Poet and memoirist Richard Blanco writes in a loose, narrative prose style. His writing is plain and doesn’t depend on metaphor or simile. There’s no rhyming words or meter, cadences that distract from the imagery he presents so clearly. His gifts are observation and clarification, and our every sense is engaged as he evokes the worlds he describes in words.
For Chautauqua Poets & Writers board member and teacher Michele Warrence-Schreiber, Blanco is a rock star.
“For him to come to the Rogue Valley is a phenomenon,” she says. “To be in the presence of a national poet is to be in the presence of someone like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.”
Blanco returns to the Rogue Valley to read for the final event in the Chautauqua Poets & Writers series at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 16, in the Mountain Avenue Theatre at Ashland High School, 201 S. Mountain Ave.
Reserved seats are $20 and can be purchased in advance at chautauquawriters.org. General seating tickets are $15 and can be purchased at Bloomsbury Books, Bookwagon or at the door.
It’s Blanco’s second visit to Ashland for the Chautauqua series. His first, in 2014, was a solid success with a sold-out reading at AHS and workshops for students and teachers around the Rogue Valley.
Blanco, who says he was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the US, read at Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration, the first Latino to do so. His work “For All of Us, One Today” was composed to celebrate new beginnings, revel in diversity and praise what immigrants bring to this country.
He’s authored 10 works of poetry and memoir, including an illustrated children’s version of “One Today,” with author and illustrator Dav Pilkey.
Chautauqua Poets wanted Blanco back this year not only for his poetry, but his message.
“We want to remind everyone what this country really stands for,” Warrence-Schreiber says. “Celebrating diversity and immigrants are what make America great. It’s the ultimate American story.”
Warrence-Schreiber and her organization work hard when they come to the Rogue Valley and are fully involved with area schools during their visits. They offer workshops for Rogue Valley teachers at Southern Oregon University’s Oregon Writing Project and visit schools throughout the valley, where they teach students in small, effective groups.
Dylan Kistler, an AHS senior, has been involved with Chautauqua Poets & Writers for the past four years and says he’s absolutely ecstatic about Blanco’s visit.
“He’s very relevant, writing about very relevant themes,” Kistler says. “You bump up against them everywhere and get a strong message about how to overcome them. It all feels very relevant for today.”
Kistler says he’s been writing since he was in the second grade, and it was AHS teacher Cathy Bowen-Jones who got him involved in the Chautauqua series. This year, Kistler serves as student liaison, managing publicity, promotion and scheduling.
But poetry? It was Kistler’s physics teacher, Kate Kennedy, who turned him on to poetry.
“She opened her classes by reading a poem to soften the science,” Kistler recalls. “She said a good poem is when all the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you realize the words are more than just words.”
Amy Blossom, a longtime Chautauqua board member, recently finished Blanco’s autobiography, “The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood” and found it hilarious.
“I loved learning more about him, about how Blanco found his voice,” Blossom says.
Blanco’s autobiography reveals the complex confusion of growing up in a traditional Cuban family in exile as his artistic and sexual identities were becoming clearer.
Although Blossom doesn’t ordinarily read poetry and doesn’t consider herself a writer, she loves the genre.
“Poetry moves me, it’s so succinct and can evoke emotion in so few words,” she says. “Not every author, every poet or every time, but I got Blanco’s writing right away.”
Chautauqua Poets & Writers is supported by Friends of the Ashland Public Library, the Ashland School District, Southern Oregon University’s Division of Humanities and Culture, the Curry Stone Foundation, and individual contributors. The series started in 2005 with Li-Young Lee, who returned in 2008. Other critically acclaimed and much-loved Chautauqua poets and writers have included Naomi Shihab Nye, Ted Kooser, Albert Rios and the poet brothers Matthew and Michael Dickman, among others. Ashland educators Patty and Vince Wixon — who are poets themselves — have always been at the heart of the series.
Maureen Flanagan Battistella is an Ashland freelance writer. She can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com