One of the cooler nights I had recently was seeing inaugural poet Richard Blanco and local, rising-star poet Dan Vera read at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. The visit to the Center was my first since the great Mr. L’Etoile made everyone in our high-school English class find a poetry reading and attend it. I found the poets crazy. Having gained an actual appreciation of poetry in the *cough* years since then, the result was worth the wait.
Vera, I had never heard of before. But what a talent. Cuba-born, Houston-raised, gay, the youngest child in his family by a number of years, literary historian, now a long-time resident of the Brookland neighborhood, Vera mined cultural borderlands for the room in a way that drew vocal reactions to every poem he read. One of the poems he read from his new Speaking Wiri Wiri had this beginning (found here in a good interview with him):
Because Cuban food in South Texas
is like dishes from Venus and Mars,
a reporter is sent to interview Mamá.
So different, so good. We didn’t stick it out amid the crowd for the signing, but I put the book on my wish-list when I got home. (Critics loved it too.)
Then came the main event, Richard Blanco, the engineer-turned poet you last saw reading in front of hundreds of thousands on the mall with all of the nation’s leaders by his side. Also a child of Cuban immigrants, also gay, also straddling careers, Blanco brought weighty, curious thoughts on his new role as An American Poet and internal-line command that demanded ears. My favorite was the title poem of his new Looking for the Gulf Motel.
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.
Also cool: Blanco studied under Campbell McGrath. When he mentioned it, I remembered what McGrath had asked me last year, and I got lost inside my head for a wonderful minute. (Why do we love the poems we love?)
On our way out, escaping the masses, we were sorry not to have a chosen to thank the poets for sharing their work in such an easy going way. Both had long Writer’s Center connections, and their readings couldn’t have felt more comfortable, each telling lots of stories and interrupting himself with this or that aside. But there on our way out of the main room was Vera, and we had a chance thank him. And just outside the Center’s front door was Blanco, having a smoke before his signing, and we got to thank him too. And wasn’t it amazing how poets were real people you could thank?