The 2013-2014 season of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series start a tad late as the largest contingent of audience members since Salman Rushdie (or perhaps ever) shuffled into Kleinhans to see Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco talk about his career and inspiration. Even after a nice poem written and read by one of the artists who use the Genesseo Migrant Center to hone her artistic skills and the usual introduction from Just Buffalo Artistic Director Barbara Cole (one that brought Blanco to the verge of tears) push the evening farther, however, I’m not sure anyone expected just how late the whole event would eventually last. Listening to Blanco recall his journey towards identity and read the poems written to immortalize each step, No one really seemed to mind.
That’s not entirely true because a handful definitely hit the exits around the second time our guest checked his watch to relay that, “the Cuban wasn’t doing too bad”. And even more left before a Q&A session that didn’t begin until 9:45—later than when I’m usually walking to my car after getting my book signed. There was real love for what this practicing engineer/award-winning poet stood for, the work he has produced, and quasi stand-up comedian routine (his words) that enthralled us with a healthy dose of laughter. And while many watching weren’t Babel regulars and may never attend again, solely there because they wanted to see the man President Obama chose to speak at his second inauguration, mainstream reasons like this still get people out to help the show continue into the future.
Less an oral history or straight poetry reading—both of which it was too—Blanco gave his audience a performance. He engaged us with the repetition of questions “Who are we?” and “Where do we come from?” while sharing his work aloud the way he believes all poetry should. To him the public act of engaging people as a mirror, using honest words to transcend his personal stories into universal archetypes everyone is able to have an authentic reaction with was the genre’s true purpose. His deliberate cadence and pacing breathed new life into poems I’m sure many had already read, letting the rhythm play as he always intended with perfect comedic timing and poignant resonance. To hear him sing them so energetically and enthusiastically reminded me how wonderful poetry can be off the page.
It’s the same feeling I had listening to Derek Walcott speak during his Babel appearance in 2008 and Blanco understands in a contemporary sense as far as educating new generations to this living, breathing thing. If he had his way he’d talk to the Department of Education and tell them poetry curriculum at present is doing a disservice to their students. If you make the medium accessible—grab their attention with more recent work that plays with its forms and gives it a pulse—they will embrace it and then want to go back to the past classics to see how it progressed. And if teachers read poems like his “Betting on America”, “We’re Not Going to Malta”, or “Queer Theory According to My Abuela” to their classes, he may be proven correct.
Blanco went on to joke about “Cuban PTSD”, the prevalence of pork (for Thanksgiving dinner too), loving Miami because “it was so close to America”, and his decision to become an engineer stemming from it being the lesser of three evils growing up in an immigrant working class family where it was either that, doctor, or lawyer. He spoke of his parents’ courage to leave Cuba for Spain while he was still in the womb as well as their faith in the American Dream to pack up forty-five days after his birth to arrive in Florida. And he mentioned the concept of “cultural sexuality” and how his grandmother helped make him a writer through her verbal abuse about his lack of “machismo” turning him into an introvert and therefore an observer of life.
To Blanco language engineers a solution and it wasn’t until he was writing Obama’s poem “One Today”—his second about America after the first creative writing assignment he composed once his adult life allowed the arts in—that he finally got a grasp on answering the “Who are you?” question plaguing him throughout a life filled with labels like Cuban, Latino, Gay, etc. He discovered that while Cuba was his parents’ it was not his on any level beyond a psychologically one. He says how it was “part of me but not all of me” and that he realized America was his home and where he would stay—a community of exiles standing together with open arms and helping hands that may not be perfect, but is without a doubt possessed by the potential to be so.
Babel 2013/2014 Season:
Amy Tan (USA) – November 22, 2013 – The Joy Luck Club
Suzan-Lori Parks (USA) – March 11, 2014 – Topdog/Underdog
Abraham Verghese (Ethiopia) – April 8, 2014 – My Own Country
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courtesy of Just Buffalo