'How To Love A Country' Poet Richard Blanco Reads Your #NPRPoetry | WAMC

'How To Love A Country' Poet Richard Blanco Reads Your #NPRPoetry

Apr 5, 2020
Originally published on April 6, 2020 3:49 pm

If there's a silver lining to glean amid a pandemic, Richard Blanco says it's an opportune time for the socially distanced and homebound to immerse in poetry.

"A lot of poetry is about being quiet and being still and observing," the Cuban American poet said. "I think we have that opportunity right now."

And April just so happens to be National Poetry Month.

It's a time when we call on our audience — budding and studied poets alike — to indulge in the art form.

Blanco, who was selected as President Obama's inaugural poet in 2013, says staying present is how all of his poems begin.

He spotted such a moment of observation in an #NPRPoetry submission from Twitter user, @J_Wells_Design.

The writer relies on the pleasure of sound, Blanco noted, in the alliteration of cries/carries, bluebell/breeze and hold/hope. At the same time, the poet re-contextualizes the natural world, as poets tend to do, he said.

"I just love the whole idea of the grass being a dream catcher — it just seems so fresh and a new way to look at the grass blowing in the breeze," he added.

Blanco's latest collection of poems, How to Love a Country, was published last year. The following poem is excerpted from that work.

"My Father in English"

First half of his life lived in Spanish: the long syntax

of las montañas that lined his village, the rhyme

of sol with his soul — a Cuban alma — that swayed

with las palmas, the sharp rhythm of his machete

cutting through caña, the syllables of his canarios

that sung into la brisa of the island home he left

to spell out the second half of his life in English—

the vernacular of New York City sleet, neon, glass—

and the brick factory where he learned to polish

steel twelve hours a day. Enough to save enough

to buy a used Spanish-English dictionary he kept

bedside like a bible—studied fifteen new words

after his prayers each night, then practiced them

on us the next day: Buenos días, indeed, my family.

Indeed más coffee. Have a good day today, indeed

and again in the evening: Gracias to my bella wife,

indeed, for dinner. Hicistes tu homework, indeed?

La vida is indeed difícil. Indeed did indeed become

his favorite word, which, like the rest of his new life,

he never quite grasped: overused and misused often

to my embarrassment. Yet the word I most learned

to love and know him through: indeed, the exile who

tried to master the language he chose to master him,

indeed, the husband who refused to say I love you

in English to my mother, the man who died without

true translation. Indeed, meaning: in fact/en efecto,

meaning: in reality/de hecho, meaning to say now

what I always meant to tell him in both languages:

thank you/gracias for surrendering the past tense

of your life so that I might conjugate myself here

in the present of this country, in truth/así es, indeed.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


And now it's time for our poetry break. It's National Poetry Month, and we're asking listeners to tweet us their poems. And every week, we'll read through some submissions with a celebrated poet. This week, we are joined by poet Richard Blanco. He delivered the poem "One Today" at President Obama's second inauguration, and his latest book, "How To Love A Country," is out now in paperback. And Richard Blanco is with us once again.

Welcome back. It's so good to hear from you once again.

RICHARD BLANCO: Same here. I can't believe it's been another year...

MARTIN: I know.

BLANCO: ...Since then - Poetry Month, National Poetry Month.

MARTIN: I know. And it feels like 10 years...


BLANCO: Exactly.

MARTIN: It's a lot of things. So actually, we realized that you and some other poets have been doing your own bit of poetry outreach on Twitter as well, calling on people to share poems that helped them find courage and comfort during this challenging period. The hashtag is #shelterinpoems. What inspired the hashtag?

BLANCO: That's part of - we did that sort of through the Academy of American Poets. They came up with the tagline, so to speak - the hashtag. And it's kind of like their Poem-a-Day project, but what it is, is poems more specifically geared to sort of the complex emotions and things that we're dealing with right now. So it's just to keep us connected and keep us sort of focused on a little bit more than just the news and the numbers.

MARTIN: Sure. And that's what we're doing now. So thank you for helping us with our project. And so why don't we get into some of the submissions and start with one that caught your eye?

BLANCO: Sure. This first one - well, I'll read it, and we can maybe chat a little bit...


BLANCO: ...About it. But this is from Jacob the Wells (ph) at J. Wells Design.

(Reading) I listen to the cries of wrens carried in the bluebell breeze and use their song as lullaby, the grass a dream catcher to hold the hope.

MARTIN: And why did you choose this one?

BLANCO: Kind of nice, right? Well, it kind of - it employs some very classic techniques of poetry, for one. Of course, you heard the rhythm of those words, right - the alliteration of cries and carries, bluebell and breeze, hold and hope - and sort of loosely iambic, so the pleasure of just sound of poetry, right?

