Civil engineer speaks about poetry


Civil engineer Richard Blanco came to Illinois recently to give a talk about… poetry. The Florida International University graduate has become an inaugural poet in addition to working as an engineer. 

“People ask me, when did I switch from being an engineer to a poet? I tell ‘em, there’s a lot more money in poetry but I decided to stick with engineering,” Blanco joked. “I never made the transition. I’m really an engineer.”

Blanco was born in Spain to Cuban parents, and grew up in Miami, Florida. “I’m left brain/right brain,” he said.  “As a kid, I loved everything, and I let myself explore all my interests.” He works for the consulting firm Stantec and has over twenty years of work experience with background in capital improvements, streetscape, bridge hydraulics, drainage design, and industrial facilities, among other areas. 

“I became a civil engineer, but I knew someday I’d use another creative part of myself,” Blanco said.  He has published three collections of poetry so far, entitled City of a Hundred Fires, Directions to The Beach of the Dead, and Looking for the Gulf Motel.  Blanco also has a master’s in creative writing and has taught at Georgetown University. He has received many awards, including the Patterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award. Some of his favorite contemporary poets are Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Levine, and Campbell McGrath. 

Blanco says his poems are like machines, very structured and organized, and he thanks engineering for that. “I look at writing like a problem to solve,” he said. “In fact, it was through engineering that I discovered language and writing.” Sixty percent of Blanco’s job in the consulting firm has to do with writing, as he sends letters and creates proposals and studies. His job has also taught him how to talk professionally on the phone and how to present. “You need to be able to translate engineering stuff and mathematical findings into language,” he said.  “Poetry has made me a better engineer, and engineering has made me a better poet.”

A big message from Blanco’s talk is the firm belief that you are not limited to any one thing. You can become an engineer and still pursue other interests; in fact, doing so can help you grow. “It’s about synthesis of knowledge, not merely retention,” he said.  “You should think about yourself as a human being first. If you have some intellectual curiosity, follow it. It’ll make you a better engineer.” 

From Blanco’s poem “One Today”:

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum bush of dusk, but always- home,
always under one sky, our sky.  And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country- all of us-
facing the stars
hope- a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it- together.

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