Academy of American Poets staff spoke with Richard Blanco in the days leading up to his delivering a poem at President Obama's Inauguration on January 21, 2013.
Poets.org: To prepare for your writing the inaugural poem, have you studied the inaugural poems by Robert Frost, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou or Elizabeth Alexander? Or have you reached out to any of those poets (still living) for advice?
Richard Blanco: Yes, I have looked mostly at Angelou's poem, and then Alexander's poem too. I see this position as not only being about writing my own poem for the nation, but also keeping a certain sense of continuity, and so their poems were some of the first places I went to—looking at how they "solved" the occasional poem.
But I also went back to a poem by a friend and colleague of mine, Nikki Moustaki, that has always stayed in my memory: "How To Write A Poem After September 11th," which was published in the New York Times on its own page (and included in the anthology Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets, Melville House, 2002). It was also, in some sense, an occasional poem, and very inspiring to me.
And I went back to some of my old favorites just for language, to reinspire myself. My Elizabeth Bishops and my Robert Frosts. So the whole gang came out.
Poets.org: What is it about poetry that makes it the art form we turn to so often to mark or understand significant events?
Blanco: In terms of my personal aesthetic or take on poetry, I would say that poetry is the place we go to when we don't have any more words; that place that is so emotionally centered. It is the place we go to when we have something that we can't quite put a finger on, that we can't explain away, that we can't easily understand with the mind.
It's the reason I come to poetry as well. As I love to say in my writing classes: If you sit down totally convinced of what the poem is going to be, don't even sit down. Because writing a poem is a discovery process.
I've been working on a memoir, which is more about storytelling. I've learned to recognize that when I sit down to write a poem, I have something to figure out, and I have to do it on the page. And I hope that my inaugural poem will do that, in some ways, for the nation. That it will work toward making sense of all the din of the day—all that we hear in the news.
Poets.org: The theme of this Inauguration is "Our People, Our Future." How might the poem you will offer help explore or speak to this theme?
Blanco: The theme was something I immediately connected with. In my writing I focus mostly on my immediate family, but because I'm Cuban, that means a lot of people. My family is big. There's plenty to write about.
I grew up around very salt-of-the-earth people—my mother working in my uncle's grocery store. We were a struggling, working-class family. I connected with the theme because so much of my even being asked to present a poem is what the American Dream tastes of—that sense of coming to life. And when I first heard the news of my being chosen to read, the first people I thought of were my parents and my grandparents.
How do we ensure our future? It's through the work we do, through the art we produce. I think about my parents and my family, what they had to sacrifice, how hard they worked, and how much they loved this country—in that sense, they are "our people."
Poets.org: So many individuals in the LGBT and Latino communities are proud that you were selected by the president to read. How does your identity inform your poetry?
Blanco: Well, I'll tell you something that might be a little more interesting. In my first two books, I focused more on the cultural negotiation of being from an exiled community. I grew up between two imaginary worlds. One was the Cuba that my community always talked about, the place that we left that some day we were going back to, the stories, the pictures, the photographs, the letters. The other imaginary place was America.
I grew up in Miami, which was a culturally isolated community back in the 1970s. You know, I really believed in those houses and households on the sitcoms, on Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch. I really thought America existed outside of where I lived. Being in Miami was somewhere in between, a purgatory or a waiting ground, waiting to get to America. I negotiated that in my writing, as soon as I started writing.
My very first writing class was taught by Campbell McGrath, and my very first writing assignment was to "write a poem about America." And that became the very first poem in my very first book, "América."
I immediately found a reason for writing beyond the love of the words. I had something that I wanted to discover. All of a sudden I was twenty-something thinking: "Wait a minute, I'm not as Cuban as I thought and I'm not as American either." That kind of trumped a lot of sexual identity questions.
My third book is sort of the book in which I came out of the literary closet. Its theme and topic was the intersection of these identities, or how they collided.
What does it mean to be a gay Cuban man? Asking that really opened the door. It piqued my interest in that sense. And now I've been with my partner for twelve years, and I'm forty-four. It's almost like my mind couldn't handle negotiating both things at the same time, until this third book.
My work has to do with searching—searching within myself, but searching for what the universal experience is that poetry taps into as well.
Poets.org: When were you first interested in poetry?
Blanco: Since I grew up in an immigrant, very working-class family, Picasso and T. S. Eliot were not exactly dinner conversation. Being a poet was outside of my realm of possibilities in a way. And like many children from immigrant, working-class families, my parents wanted their kids to do better.
So I wasn't guided toward poetry; I was guided to be a lawyer, doctor, engineer. I was really good at math—which I guess is a double-edged sword—so I chose engineering, with the idea of going on and getting a master's in architecture.
As they say, life is what happens in between the things that you plan. But there was always, since I was a kid, a creative spirit that wouldn't silence itself. So after I graduated with an engineering degree, I began, as I say, fooling around with poetry. Poetry, or at least writing, is something that we're used to. You can pick up a piece of paper and a pen and write. You don't have to go buy brushes and a can of paint to express your creativity. I was about twenty-three or twenty-four then, and, of course, I wrote pretty bad poems. But I was never afraid to show them to people. I would show a poem to a friend who was an English major, and he or she would say, "Oh, you know, this is pretty good. I like this." Then someone said, "Have you ever thought of taking a creative writing class at a community college?" And finally someone said, "Why don't you go and get an MFA?"
I came to writing poetry late in life. (Although, I do remember looking at poetry in my older brother's textbooks, specifically "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.") But I'm grateful for that. I've had a whole other realm of experiences.
At the same time, sometimes I feel somewhere in the middle. That's been the arc or theme of my life: always in a middle. Living the life of a straight man until age twenty-five (in the middle), living between the ideal of American culture and the Cuban heritage, living between engineering and poetry. It seems to be this kind of economy I have going on, which somehow makes me happy.
Poets.org: You are the youngest poet to present an Inaugural poem. Does it feel to you like there is a shift to a new generation of leaders and voices?
Blanco: I like that. Yes, it reminds me of a conversation I had with Natasha Trethewey, our U.S. poet laureate, who I saw at the Dodge Poetry Festival. She's the youngest poet laureate ever, and she has gone through an MFA program and participated in the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference. Our whole world of poetry has changed so much in one generation. It's great that Natasha has a real grasp on that and what our challenges are as poets, and what the challenges of poetry are in America, in this generation.
I think sometimes there's a divide. But I think everyone in the poetry world has been working subconsciously to connect poetry to more people. And it's working. Because of my background, I hope I can bring other things to the table as well.