But also something that poets always rely on a lot and poetry relies on a lot - the use of natural imagery, right? Poets have not only just the keen ear, but they always try to have a keen eye and thinking of recontextualizing some of this natural imagery. I mean, I just love, like, the whole idea of the grass being a dream catcher. It's, like - seems so fresh and a new way to look - you know, just the grass blowing in the breeze. And I don't want to say this is a coronavirus poem...


BLANCO: It kind of makes me feel like - I think everything makes me feel that way now - but just sort of observing the natural world and taking some solace and peace and kind of a respite...


BLANCO: ...In looking at the world, looking at the natural world, which is what poets like to do a lot.

MARTIN: Yeah, I like it.

BLANCO: So I really liked it for that reason.

MARTIN: Yeah. All right. Pick another one.

BLANCO: So this one's very different but I think just as successful and for different reasons. So the handle is just as clever as the poem. It says my 2 words (ph) but it's all merged together, so it's my mighty words.



BLANCO: But anyway, here it goes.

(Reading) Normal - oh, to have that elephant in the room again.


BLANCO: Very different, right?

MARTIN: Yeah, very different.

BLANCO: This isn't about fancy words or lush imagery or anything like that. But sometimes poetry's just a really engaging idea or a really interesting play on words. Here, we have this revived cliche, figure of speech of the elephant in the room. But I - and then I really liked it also because it - like, it speaks to human nature. I've been in those shoes. Like, everybody wants to be accepted and normal and part of the herd. And then when we are, we're like, wait a minute - I'm different.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BLANCO: Like, sometimes in the grocery store in my small town in rural Maine, like, sometimes I forget I'm Cuban and gay and an immigrant and all this stuff. And then it suddenly hits me - like, my God.


BLANCO: Where's that pink elephant that I've had to live with all my life?

MARTIN: How's that?

BLANCO: It isn't here anymore.


BLANCO: So it's the good and bad of sort of feeling that sense of belonging, and yet, you know, we don't belong that - what drives us sometimes when we don't feel like we belong, or we feel like we're working towards something in ourselves and in the world. So I liked it for that and how it was able to accomplish that so cleverly with just adding the word normal.

MARTIN: You have time for one more?

BLANCO: Sure. Sure. Sure. This is "Words" by Daniel, and - "Words" by Daniel1

(ph) (Reading) A leaf and its shadow dance like lovers until they meet.

So (laughter) you've got to read that again, right? Like...


BLANCO: Kind of, what is that last line, right? This is why I really loved this poem. But it's making use of something else. It's sort of the extended metaphor, where we're using the images of the leaf and the shadow as a way to walk through or talk through something - in this case, love and relationships and the complexity of that. I just - you know, that last line is such a surprise. And sometimes...


BLANCO: You know, poetry is a lot about just keep on surprising the reader, right? The leaf and its shadow dance like lovers until they meet. So what does that mean?


BLANCO: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Yes, right.

BLANCO: What do you take away from that?

MARTIN: I know.

BLANCO: Because I'm taking away - it's, like, sort of the romance is fine - you know, that sort of infatuation - and then the reality of a real relationship once you do sort of connect and become - you know, after 20 years of marriage myself, it's a whole other kind of dance. You know what I'm saying (laughter)?

MARTIN: Yes, I do (laughter). Well, thank you for doing that. And before we let you go, you know, as an award-winning writer and poet - and you've been a teacher, too - some people still might want to kind of jump into this and might not be sure how to start. Would you offer some, you know, advice for how to get started?

BLANCO: You know, I think a lot of poetry is about being quiet and being still and observing, and I think we have that opportunity right now. If these poems serve as examples of just, you know, observing nature, going on a long walk, jotting down a few words - just images, just impressions - that's where a poem starts always for me. It sort of just worked from just being present in the world. And I think that we have an opportunity now to be more present.

There are always, you know, great resources online. The Academy of American Poets has a bunch of poems, like we said, that are focused on what's happening now. But also just in general just reading, you can look up by subject matter, by theme. Yeah, just start doodling.


BLANCO: That's the way a poem always begins.

MARTIN: That's poet Richard Blanco. His latest collection, "How To Love A Country," is now out in paperback.

Richard Blanco, it's such a pleasure to speak with you again. Thank you so much.

BLANCO: Same here, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: And if you'd like to hear your original poem on the air, you can tweet it to @npratc and use the hashtag #nprpoetry every week through the end of April. A published poet will join us on the air to talk about some submissions that caught his or her eye. And even though Twitter has changed its character limit, we're sticking with the original rules. Poems must be 140 characters or less. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.