Poet Richard Blanco, who delivered former President Barack Obama’s inaugural poem, discussed themes of identity, belonging and politics to about 150 people during a Feb. 23 poetry reading at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts for the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Reading Series.
In a Feb. 22 interview with the Wheel, Blanco said poets’ involvement in activism has diminished in recent years, especially as compared to poetry during the Harlem Renaissance or the beat and feminist poets of the 1950s and ‘60s. However, many modern poets have engaged important social and political topics such as race and gun violence during a “scary and unsure time,” according to Blanco.
For example, Blanco shared his poem “Seventeen Funerals,” which honored the students and staff members killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“America is a work in progress,” Blanco told the Wheel. “We can lead by hope and connection and a plea for unity or we can lead by hate and division.”
Blanco also shared his poem “Easy Lynching On Herndon Avenue,” in which he describes “hidden racism” in America and invisible prejudices people hold.
“America still doesn’t acknowledge one of its most fundamental questions, the question of race,” Blanco said. “We’re asking questions about issues that have always been there.”
Poetry opens up another dialogue to examine the nuances of sociopolitical issues, he added. For him, poetry adds a layer of humanity to abstract issues such as immigration by giving them a face and life.
Blanco shared two more poems describing the cultural identity and experiences of his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba.
“We can talk about immigration until we’re blue in the face, but until a poem tells you the story of an actual immigrant, it’s like something else happens and it’s not in the abstract anymore,” Blanco said.
Blanco also read poems describing his personal experiences as a Cuban-American and a gay man. Although these poems reflect his personal experiences, Blanco sees poets as a medium for people to better understand themselves and the world around them.
“Those who recognize similar struggles, joys or losses in their own lives want the poem to become a bridge or a mirror,” Blanco said. “Part of the power of poetry is the objectifying of one’s own life as a form of self-expression. … This connects your life to [the audience] and their life to yours.”
The poet emphasized the importance of readings, pointing to a long cultural history of reading poetry aloud in a communal setting. He said attending poetry readings is similar to attending a concert because being present at the event adds a layer of understanding of the art and artist.
“There’s nothing quite as powerful as the reading of a poem,” Blanco told the Wheel. “[The poem] becomes an experience and not just something in the abstract.”
In addition to writing poetry, Blanco works as a civil engineer. which he believes helps his poetry. He said the skills and modes of thinking taught in the humanities are an essential part of success and warned against limiting oneself to pursuing only one interest.
Matthew Sams (17Ox, 20C) said he thought the poetry reading was inspiring.
“He was able to incorporate a lot of his experiences from childhood and adulthood into his poetry in a stimulating way,” Sams said. “He’s also a great reader.”
Rubén Díaz Vásquez (19C) said he enjoyed the conversations that came out of Blanco’s poetry.
“It’s not very often here at Emory that we hear from Latinx artists, so it was really good to hear Blanco explore a lot of themes related to Latinx experiences and issues,” Vasquez said. “When you have more Latinx art, poetry and literature at Emory, you really begin to think about these critical issues that people are talking about all the time, and at Emory, we refuse to do that.”