2013 inaugural poet Richard Blanco will read from his new memoir, ‘The Prince of los Cocuyos,’ tonight (Thursday) at 7:30 at Gould Academy’s Bingham Auditorium.
The reading is the last stop on a three-month book tour that has taken Blanco from Maine to California to Miami—the city where he grew up in a close-knit community of Cuban immigrants—with dozens of stops in between.
Finally back at home in Bethel, and able to relax for the first time since the book was released in September, Blanco talked about the difference between writing poetry and memoir, the importance of community to his work, and his plans for the future.
Poetry, he said, provides an emotional outline of his experiences, while writing memoir is a way to bring the characters and stories to life in greater detail.
“I wanted to write the memoir because even after writing so much poetry, there were still back stories, there were still characters I wanted to talk more about,” Blanco said.
“I wanted to explore other dimensions of storytelling that the memoir can bring out. It’s very hard, for instance, to write about Easy Cheese in a poem, as I do in this book.”
(As a child seeking his place between the Cuban and American cultures, Blanco craved Oreos, TV dinners, and Easy Cheese as quintessentially American foods.)
He began writing the memoir about four years ago, and had written much of it before his selection as the inaugural poet resulted in his sudden celebrity.
“I started the memoir by just following my creative curiosities,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to write prose.”
“I’m very happy with the way poetry and memoir complement each other.”
Becoming famous as America’s fifth inaugural poet has changed a lot of things, but not Blanco’s focus on the importance of community.
“I have a lot of fun with [the fame],” he said. “It happened at an age when I was mature enough to keep my perspective.”
He said he loves meeting people and connecting with them through his writing. While the peace and solitude he finds at home are important to his writing process, he is also grateful for the opportunities he has had to go out into the world and share his work with so many people.
“A poem or a book is really only done when you connect it with people,” Blanco said. “It makes a full circle, rather than just being behind closed doors. There’s a time to sit and write, and a time for human connection.”
Although not a natural extrovert, he views sharing his art as part of his professional duty, but also finds himself energized by the busy schedule of readings and workshops.
“I guess it’s related to my craving for community, for connecting with people in an intimate, authentic way,” he said.
It’s that sense of community that he has found in Bethel, where he has lived for the past six years.
“It’s a place where you go into the store and you know everyone, and you know all the local gossip.”
Blanco said he is planning a follow-up memoir that will pick up where The Prince of los Cocuyos leaves off, with the 17-year-old Riqui preparing for the world beyond his Cuban neighborhood and the family-owned bodega where he has worked throughout high school.
There will be another volume of poems eventually, to add to his three previously published collections, City of a Hundred Fires (1998), Directions to the Beach of the Dead (2005), and Looking for the Gulf Motel (2012).
In the fall of 2015 a picture book will be released, featuring the text of the inaugural poem, “One Today,” with illustrations by children’s book author/illustrator Dav Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series.
In addition to books, Blanco is exploring the possibility of another medium for his work.
“I’d like to do a TV series based on the memoir,” he said, adding that he has had initial conversations with people in the industry about the idea.
“I feel that television would be a great medium to change the conversation about immigrants, and about Latinos, and about exiles in America. The reality is that immigrants have been a grand part of America’s story, are right now, and will continue to be.”
Blanco’s partner, Mark Neveu, recently started a new business in Waltham, Mass., which will necessitate having a home base there.
Although that means the couple will be spending more time away from their home in the Maine mountains, Blanco said, “This is still home to me, it’s still where I like to write.”
The house in Bethel will function as a place where he can write, create, and recharge, and he envisions one day sharing it with others for the same purpose.
“I have a dream of someday turning this property into an arts and writing center with a residential component,” he said.
He visualizes a retreat for writers and artists that would include space for literary events and workshops, a gallery and performance space, and more cottages like the current guesthouse on the property.
Visiting Writers Program at Gould
The event at Gould Academy is part of an ongoing collaboration between the poet and the school. The Richard Blanco Visiting Writers Program and Retreat was created to celebrate living writers and build appreciation for contemporary work.
In March, poet Spencer Reece spent two weeks in residence, working with Gould students and faculty through workshops and classroom visits, as well as presenting a public reading.
During the spring semester in 2015, the program will host Rachel McKibbens, a dynamic writer, speaker, and frequent poetry slam participant.
Tonight’s reading is free and open to the public.