The 2020 Hemingway Distinguished Lecture is going ahead at The Community Library in Ketchum this Thursday, with various new community health protocols in place.
The lecture will be delivered by award-winning poet Richard Blanco, who acted as the presidential inaugural poet for Barack Obama’s second inauguration. He is the youngest person ever to do so, as well as the first Latino, first immigrant and first gay person to fulfill the role.
Blanco’s work frequently draws upon his personal history, heritage and cultural identity. Born in Madrid, Spain, to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami, Fla., Blanco said he feels as though he “belongs to three countries.” What it means, exactly, to belong to a country is a core artistic consideration of his, most exactly explored in his latest collection, 2019’s “How To Love a Country.”
The volume delves into themes of place and identity, alongside those of race, sexuality, violence and immigration. He explores America’s darkest moments as well as its most hopeful, taking the good with the bad to deliver a powerful message about what it means to reconcile the past with the present in order to achieve a bright future.
“Actually, the title is more of a question than a statement,” he said. “How do you love a country? What is a country? Is this country—or any country—at the end of the day a fiction we tell ourselves? Much of our sense of country is fictitious. How do we let go of that, move past it without fully abandoning it, in order to have a different kind of dialogue with it?”
Although one would be hard-pressed not to find words of wisdom in Blanco’s verse, he has said himself that “poetry is not about answering questions. It’s more about asking them. Keep on asking questions—there’s never a final answer. Every generation adds more questions. Some get answered, but new ones always arrive.”
His is a constant quest to identify, elucidate and analyze those quandaries, and he comes to Ketchum in a year fraught with new, unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions. His Hemingway Distinguished Lecture will be a mixture of poetry reading, discussion and commentary, as dialogue is key to any problem-solving.
“Art in general lets us have a different kind of dialogue, a different kind of thinking. We all come to our sense of country with our own biases—that’s true across the board,” Blanco said. “What we have to try to do is explore a dialogue that hasn’t been explored, not to define an answer, but to perhaps present a possibility. We will find space to learn this. It’s a work in progress.”
Even as he dives into hard-hitting issues like the Pulse nightclub shooting and acts of lynching in Alabama, Blanco’s writing never completely abandons its definitive sense of hope. He fully believes that even in history’s darkest moments, humanity has the potential to overcome.
“I always look towards hope and change in a positive way,” he said. “Some poetry stays in the problem, but I know there’s some direction to be gained, even if not a way out entirely. What’s going on right now is very frightening, but it’s beautiful, too.”
Blanco has had a busy week already since arriving in Idaho on Sunday. He held a two-day outdoor creative writing workshop for students and educators, leading the group in conversations and exercises the first day before workshopping participants’ original poetry the second day.
Blanco and library Director Jenny Emery Davidson will also stream two workshops for educators from the Hemingway House as part of a program presented by the Idaho Humanities Council.
Inspired by the natural beauty of the Idaho landscape and by the legacy of the Hemingway House, where he is spending much of his time, Blanco is composing an original poem to be debuted specially for the 2020 Hemingway Distinguished Lecture.
His lecture will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 16. The event is free, but seating is limited in keeping with current COVID-19 considerations. Registration is required. Since the weather forecast bodes well, the event will take place outside, with the library closing a portion of Fourth Street to accommodate extra seating.
For those who cannot attend in person, the entire program will be livestreamed. Visit comlib.org/event/2020-hdl-richard-blanco to learn more or register.