April 2020 Author Spotlight

About Blanco:

When President Barack Obama selected Richard Blanco to serve as the Fifth Presidential Inaugural Poet, he was aware that he was setting an important precedent and tone for his term: Blanco, being the youngest poet to ever fulfil this post, is also an immigrant, Latino, and gay. His poem “One Today” expresses America as a place where the power and beauty of our country is reflected in the contributions, struggles, and histories of its unique inhabitants. This poem opened the door for further “firsts” in a country hopeful to grow in awareness and compassion. 

Awareness and compassion are two of the most pressing themes in Blanco’s poems, which explore, among other things, his unique background: his parents emigrated from Cuba to Madrid, Spain, while his mother was seven months pregnant with him. He was born in Madrid, and before he turned one, they would emigrate again, this time to New York City. They finally settled in Miami, with other Cuban exiles, and Blanco grew up hearing about the culture and traditions of his parents’ homeland often. This would later inspire him to visit Cuba, and he would write his first book of poetry about his experiences as a Cuban-American, in touching detail on this life-changing trip. 

Growing up, Blanco excelled at math and science in school, and in college he studied to become a civil engineer. In his twenties, he finally decided to follow his creative passion and went back to school to get his Masters of Fine Arts in poetry. The rest, you could say, is history. He has written and published numerous collections of poetry since his first one, City of a hundred fires, came out in 1998; in 2015, he wrote a memoir about his childhood in Miami called The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood. In addition to his literary pursuits, he is a prolific public speaker and for a long time continued to work as a civil engineer. His writing has won dozens of awards, including the International Latino Award for Best Biography, the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry, and the PEN/Beyond Margins Award. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters, the equivalent to a PhD, from five American universities. Currently, Blanco and his partner Dr. Mark Neveu live in Maine.

Part of what makes Blanco’s writing so engaging and evocative is its balance of the personal with the communal. Whether he is exploring the painful longing for a homeland, bridging the disparate traditions of two countries, or navigating his sexual identity in a country that only recently legalized gay marriage, the complexity and beauty of our individual and shared identities shape his writing in a way that welcomes us generously. “We all belong to the sea between us,” he was quoted as saying of Cubans and Americans. For Blanco, this sea could also be said to include the everflowing, powerful tide of words.

NPR Interview with Blanco

March 2020 Author Spotlight

About Smith:

Zadie Smith is a novelist, essayist, and short story writer who was born in England and currently resides in New York City. She has taught Creative Writing at New York University since 2010. The recipient of numerous awards, Smith’s writing takes on complex and deeply ingrained issues with precision, humor, and grace. Daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father, Smith changed her name from Sadie to Zadie at the age of fourteen. She possessed many talents growing up, from jazz singing to acting. While attending Cambridge University, she settled on literature as her main pursuit. After publishing short stories in her university’s literary magazine, she was noticed by publishers; soon Smith found a literary agent to help publish her first novel, White Teeth, which came out in 2000. This novel was an immediate best-seller and won many awards, including the Guardian First Book Award. Its wide-reaching narrative spans centuries and generations, tracing the families of two friends as they navigate the challenges of family, race, culture, and the wider world, with the daughter of one family serving as a central character. It is known for its intricately woven storyline and the humorous yet unflinching manner with which it explores social, racial and cultural issues. 

In addition to her essays, Smith is well known for her short stories, which have been published in magazines such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many of her stories display a unique blend of metaphor and immediacy, balancing a playful sense of humor with fresh insights on current issues. In her story, “Now More Than Ever, “ she plays with the idea of social justice in a society obsessed with being in the right and willing to isolate their peers to avoid finding themselves on the wrong side of justice. It’s an interesting take on “call-out” culture, a phrase used to describe the trend of singling out wrongdoers publicly, often with the added aim of bringing positive attenion to oneself. In the story, the narrator replies to a student who asks her why she uses metaphor to express her beliefs about important social issues: why not just write about them directly, instead of hiding behind a literary device? The narrator responds by saying that certain topics are so raw they can only be presented as they are: police brutality, for example. But other topics are so low they do not deserve to be celebrated or highlighted by specific language. To me this calls to my mind the celebrity of murderers, particularly school-shooters, and how many believe the media partly responsible for their despicable fame and influence. The story shows a society obsessed with pointing the finger at others, one made up ironically of people who fail to see their own shortcomings. The narrator, at the end of the story, realizes that by befriending someone who is “beyond the pale”–a euphemism for falling out of society’s good graces–she too finds herself “canceled.” 

