Let Obama's Inaugural Poet, Richard Blanco, Teach You How to Write Poetry

Let Obama's Inaugural Poet, Richard Blanco, Teach You How to Write Poetry
Courtesy of Richard Blanco
Courtesy of Richard Blanco
On January 20, 2013, Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco presented his poem "One Today" to a shivering crowd waiting to see Barack Obama sworn in for a second term. Zooming his poetic lens in and out, Blanco offers a literary portrait of American life — there's his mother ringing up groceries so he can one day stand on that stage, and there are the desks of 20 children in Sandy Hook who will forever be marked absent. That reading was also one of the first times anyone has referenced Miami's Freedom Tower in front of such a large audience. With many of those images, Blanco presented a slice of his hometown to the world with grace and a kind eye.

Blanco will return to Miami this weekend from his home in Maine to bolster the poetic life in the Magic City. He'll teach a writing class titled Diving Deeper Into Show Don't Tell, a collaboration with Miami's center for queer literature, Reading Queer. The event is part of FUNDarte and Centro Cultural Español’s monthlong multidisciplinary series, Out in the Tropics 2018.

And if you want to learn how to write, there's pretty much no one better qualified to instruct you on poetry than Blanco. He's education ambassador for the Academy of American Poets, teaching educators the importance of poetry and showing them how to teach it to their students. He was a distinguished visiting professor last year at Florida International University — his two-time alma mater — and will teach there this fall. He calls it “a great joy and such an amazing experience" and admires the students for their spirit and confidence. He'll teach Poetry as Muse, which examines contemporary and historic poems in light of news, media, and pop culture. He's also teaming up with artist John Bailly at the Honors College for “Poetry Art Community” to take students to cultural and historic landmarks such as Vizcaya and PAMM to paint, photograph, and write and then share their works with the public.

Blanco also hosts a bimonthly radio program on the NPR affiliate WGBH Boston, on which he makes sense of the news through poetry. His book of poems, Boundaries, was recently published, and his next will be released through Beacon Press in April 2019.

Blanco kindly shared some writing tips he uses and offered some insight into his perspective on the immigration situation in America. Let these nuggets of knowledge serve as a warmup for his Saturday event.

New Times: “Show, don’t tell” — when did you first hear this advice, and what did it mean to you?

Richard Blanco: I really can’t remember when I heard it the first time, but it’s really a golden rule of writing from the very first class. The idea being that it’s through sensory details that we experience the world, therefore in a poem or in a novel or any kind of writing, sensory details evoke the language of experience which lets the reader experience. Say the idea of trying to avoid an abstraction like love, hate, joy, what do those things really look like?

If you think about it, as beings, we do only absorb information through the five senses. There is no other way we absorb information from the world. Everything that becomes an abstract thought came from a sensory experience. So, when you say you love somebody, that’s because you held their hand, you kissed them, you smelled them, you touched their hair, all these things are sensory experiences.

When can you tell and not show?

It’s a balance, I think. It’s not just about showing and not telling, but it’s to tell by showing. In other words, you’re curating the imagery, the sensory details to evoke the emotional response in the reader. And the other piece of that is, if you show, you get to do some telling. That is actually quite important in a poem. But in creative writing, the telling is earned. If you've shown me enough then you have earned the right to tell me something.

There are some very wonderful, famous poems that do a lot of telling, but there’s a sort of show and tell. The other piece of that is, if you’re going to tell something, what you tell better be interesting. (laughs) “You broke my heart” is telling but it’s just plain old telling, something everybody has heard a million times. The idea is that if you do tell something that it’s told through provocative and juicy language. It’s something fresh and new that I haven't been told before.

Can you share a meeting with a teacher or a workshop or advice that really shaped how you write and work?

