Colin Simpson walked into his Poetry as News class in late September, the first day for the class this semester. The senior communications major caught the gaze of his professor.
“Long time no see! I met you at the Books & Books event this summer,” Simpson said. “I was expecting to meet you three weeks ago!”
His professor smiled.
“So was I,” said Richard Blanco. “Let’s get started!”
Standing before the class in a neatly pressed yellow shirt and navy pants — likely a nod to his alma mater’s blue and gold — Blanco was ready to begin. The class had been a long time in the making and students had been waiting weeks for their chance to learn from one of the most celebrated American poets in recent history. He also happens to be an FIU alumnus.
The class was originally scheduled to begin three weeks after the start of the fall semester — a byproduct of Blanco’s demanding schedule filled with speaking engagements and poetry readings. When Hurricane Irma barreled through Florida in early September, that start date was pushed back even later. Though Blanco delivered the inaugural poem at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013 and a dedication poem at the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, in 2015, on that first day of class at FIU, he still possessed the nervous energy of someone who was speaking in public for the first time. He was eager to meet his students and learn more about them.
Blanco talked about how he used to ride his bike as a kid from his home in nearby Westchester to campus. He talked about how he became an engineer, having earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering from FIU in 1991. He also talked about how he became a poet.
“I started writing poetry, really bad poetry, when I was 25 or 26,” Blanco said. “So I took classes to get better at it, and I just fell into it.”
Blanco earned a master’s in creative writing at FIU in 1997. He published three books of poetry and a memoir. Today, he uses his public experiences to connect communities through the arts and make poetry relevant and accessible to everyone.
“I don’t say this as an ego thing, but I got so many emails from people and hugs from strangers on the street after the inauguration,” Blanco said. “It made me aware of how much of an impact poetry can have in a public space. This is why this class exists.”
Throughout the semester, Blanco and his students are discussing the themes of contemporary poems and what perspectives they take in relation to sociopolitical issues. Poetry allows audiences to understand an issue from a different dimension that is not evoked in the news, Blanco said.
During the first class, Blanco gave his students a chance to dissect his own poem “Looking for the Gulf Motel.” Finding himself filled with the same kind of longing and nostalgia his parents had for their lost Cuba, he wrote the poem in response to the development of Marco Island where he had vacationed so many times as a child. Pacing, he recites from memory:
There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .
The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts
and ship’s wheel in the lobby should still be
rising out of the sand like a cake decoration.
My brother and I should still be pretending
we don’t know our parents, embarrassing us
as they roll the luggage cart past the front desk
loaded with our scruffy suitcases, two-dozen
loaves of Cuban bread, brown bags bulging
with enough mangos to last the entire week,
our espresso pot, the pressure cooker—and
a pork roast reeking garlic through the lobby.
All because we can’t afford to eat out, not even
on vacation, only two hours from our home
in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled
by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida,
where I should still be for the first time watching
the sun set instead of rise over the ocean.
The poem is about more than his memory of how things felt, tasted, looked, smelled and sounded, though he takes readers on a journey of his five senses.
“A poem is a conversation between the poet and the reader,” Blanco said. “Who cares about little Ricky and my memories of the Gulf Motel? Unless I can make readers connect with their own lives and experiences, then the poem fails for me. A poem isn’t about ‘I,’ it’s about ‘we.’”
As that first class carried on, Blanco’s nervous energy gave way to the passionate confidence for which he has become known. His shirt wasn’t so neatly tucked. His sleeves now rolled up. With a semester ahead of him, Blanco has returned to FIU, this time as the teacher. His work here is just beginning.