Islanders had the opportunity to sit around the campfire with inaugural poet Richard Blanco during the Sanibel Island Writers Conference hosted at BIG ARTS.
As a keynote speaker for the four-day conference, Blanco read some of his work to students, Florida Gulf Coast University faculty, and local poetry lovers on Saturday, Nov. 9. During the day he also hosted a craft workshop for aspiring poets.
"Poetry is about us sitting right here today and even though we can't go round robin and hear everyone's stories, we're learning something about our own stories by listening to mine for a few minutes," said Blanco. "It's the idea that when we come together, and sit around the campfire, that we share who we are in that mirror, and we are looking at each other and understanding each other."
Poet Richard Blanco was keynote speaker at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference. Mckenzie Cassidy.
The author of several award-winning poetry collections, such as Looking for the Gulf Motel, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and City of a Hundred Fires, Blanco's work examines his own identity as an American, Cuban, and a gay man, focusing predominately on his family and south Florida.
His family moved from Cuba to Madrid before he was born in 1968. Forty-five days later they moved to the United States and settled in Miami with other Cuban exiles, an insular neighborhood where they all celebrated their cultures, but would never be able to see their homeland again.
"By the time I was 45-days-old I belonged to three countries, figuratively. My newborn picture was actually my green card photo and if that isn't someone from above telling me, Richard, one day these are the things that are going to obsess your life and eventually your writing, than I don't know what is," he said.
Much of his poetry is defined by a search for personal identity as well as a need to become part of the ideal "American" culture he saw on television as a child, on television shows like The Brady Bunch. Blanco, who believes you transcend your own story in the process of writing it, has been exploring these topics ever since.
One of his first assignments as a graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts program at Florida International University was to read Walt Whitman and write a poem about America.
"I had been thinking about America for a long time, not in the usual sense, so when Obama called and said we need you to write a poem about America I was like, 'I got this,'" he said.
He wrote a poem specifically for the inauguration, called One Today, and read it aloud on Jan. 21, 2013 in front of the thousands of people in the audience and millions across the country, following in the footsteps of other inaugural poets such as Maya Angelou and Robert Frost.
It wasn't until he read One Today, with his mother sitting only a few chairs from President Barack Obama, did he finally feel that America was his home.
Blanco read the inaugural poem and other selections at BIG ARTS with fellow poet and friend Emma Trelles, who introduced him with SIWC Director Tom DeMarchi. All of them attended FIU together in the early 1990's.
DeMarchi said that FGCU was able to host events like the writers conference because it was devoted to being a comprehensive regional university. Every year the university grows in size and there has even been talk about moving the location of the writers conference, but DeMarchi said it will always be on Sanibel Island.
"There has been some talk, years ago, not recently, about where this conference really should be. Should it be here on Sanibel? I'm here to tell you that this is the place for the Sanibel Island Writers Conference," he said.
FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw attended the reading and said this year's conference was made possible through a $10,000 grant from the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau. The writers conference also teamed up with the university's Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education to organize a luncheon cruise with Blanco on the Lady Chadwick of Captiva Cruises.
Aspiring writers, editors, and students came from across Florida and the United States to attend the conference. Susan Fallows, a nonfiction editor at Burrow Press in Orlando, came with Vanessa Blakeslee who is publishing her own book.
"We are sort of here as ambassadors for Orlando's literary world," said Fallows.
She said the conference had quality classes, great featured speakers, and it was useful for students who didn't know much about the business of writing. Blakeslee added that it was also an opportunity for writers and editors to connect.
Shannon Riley, a senior at FGCU studying poetry, said one of the writing classes for undergraduates culminates in attending the conference.
"The conference is part of the curriculum and it's an amazing opportunity for the students. Some of my favorite authors are here right now," she said.
Other students volunteer their time to help organize the event and are given free admission for their work.
"We do a little setup, airport runs, managing the traffic, parking, and anything else they tell us to do," said Diego Fernandez, an FGCU student who said he enjoyed being exposed to the wide range of writers. "I knew two of the writers my first time and now I know most of them."
For more information on the conference, visit fgcu.edu.