Recently, I was talking with an older relative of mine who was complaining about how certain songs from her past, which she insists were never perceived as harmful, have had their meanings twisted by a modern mindset bent on finding fault, obsessed with sniffing out and parading around every minor problematic detail. I tried to explain that acknowledging what was harmful about the past comes with the choice of how to react to it. In her story, Smith writes of the narrator’s realization that “the news was (is?) that the past is now also the present.” We could take this to mean that we should remember the past while filtering it through new eyes; that the past is a component and cause of the present, and thus directly reflected in it; even that the present is ephemeral and instantly passes us by. One wonders, then, if the past is subject to change as the present evolves—and if the present is molded as our interpretation of the past changes. Smith opens up these questions and more in her writing, aiming to show us that no person is without guilt, that we all do what we need to survive. However, this doesn’t mean we are released of the need of trying to be good.

February 2020 Author Spotlight

About Ionesco:

I personally would like to bring a tortoise onto the stage, turn it into a racehorse, then into a hat, a song, a dragoon and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre and it is the place where one dares the least.

This quote demonstrates the boundless mentality of writer and dramatist Eugene Ionesco, considered by many to be one of the most influential writers of Theatre of the Absurd. Absurdist writing is characterized by intentionally bizarre and unreasonable behavior, as well as the belief that our universe is inherently illogical, random and chaotic. These ideas may seem strange and even somewhat depressing, but to many, they felt like truth, and writing in this style allowed for a certain degree of freedom and humor. After World War II, which involved large-scale horror and senseless violence, writers sought uncharacteristic channels for their discontent and disconnection. Absurdism was a way to escape the type of rational thinking that had made possible the most deadly weapon humanity had ever seen, the nuclear bomb.

Ionesco did not become a playwright until his middle age. Born in Romania in 1909, he lived between Paris and Romania until the war forced him to relocate to Marseilles. In his early twenties, he wrote poetry and essays; however, his plays are considered his finest work. Interestingly, it was his learning of the English language that caused the shift in his thinking which would eventually lead to his noteworthy, uncanny style–while copying out English sentences, over time the meanings of the words shifted, giving way to layers and complexities, until finally coherence disintegrated and each word became unrelated, their meanings malleable as clay. 

Ionesco’s first play rejected narrative conventions, presenting an illogical plot with little character development; this play didn’t command much attention until popular writers and critics took note. With their public support, Ionesco became an internationally renowned playwright. It was at this time when he wrote what is considered his best play, Rhinoceros. It follows the life of an average man, Berenger, whose problems are typical for his day: lack of direction, loneliness, overdependence on alcohol. The play begins with a conversation at a bar, where Berenger bemoans his suffering with his acquaintances.

JEAN [to Berenger]: Life is a struggle, it’s cowardly not to put up a fight!

LOGICIAN [to the Old Gentleman]: Separately or together, it all depends.

BERENGER [to Jean]: What can I do? I’ve nothing to put up a fight with.

JEAN: Then find yourself some weapons, my friend.

OLD GENTLEMAN [to the Logician after painful reflection]: Eight, eight paws.

LOGICIAN: Logic involves mental arithmetic, you see.

OLD GENTLEMAN: It certainly has many aspects!

BERENGER [to Jean]: Where can I find the weapons?

LOGICIAN [to the Old Gentleman]: There are no limits to logic.

JEAN: Within yourself. Through your own will.

Even the conversation itself, taking place on multiple levels, carries with it a sense of unease and confusion. What happens next is perhaps a test of Berenger’s will, and the main conflict for the play: suddenly, one by one, his colleagues and friends are incomprehensibly transformed into rhinoceros. Berenger is desperate not to be sucked in, and that the object of his love, Daisy, remain human with him. This play struck a chord with people for its ability to depict an ordinary, flawed man who resisted, quite literally, the “herd,”  holding onto his identity while those around him were morphed into something capable of causing mass destruction with its violent, blind chargings. The comparison to Nazism is shown in the symbol of the rhinoceros, and reflected the horrifying acts of violence committed by those who simply followed orders without any reflection on their conscience; however, the play’s scope travels beyond a single historical reference. It can be applied to any time period when it becomes more important to trust our own instincts and remain an outsider rather than blend in with a world that promotes sameness at the expense of humanity. 

