Telling a Story: Richard Blanco Shares the Art of Poetry
The last time that acclaimed poet and memoirist Richard Blanco read to a sold-out crowd in Ashland, Oregon, he’d recently been named Barak Obama’s Inaugural Poet. He returns to Ashland on Monday, April 16, where he will give a teachers’ workshop and read at Ashland High School’s Mountain Avenue Theatre. Included in his presentation will be pieces from Boundaries, a new collaborative venture with photographer Jacob Hessler. Their work explores the dividing lines that shadow the United States.
Through a crackling cell phone connection between two coasts, I sat down with the poet philosopher, Blanco to talk about his upcoming visit. He’s a forthright, yet soft-spoken man who has a charming habit of ending his sentences as if he were asking you a question, or extending an invitation.
“Poetry,” he says “is opening up to a different kind of conversation that invites empathy; that opens doors to other possibilities. What survives civilization after civilization is art. It’s our way out.”
I ask him to talk to me about the function of poetry within the individual and within the culture.
“Within the individual,” he says, “poetry allows us to examine the emotional complexities of our life. Usually, we just react to events and we don’t take the time to think about what we are feeling. The act of writing poetry makes us think about what we feel. Art asks us to look at complexities, rather than just a pat answer. In this way poetry is therapeutic, though not therapy. Poetry makes us pause. A good poem can change the way you see the world.”
The universal questions of who we are and where we belong weave their way into Blanco’s poetry.
“Every writer is writing one poem their whole life,” he says. “It’s their central obsession. For me, it’s the question of home and belonging. Where is home, is very personal and essential to the human condition. We all have a craving to be home, whether that’s town, family, or globe– there’s a fundamental human drive to have community. That theme makes it into all of my writing. The Inaugural poem for Obama, One Today, asks that question: how do we all come home? And it’s a question that we are still working on. We’re still trying to find fair and equitable ways to live.”
Anticipating who might have inspired such a poet, I should not have been surprised when he didn’t give me the name of someone he’d read, but instead told me a story about his mother:
“My early exposure to poetry was the archaic rhymie poems written by dead, white British guys. The moment that I really got what poetry is, happened in my mother’s kitchen. She was making dinner the way she’d made it for 30 years. She was cutting onions the same way, wearing the same apron that she always wore. And as I watched her, I thought of the William Carlos Williams poem, The Red Wheelbarrow, which begins: ‘So much depends upon a red wheel barrow. I looked at my mom cooking and realized that so much depends upon my mother cooking.’ It was seeing the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary of life, a real aha moment.”
Teachers’ Workshop with Richard Blanco
4:15 pm, Monday, April 16
Stevenson Union, #316, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.
Free, reservation required
An Evening with Richard Blanco
7:30 pm, Monday, April 16
Ashland High School Mountain Avenue Theatre, 201 S. Mountain Avenue, Ashland
$12 – $20