Mention poetry, and, unless you’re a poet, memories of dull high school English classes (think “only God can make a tree” from “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer) or images of recluses reciting their poems while floating in the clouds will likely come to mind. W. H. Auden, a gay, great, non-reclusive poet, famously said that poetry doesn’t legislate. No matter how good, a poem, by itself, won’t end poverty or bigotry.
Yet, despite its limitations and negative cultural baggage, poetry rocks today! On May 19, Split This Rock (SplitThisRock.org), a Washington, D.C.-based, national poetry organization that works for social change will celebrate its fifth anniversary at a gala featuring Richard Blanco, the poet of Obama’s 2013 inauguration. At the event, Blanco, the first openly gay man and Latino, to be a presidential poet, and Grace Cavalieri, host of the public radio show “The Poet and the Poem,” will discuss what it was like behind the scenes at the inauguration. Blanco, a son of Cuban immigrants and the author of three poetry collections including “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” who lives with his partner Mark in Bethel, Maine, will read from his work and the DC Youth Slam team will perform at the gala.
Since its founding, Split This Rock has been a haven for progressive poets — from youth to elders to people of color to LGBT folk to people with disabilities. Trying to do what you can to enhance social change is seldom easy. Embracing differences can be difficult. Yet, as a legally blind, queer poet, I’m one of many (from straight men to teens) who have found STR to be one of the most LGBT friendly, genuinely diverse communities in which to do the hard work of making poetry and fighting for social justice.
“When we founded Split This Rock, we were deeply honored when the brilliant lesbian feminist poet and activist Adrienne Rich wrote to us, ‘Thank you for your belief in the freeing power of language and action,’” Split This Rock director Sarah Browning e-mailed the Blade. “LGBT poets like Richard Blanco create freedom by… telling the truth about their lives.”
Queer courage lights the way within the progressive poetry movement, guiding all of us to a new world based on justice and beauty, Browning said.
You don’t have to live in the clouds, teach or even have an M.F.A. degree to be a poet, but you need to be talented and brave. Anyone can use language, Cavalieri, a poet and playwright, e-mailed the Blade, “but to become a poet, language must use courage.”
Blanco, who earned an M.F.A. degree in creative writing from Florida International University and received the Beyond Margins Award from the Pen American Center for his collection “Directions to the Beach of the Dead,” is a talented and courageous poet. “At the barricades of society, Blanco didn’t set out to become an ‘inaugural poet,’” Cavalieri said. “He just began writing to tell his truth with as much detail and invention as the heart could hold.”
In his youth, Blanco was discouraged from being queer. “Stop eyeing your mother’s Avon catalog/ and the men’s underwear in those Sears flyers,” he writes in his poem “Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother,” “…Avoid hugging men, but if you must/pat them real hard on the back, even/if it’s your father.”
Poetry has the power to galvanize people because it brings out our humanity in ways that other genres don’t, Blanco said in a telephone interview with the Blade. “I see poetry as a kind of mirror in which everyone can see themselves.”
Why is there a disconnect between poetry and many who aren’t poets? “Because … people aren’t taught enough contemporary poetry,” Blanco said. “I went all through college without reading contemporary poetry.”
Poetry makes connections between cultures, Blanco said.
Dare to see yourself in the mirror of poetry. Check out Split This Rock.