Village Voice: Poet Richard Blanco Reflects on the Craft of the Letter Poem

07.14.21

Richard Blanco joins Jim and Margery on Boston Public Radio for another segment of “Village Voice” with reflections on the craft of the letter poem.

“When you write directly to someone, the second person “you” feels very intimate and the reader feels like they’re overhearing this wonderful moment… It’s a great way to frame a poem. You get that direct connection.”

Blanco went on to read and discuss one of his own poems, “Sending Palms in a Letter.” Dedicated to his good friend from graduate school, Nikki Moustaki, who recently published the poetry collection Extremely Lightweight Guns.

He also shared “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, and “Letter From My Heart to My Brain” by Rachel McKibbens.

Follow along with the poems as they are read and discussed.

Sending Palms in a Letter
for N.M.

I received your letter today—thanks—along with
the crayon sketches of yourself in the corn fields,
there, where you are. I think I understand now,
from what you wrote and how you drew yourself—
with a giant frown and your hands in the air full
of refusal—what it must feel like for you, stranded
without bearings, towered by those terrible stalks,
feeling the empty weight of that awful mid-west
sky above rows of green husk and golden spears.
And you, panicking, looking for a way out, back
here to yourself, to the palm trees that you miss.
I tried sketching a few of them, hoping to send
their fronds fluttering like a line of ballerina arms
brushing at my window and bowing to the wind,
even tried to draw the sea for you: waves erasing
footprints and the tufts of wild grasses keeping
the mellow dunes from gusting away. If you leave
don’t come back, keep going, though I’m not sure
any place can complete us or completely ruin us,
Some days I feel I’ve known the palms and sea
long enough and want to leave myself, but where?
To keep watching corn grow or the palms sway—
our question may not be a matter of where, but
of how long we have to do all we want to, now
that we’re older, certain of this one life, uncertain
of the words we need for even the simplest things
———————————————————how I miss you, for instance.

What the Living Do
by Marie Howl

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil
probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty
dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday
we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the
sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in
here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the
street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday,
hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee
down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This
is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called
that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the
winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want
more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of
myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a
cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that
I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

Letter From My Heart to My Brain
By Rachel McKibbens

It’s okay to hang upside-down like a bat,
to swim into the deep end of silence,
to swallow every key so you can’t get out.
It’s okay to hear the ocean calling your fevered name

to say your sorrow is an opera of snakes,
to flirt with sharp and heartless things.
It’s okay to write, I deserve everything,
to bow down to this rotten thing
that understands you, to adore the red
and ugly queen of it, to admire
her calm and steady rowing.

It’s okay to lock yourself in the medicine cabinet,
to drink all the wine, to do what it takes to stay
without staying. It’s okay to hate God today
to change his name to yours, to want to ruin all that ruined you.
It’s okay to feel like only a photograph of yourself,
to need a stranger to pull your hair and pin you down,
it’s okay to want your mother as you lie alone in bed.
It’s okay to brick to fuck to flame to church to crush to knife
to rock to rock to rock to rock to rock and rock.

It’s okay to wave good-bye to yourself in the mirror.
To write, I don’t want anything.
It’s okay to despise what you have inherited,
to feel dead in a city of pulses. It’s okay
to be the whale that never comes up for air,
to love best the taste of your own blood.

This episode of “Village Voice” aired on GBH Boston Public Radio on July 12th, 2021.
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash.