Inaugural poet Richard Blanco hosts workshops


Sean Lee and Ayesha Sen

This week, former President Barack Obama’s inaugural poet Richard Blanco virtually hosted a three-day poetry workshop on the fundamentals of strong poetry writing.

Blanco read his poem, “Looking for the Gulf Motel” to the attendees, who then reread it, looking for sensory detail. The attendees then discussed those details, the craft of the poem, and the interaction between poet, poem, and reader. In the following meeting, Blanco went over the technicalities of poetry, including the use of line breaks to emphasize certain elements of a poem.

Blanco emphasized the importance of technical skills and language in poetry during the workshops. “Besides all this technical mumble jumble, writing and thinking and lines and line breaks and typography and stanzas are at the very essence of poetry because it makes us think differently,” Blanco said. “It makes us hear language differently. It makes us put words on paper differently.”

English teacher Dr. Deborah Kassel took her 11th and 12th grade English classes to Blanco’s three-day workshop because she thought Blanco’s talent as a poet and his potential would positively affect her students’ development as writers, she said. Furthermore, the study of poetry is an essential component of her English 11 class, she said. “How could I deprive my students of the opportunity of working directly with one of America’s most celebrated poets?”

Arman Azmi (10) attended the workshop because of his own interest in creative writing and to become familiar with Blanco’s work. “I knew about Blanco because he came to our school once already, but I wasn’t familiar with his work,” he said. “After I went to the first day of the workshop, I was blown away when he read his poem ‘Looking for the Gulf Motel.’”

English teacher Rebecca Bahr took her 12th grade English elective, Writing Nature, to one of Blanco’s workshops on Wednesday, she said. In the elective, students write or read a significant amount of poetry, so Bahr jumped at the chance to work with Blanco, knowing her class would benefit from his workshop.

Bahr was especially impressed with Blanco’s discussion of senses, she said. Blanco showed the attendees that his poems are 98% sensory details, which Bahr has been discussing with her students. “Blanco discussed how we, at essence, are biological beings, always rooted in the senses,” she said.

Blanco’s emphasis on the importance of generating a poem with an uncensored flow of words — which can later be structured in a more deliberate way — stood out to Kassel. She was particularly intrigued by Blanco’s inversion of the adage, “show-don’t-tell” into “tell by showing.”

Rachel Zhu (12) was fascinated by the discussion about the extent to which a poet can fabricate details for the sake of artistry for emotion. “Blanco said something along the lines of ‘It’s true as long as it’s true to you,’ which is immensely inspiring,” she said.

Blanco’s reading of his poems felt more personal and intimate, helping Zhu feel the human connection even more during the workshop, she said.

In one activity, Blanco asked students to write a sensory-based poem about a specific location, as he did in his poem, “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” Bahr said. “I love the way he broke down [the assignment] into steps for the students, but also shared the fact that his first version of the poem was really not very good,” she said. After revision, Blanco used only one sentence from the first draft, Bahr said.

“That is such a good lesson for us — rarely do the poems just pour out of us,” she said. “There is real craft in getting to the finished product.”

Attending the workshop was an extremely positive experience, Zhu said. “The workshop has given me a multitude of insights and perspectives that will cause me to look at [poetry] in a whole new light.”