Campbell McGrath, he was basically my only real mentor, the only person I studied with because back then at FIU, the program was much smaller. He was the only poetry professor I had through my whole MFA program. Little rules that have stayed with me in my mind... One is “the rule of three” — and if you ask anyone who has taken Campbell McGrath’s class, they’ll know what you mean by the rule of three. It means that if you do something once, you have to do it three times in a poem. I call it the landscaping rule. You never plant two trees. You plant three trees or five trees. There’s something about odd numbers and balance. Let’s say you have a refrain in a poem and you wnat to use it twice, but if you use it three times, somehow there’s a sort of balance.

He is the voice in my head when I’m editing and working on my own poems. That mentor voice. The other thing that was important, since I write so much about Cuban-American identity, especially in my earlier work, he would always call me out when I was just giving cultural data that didn’t transcend beyond its own cultural reference. I think that was very valuable to me, to understand that the way I show my story as a Cuban-American, that I can’t just assume that what means something to me will mean something to the reader. If I say “black beans and rice,” well, what about the black beans and rice? He always cautioned me against just throwing out cultural data but to really get to the emotional center of the poem with that data. To really explain why something was emotional rather than just throwing out a reference point.

Do you have advice for young queer writers who are hesitant to tell their stories through writing?

Good writing is good writing and it comes from the same space. If you happen to be a gay writer, you’re a gay writer. If you happen to be a Cuban writer, you’re a Cuban writer. The rules of writing don’t really change.

But I would say that the most important thing is, number one, there’s a lot of gay writers who don’t write about gay issues 100 percent of the time, and it’s OK not to write about something if you don’t want to write about it. You don’t have to pigeonhole yourself in that sense. The other thing is to understand that with show don’t tell, it’s not about telling our story, which I think gives the wrong impression. One thing about writing is to come to your story, not to be convinced of it. I think that going into writing with that in mind is very important.

The reason I’m addicted to poetry is because I discover something new about myself, my world, my memories, the people in my life, every time I write a poem. It is the act of making art that gets me to those discoveries. The most important thing is not to tell my story, the most important thing is to make art, to make something powerful and beautiful. It’s ironic in a way that those parameters of art bring us to places that we wouldn’t ordinarily discover, and the creative process, also at play, is a way of transcending the very story that upsets or traumatized.

I would want to say to writers: Your story is important, but remember, it’s about making art. Nobody’s story is that interesting when it’s not written well. You can have a fascinating or dramatic story but that doesn't mean it will translate into art. By the same token, in some seemingly ordinary lives, people find the most amazing things. Just remember that it’s all about your story and not about your story at the same time. It's an irony of poetry and making art.

As an immigrant, do you have anything to say about what’s happening in the news regarding immigration?

I’ve been hearing about the problem of immigration since I was a kid, and I’m just sick and tired of politicians, both left and right, not solving the problem that is easily solvable. I think politicians love having a problem, and that’s what gets them into office. What we’re seeing is just another iteration of that. Creating a problem and then becoming the hero, like Trump did in signing the executive order, as if that wasn’t something obvious that should have been done in the first place. It’s just typical problems. We surrendered our democracy to this political class we made that is just destroying the country. And what I feel honestly is that we have to take democracy into our own hands, citizens by citizen, neighbor by neighbor, town by town. Stop thinking that the only thing we can do is vote for some bumble head that will go to Washington and do absolutely nothing. Get involved more in local politics which will have a more significant effect on our lives and the lives of those around us.

Your new poetry book is titled Boundaries. Does it address those issues?

It’s about understanding the false narratives [about] these boundaries that are put in place to protect power. It's the oldest story in the book: divide and conquer.

Diving Deeper Into Show Don't Tell. 1 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach; Admission is free and followed by a public reading at 4 p.m. RSVP here.
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Liz Tracy has written for publications such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Refinery29, W, Glamour, and, of course, Miami New Times. She was New Times Broward-Palm Beach's music editor for three years. Now she plays one mean monster with her 2-year-old son and obsessively watches British mysteries.
Contact: Liz Tracy