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In turbulent times, Richard Blanco creates 'bridges of empathy' in new poetry book

"In a democracy there are setbacks, but we can’t let that dominate. Otherwise all bets are off and then what do we do?”
Image: Richard Blanco
Poet and author Richard Blanco, the nation's fifth inaugural poet, in a previous interview with NBC News about his memoir, "The Prince Of Los Cocuyos."Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner

Richard Blanco builds on his role as a civic poet in his new book, “How to Love a Country," tackling national issues such as gun violence, immigration, gay marriage, police shootings and domestic terrorism while "creating bridges of empathy" and reminding readers of the love and ties that bind Americans.

Blanco was “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the U.S.A,” as he writes in his website's bio page. Yet, the son of Cuban immigrants who settled in Florida via Spain has become one of the nation’s foremost American public poets, joining a rarified group of four others —Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams and Elizabeth Alexander — who served as inaugural poets, as Blanco did for President Barack Obama in January of 2013.

Image: Cover of How To Love a Country
The cover of Richard Blanco's collection of poems "How to Love a Country." Cover design by Carol ChuCourtesy Michelle Betters

In Blanco's new book, “How to Love a Country: Poems,” (March 26, Beacon Press) he lyrically weaves a tapestry that doesn’t flinch from painful past and present events — be it crimes against Native Americans in 1868 or the Pulse nightclub shooting — but always brings the reader back to the connections of love and community, as he writes at the end of his poem, “Mother Country”:

"To love a country as if I was my mother last spring/hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up/to the US Capitol, as if she were here before you today/instead of me, explaining her tears, cheeks pink/as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when/she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know mijo, it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where/you choose to die — that’s your country."

Deftly moving from concern to celebration and hope, the unifying thread in his poetry is his mission to help form a more perfect union.

“At the core of everything, what I try to do with my poetry is always create bridges of empathy,” Blanco said in a phone conversation with NBC News. "Hate only creates hate," he said, but creating “a space of love and compassion” is the only way to get out of our current political and social stalemate.

Blanco reflects on how far the country has come in some ways, as he does in "Until We Could," his poem about same-sex marriage. “I never thought I’d see marriage equality in my life,” said Blanco, who lives with his partner of 20 years, Mark Neveu, in Bethel, Maine.

But like a loving but concerned family member, Blanco shines a spotlight on the darker forces of division, as in the book’s second poem -- “Election Year” -- in which he writes about “the eye tricked/ into seeing how the garden flowers thrive/ in shared soil, drink from the same rainfall,/ governed by one sun, yet grow divided/ in their beds where they’ve lain for years.”

Blanco’s past work has been more autobiographical, including his previous poetry books and his memoir, "The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood," which dealt with his immigrant childhood, the pain of exile for his parents and his own coming out as a gay man.

But “How to Love a Country” tackles everything from lynchings to walls to gun violence. The poem “Seventeen Funerals” remembers the students killed in the Marjory Stoneham Douglas school shooting. “Seventeen dead carried down hallways they walked, past cases of trophies they won, flyers for clubs they belonged to, lockers they won’t open again.”

“Different times demanded a different kind of poetry from me,” Blanco said. “In a democracy, there are setbacks, but we can’t let that dominate, otherwise all bets are off and then what do we do?”

Blanco has written many of the poems in response to specific events, and he has shared them publicly at memorial services or ceremonies, such as “Remembering Boston Strong,” which he read at a benefit following the Boston Marathon bombing.

Some poems, like “Matters of the Sea,” which he read at the historic opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, under Obama, depict a more hopeful time before relations between the two countries hardened more under the Trump administration.

In the “Complaint of El Rio Grande,” his verses tackle the ongoing national news story around border crossings and migration. But from the perspective of the river, the issue takes a heartbreaking dimension. “You split me in two —half of me us, the rest them. But I wasn’t meant to drown children, hear mothers’ cries, never meant to be your geography: a line, a border, a murderer.”

The poem “Como Tú/Like You/Like Me,” includes a dedication “for the D.A.C.A. DREAMers and all our nation’s immigrants." The stanzas describe the in-between feeling of young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, who have been in the United States since they were children but have no legal status: “Como tú, I am either a mirage living among these faces and streets that raised me here, or I’m nothing, a memory forgotten by all I was taken from and can’t return to again.”

The role of poetry, Blanco said, is to try to see the gray area, or the “beauty even in the chaos.” He told NBC News he felt he had to "step up" in response to what was happening around him, the way previous American writers and poets have done.

“We have to ask the question that [Walt] Whitman asked, what does it mean to be an American?" he said. "What is this great, social experiment? I think I’m just adding to that narrative.”