For the spring 2018 semester, Richard Blanco, inaugural poet at Barack Obama’s second inauguration, was the artist in residence at Colby’s Lunder Institute for American Art. He taught a one-credit course to Colby students who use works in the Colby museum to teach poetry to area children. He also worked with scores of schoolteachers on incorporating poetry into their classes. Blanco spoke with Stephen Collins ’74 about his connections to the College, how reading poetry at the 2013 inauguration changed his life, and his crusade to connect communities with poetry.
How did your role as inaugural poet change your perspective?
Blanco: You are branded as the presidential inaugural poet … and that’s a very powerful and wonderful and amazing thing. But then you are very public, so you can’t just publish a first draft of a poem. You really scrutinize yourself, because now you’re under the public spotlight. … You have this incredible public honor and people are just waiting for you to fall flat on your face, right?
But what kind of doors has that label opened for you?
Blanco: I’ve really taken on a personal mission of thinking about poetry education or arts education. I became the first-ever education ambassador for the Academy of American Poets—serving teachers and thinking about innovative and easy and fun ways of bringing in and making poetry relevant to a classroom.
And your work here at Colby is part of that?
In terms of the Colby students, it’s working together to create lesson plans modeled after what we call Teach This Poem, which is modeled after John Dewey’s idea of art as experience. A lot of these students will go out in the world eventually and become teachers or run workshops themselves as artists. So this is a way of getting them to understand, not just how we learn art and poetry, but how we also teach it. … The kids [from the Alfond Youth Center] benefit from having an extracurricular thing here and, of course, learning and being invited to the museum. We’re doing a pageant in the museum where they’re going to read their poems, and we’re inviting their parents. It lets them know that this is a place for them to learn and be.
Your memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos, and your poetry depict an outsider—the gay son of Cuban immigrants who is comfortable in Miami bodegas but not in the big, American, Winn-Dixie supermarket, much less a museum. Does work here bridge similar boundaries for Waterville children?
Yes. Certainly [breaking down] social and class barriers. That’s a big part. And I love that I’m doing this with the museum because art suffers in some ways from the same thing that poetry does—a lot of misinformation, a lot of archaic notions of what art is, a lot of just, “That’s not for me, that’s only for fancy people.” Which is how I grew up. I was one of those kids that was denied arts as a working-class child of working-class parents. So I’m breaking those barriers across all arts and connection to them. That echoes my experience as inaugural poet, where I hadn’t realized that when you do give people a chance with art, with poetry, that can be very powerful and that can be very well received.
Why? How did people react?
When 40 million people hear a poem, stuff happens, right? We crashed three Gmail accounts, people writing from all over the country from all walks of life, people hugging me in the streets in Washington, D.C., crying in my arms. Yet I can’t tell you how many times they could not say the word “poem.” They would say we loved and really connected with your “speech,” your “talk.” They were so ingrained to believe that they would never get anything out of a poem or connect with a poem that it surely couldn’t be a poem.
“I love that I’m doing this with the museum because art suffers in some ways from the same thing that poetry does—a lot of misinformation, a lot of archaic notions of what art is, a lot of just, ‘That’s not for me, that’s only for fancy people.’ Which is how I grew up.”
So there’s work to do to get people to embrace poetry?
When you open the door and present [contemporary] poets to the average Joe or Jane, you see this incredible reaction and it’s like, “Wow! I didn’t know it could be like that.” They’re still thinking poetry is some dead white guy from Britain. It is that too, but it didn’t stay there. … You can walk out of high school and you will know generally that visual arts have evolved. You will know that we don’t paint like Michelangelo anymore. … But you can walk out of high school thinking that the last [poem] that was written was by Robert Frost. … Many English teachers will be out front and say, “I don’t know how to teach poetry. I’m scared of poetry.” Nobody taught them. … So people are not made to understand, or educated to understand, that poetry is something that’s just evolved.
How did you get connected to Colby?
I was awarded an honorary degree back when [President William D.] Bro Adams was here. We’ve actually stayed friends. And I felt great energy at Colby, largely because I’m a real, real fanatic of a liberal arts education. Being a poet and an engineer, and being always left-brained and right-brained since I was a little kid, I have come to understand that true knowledge is a wide spectrum; that success in any career involves knowing that all knowledge is connected and that in some ways all knowledge is useful. I love that spirit here at Colby. It’s reflected in the students I have here. Some are studio art majors with, like, economics and philosophy. We have someone who’s doing film. That varied interest is one of the keys to success in life, no matter whether you’re a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, an engineer. It’s understanding that all knowledge is connected and powerful and useful.