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Poetry That Speaks Truth to Power: A Word About Empathy and Freedom for National Poetry Month

A Q&A with Richard Blanco and Jimmy Santiago Baca

Richard Blanco and Jimmy Santiago Baca
Richard Blanco and Jimmy Santiago Baca

Now, more than ever, we’ve discovered that we need poetry not just to delight and uplift us, but poetry that interrogates our past and present, grieves our injustices, celebrates our ideals, and clings to our hopes. That’s what the poetry we publish does. For National Poetry Month, our publicity assistant, Michelle Betters, caught up with poets Richard Blanco and Jimmy Santiago Baca to chat about their latest books of poetry, How to Love a Country and When I Walk Through That Door, I Am respectively, and why poetry matters in our politically fraught times.

Michelle Betters: Both of your books explore, in some way, the experiences of immigrants and first-generation Americans in the United States, whether it’s through examining our present moment or looking back into this country’s past. What makes poetry the right medium for this kind of exploration?

Richard Blanco: What makes poetry the right medium for this kind of exploration? I’ve always considered that part of a poet’s role is to be an emotional historian. By this, I mean that poetry records what it feels like to live (or to have lived) in a particular moment in time. A poem is emotionally centered and reports on the psyche of experiences, not merely facts and statistics we find in newspapers and on twenty-four-hour newsfeeds. As such, poetry grounds sociopolitical issues in real lives of people with real names and real faces. It bears witness to the self and to others. It tightens the focus and makes us pause and pay attention. This act of humanizing issues, which can otherwise be highly abstracted, persuades and affects readers by fostering a certain empathy that generates a different understanding, another conversation, a new perspective. Think about it: art, in all its manifestations—including poetry—is one thing that survives all civilizations, and we continuously turn to it, because it tells the real story of a people.

Jimmy Santiago Baca: The boundaries of a poem can be as close as your nose or distant as the farthest star. If you preempt the poem, you impose limits, and hence your subject. Approach the matter with an open heart and allow it to designate the environment in which you’ll be traveling. Flow with the sounds, flow with the images, flow with being boundless, flow with loving what you encounter no matter how foreign it may seem at first, teach yourself to know nothing until you learn what it is you’ve encountered. Once you pluck the thread you’re drawn to, craft follows it, attracts other words to it, a line forms, a metaphor shapes, the mist clears and you’ve found the deer path crossing the field. The imminent force of your poem is fearlessness and it takes over structure. Learning where its agency is best nurtured––where the tree goes, the rock, the feet, the heart—allow the poem to guide you, with its instinctive stellar compass that is sensitive to what the poet cannot predict but feels. Freedom is ultimately the poem’s request, to be set free.

MB: As readers, we often only see the final draft of a poem, which is the product of hours and hours of work. Can you tell us a little bit about the research that went into writing your book? Was there a person you spoke to or a text you read that still stands out in your mind?

JSB: I integrate. I demolish policy and official practice, use my life to lure and invite by being a witness, being present, being part of the poem I am writing. Books, social media, news in general arrive at my door, but more important is the sublimation of the poem into my own life. Wrest it from public domain, wring from it what I may with my own hands and breathing and living, merge it raw into my being where I sit at my desk and start to play with the pieces, the stanzas, moving lines and sharpening metaphors, listening to its open appeal to me to reveal its inner working and intent.

RB: How to Love a Country was my most heavily researched book to date, because I was writing poems that extended beyond my autobiographical authority and experience. In particular, there are two poems that stand out, because I believe they involved more time conducting research than actually writing the poems. 

For “Listening to Aspens: A History Lesson,” I spent countless hours researching various sources to familiarize myself with the history, culture, and language of the Navajo and their Long Walk, when 8,500 Navajos (from 1864 through 1866) were forced to walk nearly three hundred miles from their traditional lands in the eastern Arizona Territory and western New Mexico Territory to Fort Sumner (in an area called the Bosque Redondo or Hwééldi by the Navajo). This included reading history books, watching videos, and reading other poets’ poems on the subject.

For “Letter from Yí Cheung,” I spent even more hours surveying dozens of Chinese immigrant stories from Angel Island, which was an immigration station from 1910 to 1940. As a result, I made the artistic choice to write a persona poem in the voice of a young Chinese girl detainee, not to appropriate her story, but because it seemed the most authentic and visceral way to honor that history and bring it to life for readers. In the end, however, all this research wasn’t just to get the facts right (which was important), but to also connect emotionally with these stories and feel I had the emotional authority to speak to and for them.

MB: In addition to being poets and advocates, you’re also educators in classrooms of all kinds, from youth detention centers to colleges and writing workshops. What do you think the role of poetry is in those spaces? How does it empower students?  

JSB: Poetry does what breath does, and it depends on how far you need to swim to reach shore. In other words, a poem for a kid at Los Prietos Youth Authority facing serious time in prison understands poetry in a different more intense and personal way than someone living in San Francisco on a trust-fund allowance and who doesn’t need to bother with paying bills or buying food or oppression. The kid’s breathing is infused with life and death issues, the Trust-funder’s breathing is worry-free and playfully unperturbed yoga-lifestyle, unencumbered by life’s deadly storms beyond the yoga mat.   

RB: I think poetry enriches and empowers students’ lives in two distinct, yet related ways: reading and writing. As an educator, I try my best to curate selections of poems by poets whose work reflects the lives of the students or group that I’m teaching. There is tremendous power and validation in seeing/reading about themselves in a poem and realizing that their lives and their stories matter. That’s exactly what happened to me when I first read Sandra Cisneros. Her work made me realize that I had a story to tell and gave me emotional permission to tell it with urgency. Hence, the importance of not only reading, but the act of writing poetry, which makes students investigate their lives and question the world, refusing to accept the status quo. What’s more, in that process, students learn to write through and transcend their losses, their pains, their misfortunes; as well as celebrate and honor their unique stories and move forward with more pride and confidence.



About the Poets

Selected by President Obama to be the fifth inaugural poet in history, Richard Blanco joined the ranks of such luminary poets as Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, and Elizabeth Alexander. Standing as the youngest, first Latino, first immigrant, and first openly gay person to serve in such a role, he read his inaugural poem, “One Today,” as an honorary participant in the official ceremony on January 21, 2013. Blanco was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States, meaning that his mother, seven months pregnant, and the rest of the family arrived as exiles from Cuba to Madrid, where he was born. Only forty-five days later the family emigrated once more and settled in Miami, where Blanco was raised and educated. The negotiation of cultural identity and universal themes of place and belonging characterize his three collections of poetry, which include City of a Hundred Fires (awarded the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press), Directions to the Beach of the Dead (recipient of the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center), and Looking for The Gulf Motel (winner of the Patterson Poetry Prize, a Maine Literary Poetry Award, and the Thom Gunn Award). His poems have also appeared in the Best American Poetry, and Great American Prose Poems series, and he has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air, as well as major US and international media, including CNN, Telemundo, AC360, the BBC, Univision, and PBS. Blanco is a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, recipient of two Florida Artist Fellowships, and a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. A builder of cities as well as poems, he is also a professional civil engineer currently living in Bethel, Maine. Follow him on Twitter at @rblancopoet and visit his website.

Jimmy Santiago Baca is an American poet, teacher, and activist of Apache and Chicano descent, and holds a number of awards for his easily accessible writing style and activism. He is the author of A Place to Stand, which was developed into a documentary film about his life, airing on PBS. He is also the author of When I Walk Through That Door, I Am. Follow him on Twitter at @poet52 and visit his website.