"Being a writer is a solitary endeavor, so it's a gift to be able to share my work with you," said poet Richard Blanco at the opening of Monday's Upper School assembly. But Mr. Blanco did more than share his work—he created a brilliant mosaic of his life through anecdotes, faded family photos, and of course, poetry.
Mr. Blanco, who began his career as a civil engineer, turned his penchant for writing poetry from pastime to profession. He rose to the national stage when he was named the inaugural poet for President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
"Every writer has some central obsession that takes hold," he told the girls, "The rest of their work, is about that obsession ... My obsession is [the concept of] home." And as a gay child of Cuban exile parents, born in Spain, and raised in Miami, home encompassed notions of family, place, identity, and community.
While Mr. Blanco was still a child, and long before he came out as gay, his grandmother (and primary caregiver) had an inkling about her grandson's sexual orientation. In "Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother," Mr. Blanco detailed, in his late-grandmother's voice, her admonishments and advice on how to maintain the pretense of being straight: "You can't wear cologne or puka shells / and I better not catch you in clogs." While each of the poems he read was deeply personal in nature, Mr. Blanco sought to convey the universality in his experiences. In his grandmother's case, he noted that we each have a person in our lives who might make things difficult for us, but in so doing, becomes our best teacher. He believes that, in a way, his grandmother's homophobia made him more introspective, and as a result, a better writer.
His poem "América," drew a sharp but humorous contrast between his family's Cuban-accented Thanksgiving and the Martha Stewart-style images we see on newsstands and on TV. He read: "Patty Duke's family wasn't like us either– / they didn't have pork on Thanksgiving, / they ate turkey with cranberry sauce; / they didn't have yuca, they had yams." He explained to the girls that for Cubans, "pork isn't the 'other white meat,' it's the 'ONLY white meat.'"
In "Looking for the Gulf Motel" Mr. Blanco told of returning to a beloved childhood vacation destination only to find that time and development had rendered the place unrecognizable. Before a wistful reading of the poem, he lamented "We all have a place we remember as paradise. Sometimes it's still there, sometimes it's not."
When Mr. Blanco opened the floor to questions, he was asked about his writing process and whether he knows what he's trying to achieve before he begins writing. As is the case for many writers, his process is iterative, and happily so. "Writing makes you think," he said, "And thinking makes you write."