Additional Info on their Art

Visit this link to read more about Ionesco, Rhinoceros, and Absurdist Theatre. Rhinoceros, and Absurdist Theatre. 

Click here to read Ionesco’s most famous play, and several other plays, in pdf form.



January 2020 Author Spotlight

About Plath:

Sylvia Plath, a poet from Massachusetts who lived in England during the late 1950s and early 1960s, wrote often of her inner turmoil and how it was reflected in the world around her. She had an uncanny ability to present the material of daily life in a way that felt fresh, surprising, and even a little bit frightening. She kept a thorough journal and also wrote detailed letters throughout her life, so that after her death, the public was fortunate enough to know her more deeply through the interweaving of her poetic and nonfiction writing. Plath had two children and valued her family life immensely–she adored cooking and taking care of her home. She wrote often about her children; their presence gave a light-hearted theme to her poetry during the lonelier periods of her life. Her husband of several years, before their separation, was a hunter and nature-lover, and Sylvia spent a good deal of time with him exploring the geography of her country, the United States, as well as enjoying the unique seaside and country towns Great Britain has to offer. Her interest in nature gravitated her poems towards meditations on animals; Plath also became a beekeeper, taking up the same hobby as her late father. In reading the many pages of her journals and letters alongside her poems, one finds a complicated person, not without flaws, who sometimes judged harshly, as well as a hard worker whose love of poetry was never eclipsed by her unstable life circumstances, and whose unique and avid mind allowed her to think deeply about herself in relation to her world. Plath died of mental illness at the young age of 30.

 Sylvia wrote two books of poems, “The Colossus,” published in 1960, and “Ariel,” published after her death. Below is her poem, “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” I feel that this poem is a particularly good one to highlight during the beginning of the second semester and the start of winter; it is about searching for small instances of beauty during “the season of fatigue,” which for many includes those winter months, when we tend to become more sedentary and when many suffer those winter blues. Plath uses the setting of “rainy weather” as a backdrop for this moment, which she claims not to seek out on her own accord, not to “expect a miracle” as she is on her walk outside in the rain and spots this bird. However, she goes on to explain, she does like the interchange between herself and nature, the “backtalk / From the mute sky” that causes her senses to become more alert and alive; similarly, she says at times even everyday objects “leap incandescent” with “a certain minor light,” which makes them appear more special and honored, less ordinary.  This poem invites the reader to open themselves to such conduits of beauty or surprise during their day, to consider that even the most ordinary objects, beings, or people, even among the blandest or gloomiest atmospheres, can take on a curious, almost magical light, giving that single moment a jolt of electricity. Although she did “not expect a miracle,” toward the end of the poem, Plath claims that “miracles occur,” in the form of these “tricks of radiance.” Maybe they are tricks, or maybe they are due to the “luck” that she hopes will help her “patch together” a sort of happiness during this season that sometimes comes with a loneliness or bleakness. Despite the lack of color and sometimes of life that winter (and the long second semester) presents, remember that from every branch, the “rare, random descent” of something capable of moving us, enlightening us, or simply calming us, awaits.

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there

Hunches a wet black rook

Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.

I do not expect a miracle

Or an accident


To set the sight on fire

In my eye, not seek

Any more in the desultory weather some design,

But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,

Without ceremony, or portent.


Although, I admit, I desire,

Occasionally, some backtalk

From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:

A certain minor light may still

Leap incandescent


Out of the kitchen table or chair

As if a celestial burning took 

Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —

Thus hallowing an interval

Otherwise inconsequent


By bestowing largesse, honor,

One might say love. At any rate, I now walk

Wary (for it could happen

Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical,

Yet politic; ignorant


Of whatever angel may choose to flare

Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook

Ordering its black feathers can so shine

As to seize my senses, haul

My eyelids up, and grant


A brief respite from fear

Of total neutrality. With luck,

Trekking stubborn through this season

Of fatigue, I shall

Patch together a content


Of sorts. Miracles occur,

If you care to call those spasmodic

Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,

The long wait for the angel.

For that rare, random descent.