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Finding common ground

Poet and author Richard Blanco shares his experiences and advice about writing from life.

By
Sandra Guzmán
October 28, 2019

Poet Richard Blanco discusses writing with all five senses with students in English Instructor Erica Lazure's class.

The excitement was palpable in Instructor Erica Lazure’s English class when author Richard Blanco entered the room. The students seated around the Harkness table had spent their summer immersed in Blanco’s coming-of-age memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos, and were eagerly anticipating his campus visit.

Blanco has written more than a dozen poetry collections and chapbooks. In 2013, he catapulted to national fame after being named President Barack Obama’s second inaugural poet.

His latest book was the assigned reading for all 201 incoming preps — a first for the Academy. According to Tyler Caldwell, English instructor and Ninth Grade Program coordinator, the goal of the common reading was to create a sense of community and a base for discussion within the prep class. Blanco’s novel offers much to talk about as he explores his immigrant Cuban and American childhood in Miami, his homosexuality, and the often painful and difficult acculturation process of his parents and grandparents.

The author’s daylong stay at the Academy was eventful. It included meeting with the Latinx and the Gender and Sexuality Alliance affinity clubs; speaking at assembly; hosting a lunch conversation in Phillips Hall where students engaged with him more casually; and visiting classes.

In-class lesson

Lazure’s class began with each student introducing themselves and sharing an interesting fact that no one would know about them. It was an apt icebreaker for Blanco’s lesson on the use of detail in writing. The first thing he told students was to forget the most popular writing advice: show, don’t tell. Instead, he encouraged them to delve deeper and unpack the meaning of what he believes has become a hollow cliché.

He advised the young writers to focus on the five senses to bring readers into the world they are describing. “Sensory details are the bridge between two understandings — the writer and the reader,” he explained. “We experience the world through our five senses, so you have to use sensory details because they are the language of the experience of what it means to be human.”

We experience the world through our five senses, so you have to use sensory details because they are the language of the experience of what it means to be human."

By example, Blanco read “Looking for The Gulf Motel,” a poem inspired by memories of family vacations on Florida’s Marco Island. On his 38th birthday, he told students, he returned to the island and, after three decades of development, everything about the place had changed. He says he felt a similar longing to what his parents must have felt for a Cuba they had lost. The themes he touches on in the shimmering poem include time, place, culture, nostalgia, family, memory, loss and love:

 

“….My mother should still be in the kitchenette

of The Gulf Motel, her daisy sandals from Kmart

squeaking across the linoleum, still gorgeous

in her teal swimsuit and amber earrings

stirring a pot of arroz-con-pollo, adding sprinkles

of onion powder and dollops of tomato sauce.

My father should still be in a terrycloth jacket

smoking, clinking a glass of amber whiskey in the sunset at The Gulf Motel, watching us dive into the pool, two sons he’ll never see

grow into men who will be proud of him.”

 

“This poem lives in me as a sensory experience,” Blanco explained. “When I read it, I have to move my foot as my mother would her flip-flops, or I have to hold the glass like my father would his glass of whiskey, or feel the cigar in my mouth as he would have it.”

He recommended that students cultivate the practice of reading their work out loud to themselves, roommates, a cat, or a stuffed animal, even if they sound “like crazy people.” Reading out loud, he said, transforms words on a page into moving energy and a sensory experience.

A poem revised

As part of the poetic exercise, Blanco encouraged the students to rewrite a section of his poem, adding their own sensorial descriptions. Soon his Cuban mom was transformed into a social media maven. Instead of flip-flops, she was wearing Vans, which she purchased on Amazon and not at Kmart. Her teal swimsuit was traded in for a long white T-shirt and short shorts. And instead of arroz-con-pollo, she made vegan organic quinoa salad. The class laughed at the vast difference between Blanco’s mother in the poem and what she had become in their 2019 teen imaginations.

“I imagined what [Mr. Blanco] sounded like when I was reading the book, but now I know better his personality,” said Sofia Morais ’23. “He was as funny in person as he was in the book.” For Cassidy Hurabiell Trader ’23, having Blanco as a teacher made the learning experience complete: “I loved that I was able to meet the character in the book and also the person who wrote it.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.