Village Voice: Richard Blanco On The Persona Poem

02.24.20

On this episode of the Village Voice, Richard Blanco joined Jim and Margery to share a crash course on the persona poem, also known as dramatic monologue, in which the poet speaks through a voice other than their own.

“It’s a neat way that poems can twist the point of view to get at something else you wouldn’t ordinarily get to if you were just speaking as the poet narrator or the poet speaker,” he said.

For our listening pleasure and for a true experience of the dramatic monologue, Richard read the following poems before opening up the conversation.

Letter from Yi Cheung
Richard Blanco
Angel Island Immigration Station, 1938

When I saw you last, rain blessed
in the ground orchids, all of Chung Lau
crowded your good face with goodbyes.
You took the long road to Hoi-Ping
to the sea — to America. I was young
as the kapok blooms but did not cry
for you gone. Remember? I cried joy
for the dream you sought for you,
and for me to know someday too.

Twice in age and height now, hair
braided no more, I crossed the seas
you crossed. I am here, so near you,
father, on this island called Angel, but
with no wings to fly me across the bay
between us, with no bridge to your city,
like the glowing bridge I sometimes see
when the fog clears, and I imagine you:
clinging to street cars, tending the soiled
clothes of strangers, thinking of mama
dying without you. But the fog returns
— everything disappears, even hope.

How to say this, father: every day
they take me into a room of cold chairs
and blue eyes. They demand I remember
the streets of my childhood, the names
of our village neighbors, their children,
the colors of their houses. Sometimes
I forget. Sometimes I lie. Sometimes
I answer right, but they do not believe
I am your daughter, even when I speak
your full, honorable name or swear
I know the heart-shape of your face
is like mine. They do not yet let me go.

Months of bitter nights in barracks,
I make myself sleep by counting stars
I no longer see, turning my harsh sighs
into lullabies you once sang like chimes.
I try not to think of the pigeons trapped
and eaten by the men, or the old woman
whose name I knew, when she hanged
herself from the bedsheets in the hall.
I shy from the poems on the walls carved
by some who curse this place, this land,
and its people. I may understand why.

But those words never are mine —
nothing can stop our sun, our moon,
our tides and seasons, nor what I have
dreamed in you, and you in me. Our life
true against hardship, more now as I wish
to be where you are, as you are. But soon
I will have my wings, the fog will forever
clear, your gracious gaze will bless me,
your hand to hold mine, brush my face
like a feather. I will hear your voice call
me to my destiny by the beautiful name
you gave me, meaning: joy, harmony.

The Tarantula
Reed Whittemore

Everyone thinks I am poisonous. I am not.
Look up and read the authorities on me, especially
One Alexander Petrunkevitch, of Yale, now retired,
Who has said of me (and I quote): my “bite is dangerous
Only
To insects and small mammals such as mice.”
I would have you notice that “only”; that is important,
As you are who neither insect nor mouse can appreciate.
I have to live as you do,
And how would you like it if someone construed your relations
With the chicken, say, as proof of your propensities?
Furthermore,
Petrunkevitch has observed, and I can vouch for it,
That I am myopic, lonely and retiring. When I am born
I dig a burrow for me, and me alone,
And live in it all my life except when I come
Up for food and love (in my case the latter
Is not really satisfactory: I
“Wander about after dark in search of females,
And occasionally stray into houses,” after which I
Die.) How does that sound?
Furthermore, I have to cope with the digger wasp of hte genus
Pepsis; and despite my renown as a killer (nonsense, of course).
I can’t. Petrunkevitch says so.
Read him. He’s good on the subject. He’s helped me.

Which brings me to my point here. You carry
This image about me that is at once libelous
And discouraging, all because you, who should know better,
Find me ugly. So I am ugly. Does that mean that you
Should persecute me as you do? Read William Blake.
Read William Wordsworth.
Read Williams in general, I’d say. There was a book
By a William Tarantula once, a work of some consequence
In my world on the subject of beauty,
Beauty that’s skin deep only, beauty that some
Charles (note the “Charles”) of the Ritz can apply and take off
At will, beauty that — but I digress.
What I am getting at
Is that you who are blessed (I have red) with understanding
Should understand me, little me. My name is William
Too.

CHARLES STUART IN THE HOSPITAL
Cornelius Eady

Susan Smith knows what
Charles Stuart knew in Boston:
We do quick, but sloppy work.
All these details:

How tall was I? the police asked Charles,
And ask Susan,
But I wary; I seem smaller and taller
After dusk.
What was the tone of my voice?
Did I grow like a hound as I waved
The pistol in their face?
Was I as desperate as a teenaged boy,
Horny for a sweetheart’s kiss?

Here’s what I told Susan:
“I won’t harm your kids.”
But if the moment was mine,
Why would I say that?

I sit with her at the station
The way I sat with Charles
At the hospital:
A shadow of the water glass,
Changing hues,

The slant of my nose and eyes.
Depending on the light
And the question.

Charles rocks in bed with the bullet
We gave ourselves.
How far away was I? We never stopped
To think.
We were in a hurry.
In Boston and South Carolina
I was hungry for a car
And didn’t much care how I got it.
Deadly impatient, Charles tells the cops,
But if I couldn’t be seen,
But why would I do it that way?
Why do wives and children seem to attract me?

I sat with Charles the way I sit
With Susan; like anyone, and no one,
Changing clothes,
Putting on and taking off ski caps,
Curling and relaxing my hair,
Trying hard to become sense.

This episode of “Village Voice” aired on WGBH Boston Public Radio on February 24, 2020.