South behind to come to a part of the country that is so much a part of a different South, whose work has been informed so richly by all of those juxtapositions.

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