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In The Wake Of A Bitter Election, America Could Use More Poetry

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Writer and poet Richard Blanco believes in the importance of words in this political climate—and no, he doesn’t just mean angry tweets.

Blanco, who served as the nation's fifth inaugural poet at the 2013 inauguration of Barack Obama, says that in the wake of a bitterly contested election, poetry can be a way of humanizing political opponents and opening up lines of communication between them. It's a concept he calls "civic-minded poetry."

“It’s obviously been so hard for us to reach out to one another,” Blanco said in a statement. “Here is a novel way for us to share and communicate after so much national turbulence.”

Blanco is the author of the memoir "The Prince of Los Cocuyos" and a forthcoming collection of poetry, "Boundaries." He has also designed and will teach an upcoming six-month poetry intensive course at Maine Media Workshops + College from May through November. 

He joined Boston Public Radio to discuss civic-minded poetry and the role of an artist in a fractured political climate. Selections from his conversation on Boston Public Radio are below.

MARGERY EAGAN: You've been talking about civil poetry as a way of bringing people together. Tell us what you mean.

RICHARD BLANCO: I should begin by saying: of course I didn’t invent the term or the idea. There’s been a history of civic-minded poets and poetry of protest. Even if you think about Whitman, from the beginning he was trying to ask those questions about what is America and what does it mean? if you think about the Beat poets, the Harlem Renaissance, and whatnot, it comes in waves. I think that poetry and arts in general do several wonderful things. One of the things is it examines the emotional complexities of a moment and scratches below the surfaces, and that’s important. It also lets us have empathy for one another and humanize what a political issue might be, so we see beyond just the black and the white, the rhetoric. For that and several reasons, it gives us a new way to think, a new way to frame something, and in that sense it gives us hope and a new path. The arts have always done that. We do it quietly, except at moments like this, where they kind of spike.

JIM BRAUDE: You were at an important moment in history four years ago. Now, we have a turn—I guess we could say—four years later. Are you hopeful two weeks in?

BLANCO: I would say not quite hopeful, but thinking beyond the moment a little bit. In fact, that’s how I started this poem ["Election Year"]. I was originally going to write a spoof inaugural poem for President Trump. I couldn’t do it. It just didn’t come together. I think it was because I was writing on the surface. I started to think more about where we are politically, what’s going on, and the idea of democracy as a garden, as the allegory, and we as the gardeners, and thinking it was larger than just Trump. That made me feel better in the sense that it’s larger than just this moment. Even when I think about the inauguration and what the inaugural poem for President Obama meant, it’s even more relevant today in that sense.

Poetry, as I say, is smarter than me. Even my own stuff is smarter than myself. That poem almost projected that idea: that we aren’t quite one today, that this is what we wish, but let’s think about that a minute. It's interesting that Obama’s legacy, though he’s ending his presidency in this divide, that his presidency stirred a lot of questions that were probably swept under the rug. In a way, his legacy might be, in the long run...to bring us together in some ways. Obviously there’s a bump in the road, or as they say you have to break a lot of eggs to make an omelet. So in that way I’m hopeful, thinking of a larger historical arc. We can get very mired and myopic in one moment. But I’m keeping my eyes out.

EAGAN: You grew up in Miami, but didn’t start out in Miami. You're the first gay guy to be the inaugural poet, and the youngest guy to be the inaugural poet. Tell people about how you wound up in Miami. Your perspective on this whole situation, coming from there, is unique.

BLANCO: I ended up in Miami when I was four years old. My parents were Cuban exiles. I was born in Madrid, actually, and emigrated with them when I was 45 days old. My mom left Cuba seven month pregnant, so I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States. The theme of home and belonging and America has always been part of my work, because it’s always been part of my childhood. Growing up on Miami was, as Liz Balmaseda—a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—said there once, 'We love living in Miami, so close to the United States.' That’s always given me this perspective on living in the U.S. It’s living between two worlds: in between the memory of the Cuba of parents and my community, and an America I wasn’t really a part of. It’s always made me question my identity and what America is from a little bit of a distance. That’s been helpful to keep some perspective.

BRAUDE: You traveled 90 miles to read a poem upon the opening of the embassy in Cuba. What was that like?

BLANCO: It was amazing. It was an original poem they asked me to write, another kind of inaugural poem. It was something I never thought would happen in my lifetime. The [Obama] inauguration was incredibly powerful, of course, but this was a much more intimate sense. It was so intertwined with everything in my work, my parents, my family, my community, and having poetry become sort of—hopefully—a bridge of understanding between these 60 years of a divided family, in a way. I tried to focus on how poetry and the arts humanize things, trying to focus on the people-to-people rupture in that relationship in families that have been pulled apart, and how we love each other beyond the politics and how we treat each other beyond the politics. Of course it’s a very political situation, but one can have a political opinion without being a politician.

To hear more from poet Richard Blanco, tune in to Boston Public Radio above. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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