Thursday, August 13, 2020
Richard Blanco-We Need to Talk Now More Than Ever
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Richard Blanco’s latest book of poems, “How to Love a Country,” is very powerful, according to Hailey resident Marcia Liebich, who just finished it.
   
Saturday, July 18, 2020
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Poet Richard Blanco likes to talk of having a conversation with his fellow Americans—a conversation about the complexities and contradictions of America and its promise.

It was a one-way conversation Thursday night because of the COVID pandemic as Blanco addressed about 80 masked listeners for The Community Library’s 2020 Hemingway Distinguished Lecture.

But the presidential inaugural poet at President Obama’s Inauguration in 2013 gave them plenty of food for thought. And there will be a chance to have a conversation next week as the library invites listeners to submit questions for Blanco to answer via a livestream presentation at a yet-to-be-determined date.

 
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“I found tonight very moving,” said Marylyn Pauley. “And having the presentation outside like this was lovely.”

The library closed 4th Street and set up 120 folding chairs on its lawn and the street around the veranda from which Blanco spoke. All the seats had been reserved, but there were about 40 no shows. Others were able to watch the presentation via livestream.

True to form, Blanco didn’t shy away from controversial subjects or the question of how to love this country. In his “Complaint of El Rio Grande,” he told of a river that meandered for centuries before political leaders determined it would be a line on a map to say, “You’re here, not there, you’re this, not that…”

“You named me big river, drew me—blue, thick to divide, to say: spic and Yankee, to say: wetback and gringo. You split me in two—half of me us, the rest them,” he read. “But I wasn’t meant to drown children, hear mothers’ cries, never meant to be your geography: a line, a border, a murderer.”

The pandemic, he noted, has taught us that there are no borders.

Blanco told listeners that he was “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States.” As such, he was always pondering such questions as: Where do I belong?

It is, he noted, a question not unique to himself but “universal to all of us.”

His mother, he said, left Cuba for Spain when she was seven months pregnant. Forty-five days after he was born in Spain, his family emigrated to the United States. A few years ago, on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., his mother turned him and said, “It isn’t where you were born that matters. It’s where you choose to die that is your country.”

“I realized my mother’s story is a quintessential American dream story—that she’s more American than me,” he said.

Blanco grew up in Miami believing that every home north of the Miami-Dade county line was like the Brady Bunch house, filled with families who ate the perfect roast turkey every Thanksgiving instead of pork his family ate for every birthday and wedding, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

One of the highlights of speaking at the Inaugural, he said, was meeting Beyonce, “which was really cool.” But, beyond that, he added, “it gave me a place at the American table.”

Blanco said he was surprised when President Obama and Vice President Biden shook his hand.

“It was as if saying, ‘This is your country.’ ”

“Lucky me that I got to stand in front of America and speak for all those who felt not quite part of America,” he said, as he launched into “One Today,” the poem he wrote for the inauguration:

“All of us as vital as the one light we move through,” he read. “…The same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, the ‘I have a dream’ we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of 20 children marked absent today, and forever…

“One sun…one ground….one sky…one country…”

As the first gay man to serve as a Presidential Inaugural Poet, Blanco read his poem “Until We Could.”

“Love is the right to say: I do and I do and I do…I do want you to be the last face I see—your breath my last breath, I do, I do and will and will for those who still can’t…”

He addressed America’s racial tensions through his poem, “Easy Lynching on Herndon Avenue.” He wrote the poem after seeing a photo taken of the street in Mobile, Ala., where the last recorded lynching occurred in the United States in 1981.

Blanco said he was shocked at how ordinary the street looked—as if nothing had happened there. It made him think, he said, about hidden racism in America.

“What I’d rather not see isn’t here: no rope, no black body under a white moon swaying limp from a tree…murder washed out by time…Easier not to look at his shut eyes, wonder what his favorite color or superhero was, if he liked to skateboard or draw, if he heard his mama’s cries…”

If we hear someone say something racist, we can’t let that happen, Blanco added. “I find myself asking myself: How could they? Why?”

Blanco told listeners that “We need to talk. We need to talk now more than ever.”

The sense of belonging to that one ideal is epitomized in the song “American the Beautiful,” which, he added, should be our national anthem.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood…” he sang.

Blanco noted that his father picked sugar cane so he and his brother could have books. And that he likes to write poetry in hopes his poem will serve as a catalyst. He also likes to give those who read or hear his poetry the hope of a better tomorrow.

Consider the poem he recently wrote for “The Atlantic,” titled “Say This isn’t the End.”

“Say we live on, say we’ll forget the masks that kept us from dying from the invisible, but say we won’t ever forget the invisible masks we realized we had been wearing most our lives, disguising ourselves from each other…

“Say I’ll get to be as thrilled as a boy spinning again in my barber’s chair, tell him how I’d missed his winged scissors chirping away my shaggy hair eclipsing my eyes…”

“Say I won’t be kept from (my mother’s) bedside to listen to her last words…

“Say all the restaurant chairs will get back on their feet…

“Say we’ll all still take the time we once needed to walk alone and gently through our neighborhoods, keep noticing the Zen of anthills and sidewalk cracks blossoming weeds, of yappy dogs and silent swing sets rusting in backyards….

“Say we won’t forget our seeing that every kind of life is a life worth living, worth saving…”

Blanco concluded with a draft of a poem he’s written while partaking in a three-week residency in the late Ernest Hemingway’s house in Ketchum.

Being there is to see another side of Hemingway, he said--not the larger-than-life macho man but a vulnerable man who struggled with the same questions we all have.

“I kept him hearing him speak to me,” he said, as he launched into a poem he wrote about having a conversation man to man with the famous author:

“Me and you, you and me, uneasy on the chairs…”

WANT TO SEE RICHARD BLANCO’S PRESENTATION?

Visit The Community Library’s Livestream page at https://livestream.com/comlib/richardblanco

 

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