Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Inspirations from Two Richard Blanco Events

Yesterday, I went to the 2 Richard Blanco events at the South campus of Broward College.  What a great way to end National Poetry Month!

At 12:30, at the South Regional branch of the public library that's at the campus, there was a question and answer session.  I walked in with swarms of students.  Were they there for the free food?  It was certainly worth the trip:  surprisingly good fruit salad, wonderfully soft cookies, coffee perfect in its strength and heat.  I couldn't have asked for a better lunch.

When Richard Blanco got settled on stage, you'd have thought a rock star was among us.  Students took pictures with their phones and there was an air of excitement that I'm not used to seeing in student gatherings--and for a poet!  It made me grin.

Of course, he's a poet whom many of us down here feel is one of us.  I wonder if he gets that reaction when he goes to Indiana. 

I was impressed with how personable he was.  He talked openly about navigating and negotiating identities.  In this multinational, multigender, multiethnic, multisexual age where people are always on the move, who cannot relate? 

He talked about how his life has changed since being asked to read at the Inaugural. He said that reading at the event felt like taking an oath of citizenship.  He told us about the process, about writing 3 poems from which one would be chosen.  One of them was about his mother, and he really wanted to read that one.  He said that Julia Alvarez convinced him that the one that was chosen was the better choice.

His grandmother sounds a lot like mine, hypercritical and full of faults, not at all modern when it came to being accepting of diversity (mine was not, although she knew enough to keep quiet most of the time).  How I miss her.  He said, "My grandmother was as xenophobic as she was homophobic."  His poem, "Queer Theory:  According to My Grandmother" was funny and sad and shocking and seemed to affect many of us.

He talked about his 3rd collection, released in 2012, the only collection where he is out of the closet with his sexuality.  But what interested me most is that he said that some of the poems in that collection were written 20 years ago.  I'm not sure why that heartened me so much.

The students made me SO happy.  After each event, there was a raffle.  Multiple copies of his chapbook of the Inaugural poem were given away.  The students who won acted like they'd won a car.  It was so heartening.

I felt such a fondness for the students.  One of the students who introduced the participants plans to go elsewhere to study English, Anthropology, and Photography.  I remember feeling like everything was possible and that I might be a triple major.  My mom said, "In the amount of time that would take you, you could be done with a Master's degree."  She was right, of course--and I couldn't decide what my 3rd major would be.  History?  Philosophy and Religion?  Psychology?  So I double-majored in English and Sociology and went on to grad school.

I felt such sympathy for the student who stood up to ask the question about how to deal with parents who want him to major in something that's marketable, but he really wants to write.  I feel sympathy, so much more sympathy than I once did, for the father who just wants his son to be OK financially.

Richard Blanco reminded him that he could do both.  He said that we make a mistake in thinking that we can only be this or do that, that we must choose.  He talked about how his career as an engineer has fed his art.  He talked about the mathematical structure to his poems.  He talked about being surprised by how much he used the skill of writing in his engineering life:  inches thick manuals and 4 page letters and the like.  He talked about learning to use language in a whole new way.

He also talked openly about dreams he didn't follow.  He might have wanted to be an architect, but at the time, no public university down here offered that program, and he knew his family couldn't afford a private college--so he majored in engineering.  And then, after a few years of being an engineer, he wanted more, and so began taking creative writing classes.

He mentioned that when he got the call inviting him to be the poet of the inauguration, he hadn't written a poem in 6 months.  That made me feel such relief!  I'm not the only one who takes breaks--although if I go for longer than a month, the anxiety gets me back to the page.

Blanco gives a great reading (I came back for the 7:00 reading).  I love his introductions to the poems--but if you're the kind of person who finds that irritating, you might find him too talkative.  And he reads well.  It's not that arty, affected style that so many poets adopt.  It's folksy and funny and just the right time for the words to sink in.  If you ever have a chance to hear him read, I'd recommend you go.

Here's a Blanco quote to inspire you on this, the last day of National Poetry Month:  "Poems aren't about answers.  They're about possibilities."

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