Thursday evening a hoard of PUPPs (Poetry Under the Paintings Peeps) descended on the State College Campus of Penn State University to hear Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco read in the Foster Auditorium. I think the exact number in our hoard was 8, but that’s a pretty dang good showing for a poetry field trip in central Pennsylvania.
Five of our crew enjoyed the hospitality of Ye Olde College Diner before the reading, but three of us who had to take longer roads were out of luck. Our dreams of enjoying grilled stickies after the reading and book signing were left unfulfilled as the Diner is only open til 10 pm on Thursdays. Ah, thank the muses for the ways that poetry soothed our starving souls. Oh, and thank the Allen Street Grill’s upstairs Corner Room for their late night menu that soothed our starving bellies. Saved! First by poetry and then by nachos and hummus. It was a good and nourishing day.
Of course we were not the only ones to make the pilgrimage. As one young writer put it, “generations young and old” packed the auditorium until latecomers had to stand along the sides or sit on the floor in order to enjoy a poetry reading that turned out to be a “a chance for people to get to know Blanco on a personal level.”
Sometimes we poets should talk less and just read our poems, but on Thursday this was not the case. We were privileged to hear a bit of Blanco’s personal history as well as his struggles toward discovering his own personal, sexual and national identity. His started as the son of Cuban exiles who settled in Florida, and moved toward a career in engineering, and eventually to becoming a poet who was given the honor of reading for a presidential inauguration.
I was impressed with how happily and casually he greeted people afterwards as they lined up to have their books signed, particularly how he looked my son Micah in the eye, and told him how he liked the spelling of his name, asked about its origin, genuinely took an interest in Micah and the other young poets and poetry lovers he spoke to, although he had to be terribly weary by the end of it all.
Each of his first three books were award winners. And I believe he read from all three that night for a total of nine poems, beginning with “America,” and concluding with his inaugural poem “One Today.” In between was the story of his life, from his father’s image of him as an engineer in “Pappa’s Bridge,” to his grandmother’s judgment in “Queer Theory According to My Grandmother.” Each were moving and complicated emotionally. Parents, grandparents, and their expectations, their dreams for us, do not always mesh with our own.
There was laughter in the crowd during the reading of “Betting on America,” as Blanco exposed us to memories of his childhood, his family placing bets on the Miss America pageant, and knowing laughter in his account of “Killing Mark;” I am the one in my relationship who worries because the other never calls! Ah hem. . . All of this was intimately delivered by a man who has a certain affection for the tradition of reading poetry out loud, a tradition very dear to my own heart.
The tenderness in his poem “Mother Picking Produce” is so artfully composed, images of his mother’s hands and the tasks they perform “those habits of living which keep a life a life.” It’s beautiful on the page, something intimately universal, but hearing lips make the words into speech . . . well, if you do not listen to Blanco’s reading in the link above, I hope you’ll take the time to read it out loud yourself. And the poet, any reader for any audience, does feed off of the energy of the crowd. I agree with Blanco on this, and I was inexplicably glad to hear him say that he read “Killing Mark” differently that night than he ever had before.
The poem that produced my unexpected tears, that brought to mind my own childhood memories was the title poem from his book “Looking for the Gulf Motel.” (See below for the audio) The rhythm and lilt of Richard Blanco’s voice as he recalls the lost vacations of his childhood were just a joy to hear. And the anaphora, “There should be nothing here that I don’t remember;” sheer poetry blues.
I know I’ve given you a lot of links in this article, but I don’t have any audio or video from Thursday night, so I’ve tried to provide the best sampling I could. [EDIT: The complete video of the evening, recorded by Penn State can now be found here.] This though, if you listen to nothing else in the links above, this you must hear. It was a reading from Blanco’s SoundCloud account (you can hear more from that by clicking here), and it captures the spirit and the sound of how he read the poem Thursday night. Push play down below at the bottom of this post.
It was an inspiring evening from start to finish, and if you get the chance to hear Richard Blanco read at a venue near you, I highly recommend it. But really, you know me, I want you to go to every poetry reading you can, even the bad ones! I want you to feel what it is like to be tempted as I was recently to leap from my seat and scream, “For the love of god, it’s poetry! Read it so we can hear it; read it like you mean it!” I didn’t do that of course, but you bet I wanted to, and that was at a reading of a very famous poet (No, not Blanco). I want you to feel some passion about the importance of sharing art.
And of course I want you to read the verses out loud yourself. I want you to go to local galleries and bars and read your own poems, or the words of poets whose work lights you up. I want you to experience the joy of spoken poetry, to play with the sounds and the rhythms and the music yourself. It’s an art that is not dead, and must not be left to the “professionals.”
I leave you with the words the poet wrote when he signed my copy of the book: “Enjoy your time at the Gulf Motel.”
- Richard Blanco and Poetry Under the Paintings (dadpoet.wordpress.com)
- Inaugural poet Richard Blanco visits Durham (indyweek.com)
- Richard Blanco (latinaoliteratureminor.wordpress.com)
- Cuban exile mother of gay poet laureate Richard Blanco now in spotlight as his inspiration (miamiherald.typepad.com)