When Two Ponds Press, a fine-art press that produces limited-edition monographs, approached poet Richard Blanco and photographer Jacob Hessler in early 2014 for a theme on which to collaborate, it didn’t take them long to agree on a purpose. Blanco had spent the previous year working on several commissioned occasional poems and had been exploring the role of poetry in public discourse, “the idea of the civic-minded poet—the poet as the village voice, a poetry of social conscience.” Hessler, who uses large-scale landscapes to explore similar ideas of artistic responsibility, shared Blanco’s values and concerns. In light of recent schisms in American political life—eruptions over marriage quality, racial strife, and police violence, for instance—they landed on the idea of boundaries and borders. As Blanco puts it, they sought to examine, through image and verse, “narratives that are manipulated to separate—to divide and conquer. We wanted to investigate and expose those narratives that run counter to the idea of our shared humanity.”
Variations on this theme included separations both national and socioeconomic, racial and gender-oriented. Hessler then set out to photograph sites that manifested these tensions: San Francisco’s Angel Island, known as the Ellis Island of the West; Hallandale Beach, Florida, a busy landing spot for many Cuban and Haitian rafters; Herndon Avenue, in Mobile, Alabama, the site of the last recorded lynching in America; and, of course, the Rio Grande. Over the last two years, Hessler has produced dozens of photographs, some of them aligning with poems Blanco has written, others Blanco has responded to in verse.
There is a long tradition, of course, of poets meditating on objects, within which the photograph occupies its own niche. Writing about a photograph can be a tricky business, especially through poetry. But Blanco has always been intrigued by this particular conversation between forms; in fact, he considers the photograph an asset to writing; it’s even part of his warm-up.
“Photos are a great prompt, in a way, especially family photos. There’s a narrative I feel I can enter, and there’s always something melancholy about a photograph that sort of suits me. But the challenge is for the poem to cooperate, to syncopate with the photo while also standing on its own. How to lock into the subject of the photograph and yet explode out of it.”
In this light, Hessler’s landscapes are an ideal point of entry, with a lack of figurative elements that gives Blanco room to breathe. “I can own them, in a way. I can climb in there and create my own narrative.”
To do so has required research—all of these borders have deep histories. But it has also required an emotional intelligence, through which he transforms historical information into something viscerally impactful. “The challenge for me has been to find ways to have an emotional response to some subjects that I didn’t know that much about,” Blanco says, seeking what he calls an “emotional authority” through the material.
Throughout both of his careers—first as a civil engineer, and later as a poet—Blanco has accessed that intuitiveness through ritual. Browsing family albums. Sketching a single line. Flirting with a title. “I can’t fully commit to a poem until that warm-up is done—what I like to call ‘dialing up.’ I spend a lot of time just trying to get to that space where the deepest parts of my subconscious are in sync with my conscious mind. And I hear my voice—my other voice, the more honest, wiser version of myself. That’s the person writing these poems, not the Richard Blanco walking his dog or getting the mail or cursing at the guy who cut me off. In part, that’s why I write, to get to that sacred space where I’m integrated as a whole through art and language.”
That integration speaks not only to the process of making art, but to the mission of the artist—the bridge builder, whose craft, once invested in the public, introduces a point in common between ideologies, among cultures, and across voids of meaning in order to articulate the universal exprience, one that’s greater than the sum of its sometimes painfully disparate parts.