Using Photographs to Generate Poems; A Preview of a Poetry-Intensive at Maine Media Workshops


On the latest episode of “Village Voice,” poet Richard Blanco offers a preview of his poetry class for the Writers Harbor Poetry Week at Maine Media Workshops and College, which will focus on using photographs to generate poems.

“We think photographically; memories are photographic…photos are doorways into imagination. I’ll ask participants to bring photos that have mystique or intrigue, and to let the poem discover what it means…let the imagination open up to the past. We’ll also take photographs and then write a poem based on the photo we just took. The idea is to look at the world as a poem. We have to frame certain things, what are we choosing to focus on? What’s beyond the frame?”

Richard shared two of his poems, “Mamá with Indians 1973, 2007,” and “Papá at the Kitchen Table” (from Looking for the Gulf Motel), and “The Only Portrait of Emily Dickinson” by Irene McKinney.

Tune in for the conversation and read along with the poems listed!

*Note: “Apologies for the misuse of the word “Indian.” It’s written from the Child’s perspective. “I was obsessed with this photo as a child and wrote this poem to try to understand why.”

“Mamá with Indians 1973, 2007”

I thought Mamá could never die, then
I saw her—right there—in full color
captured by two Indians, their faces
streaked with blood, one wielding
a tomahawk above her, the other a spear
inches away from her neck, her mouth
frozen in a scream that wouldn’t stop
trembling in my hand. I peeled the photo
from the album, hid it in my drawer,
daring a peek every night at bedtime.
How could this be—

there aren’t any Indians
in Miami? Who saved her—Papá?
Where was I? I questioned silently
for days, until I saw the Indian’s eyes
had no pupils, their skin was too shiny,
their weapons too dull—like plastic.
Then I found a door in the prairie sky
painted behind the stuffed buffalo,
a twinkle in Mamá’s not-so-scared eyes,
and I put the photo back, believing
once again she would live

forever, but now
she forgets names, doesn’t sew or talk
about my father much anymore, today
I found her tossing his shoes and boxes
of old photos, hobbling on her bad knee
until it hurt and she had to take her throne—
the faded La-Z-Boy with gashed armrests
she won’t replace: This one will outlive me,
she chuckles, and I see the Indians again
surrounding her, knowing this time she
might not escape—and I can’t save her.

*Note: “Photographs are a way to reconstruct my father, imagine him back into my life.”

Papá at the Kitchen Table

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give

— ee cummings

This isn’t from a photograph of my father,
there’s nothing to prove I remember him
like this: alone at the kitchen table beside
a crystal bowl dulled with plastic red grapes,
the curtains thin as vellum hang against
the morning light, holding back the sun
not yet risen above our terra-cotta rooftop.

And yet, I’ll be driving on the interstate, or
mincing onions, or reading the newspaper,
when suddenly there he will be: the same
blue-striped boxers, his hairy legs crossed,
waiting for his espresso to brew, the glow
of the range, the glow of his cigarette—
tapping the ashes into the cup of his hand.

I can’t remember any photo with his elbows
on the table, palms clasped around his face
like sepals of a flower, leaning into the light
of the window, seeing what I imagine he saw:
grackles squawking at nothing, the mangos
hanging like brick-red hearts, the sundial
shadows of light poles across the driveway.

Sometimes when I’m shaving he appears
in the mirror watching the thin, white film
of the moon in the morning sky vanishing
with the life I still wish for him, not the life
he had: fleeing Cuba to Madrid, ten dollars,
one suitcase, winter work at a bomb factory
in New York, then a butcher shop in Miami.

There’s no snapshot of him head-bowed
to the floor, counting the terrazzo specks,
tugging at his eyebrows, thinking what I think
he thought: how he’d pay for my tuition,
a trip to Disney World he couldn’t promise,
if he’d ever learn English, see Cuba again,
the gun I knew he kept under his bed.

Even though there’s no black-and-white
to prove it, today as I walk the beach,
the sky, the sea, and my life are one
with his, the clouds stop and tell me
it’s all true: the kitchen table, the aroma
of his espresso—black—the beams of light
pricing him, his eyes quiet and heavy
moonstones wishing me a good morning.

The Only Portrait of Emily Dickinson
Irene McKinney

The straight neck held up out of the lace
is bound with a black velvet band.
She holds her mouth the way she chooses,
the full underlip constrained by a small muscle.

She doesn’t blink or look aside,
although her left eye is considering
a slant. She would smile
if she had time, but right now

there is composure to be invented.
She stares at the photographer.
The black crepe settles. Emerging
from the sleeve, a shapely hand

holds out a white, translucent blossom.
“They always say things which embarrass
my dog,” she tells the photographer.
She is amused, but not as much as he’d like.

Visit The Writers Harbor Poetry Week at Maine Media to learn more and register for Richard’s one-week poetry intensive.

This episode first aired on GBH Boston Public Radio on Monday, May 10th, 2021.