Over six years ago, as I waited to be called up to the podium before the National Mall to recite “One Today,” the occasional poem I had written for President Obama’s second inaugural ceremony, I remember turning to my mother and whispering, “Mamá, I think we’re finally americanos.” That indelible moment and my experiences as the first Latinx, immigrant, and gay man to serve as Presidential Inaugural Poet set a newfound place for me at the proverbial American table, one that I had not expected. Indeed, I came to definitively understand and believe that my story—alongside the stories of millions like me from marginalized walks of life—is, and has always been, a grand part of our country’s cultural and historical narrative. Granted, it’s a part that has witnessed outright discrimination and oppression, and has been scarcely acknowledged and barely honored. But it’s also one that has been, and continues to steadily be written into the work-in-progress that is our nation, thanks largely to the fortitude of the many artists, activists, writers, leaders, and trailblazers on many fronts who have strived and continue striving to give voice to the marginalized, to generate dialogue with those who marginalize. In this regard, the public role I was assigned as inaugural poet prompted me to explore more deeply my own civic and artistic duty in questioning and contributing to the American narrative through my poetry and the capacity of the genre itself to foster understanding and offer new perspectives.
The poem “Mother Country,” which narrates my mother’s experiences as an exile, is from my new collection, How to Love a Country (Beacon Press, 2019), the title of which is both a statement of hope in our nationhood and an implied question about our struggles with it. In contrast to more civic-minded and socially engaged poems in the book, including “Matters of the Sea,” an occasional poem written for the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, I wove into the collection more personal, autobiographical poems to add dimension and complexity to the aforementioned themes and concerns through a private, tighter lens. I intended the contrast to create a kind of dialogue between the poetry of the “I” and the poetry of the “we.”
These contrasts were also meant to reflect the essential beauty and constant struggle of our democracy as expressed in our nation’s motto: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). We are a populace of individual “I’s” who have consented to come together as a “we.” The challenge has been to continuously question who is (or isn’t) included in that “we” and how to redefine and reimagine it. Overall, we’ve managed to move toward a more inclusive understanding of ourselves and acceptance of one another. Historically, though, we have wavered and are currently at a crossroads: Are we going to advance toward a broader definition of “we” or will we retreat to a narrower one? That is essentially the question—with all its hopes and fears—that is at the heart of this collection, both personally and collectively.
As Roque Dalton wrote, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” My tenure as inaugural poet has reaffirmed my belief in those words, which I continue to champion on many fronts. I crisscross the nation to bring poetry to such unlikely venues as the Federal Reserve, engineering and law firms, the Mayo Clinic, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as to support advocacy groups of all kinds: immigration reform, LGBTQ rights and youth, and anti–gun violence groups, among others. Believing that poetry can indeed change lives, which can in turn change the world, I am pleased to serve as the Academy of American Poets’ first-ever Education Ambassador, assisting in the development and distribution of resources that help teachers more effectively bring the life-enriching power of poetry into classrooms. As a child from an immigrant, working-class family, I was essentially denied poetry; all these efforts are an attempt to counteract that experience by advocating for more generous and meaningful access to poetry for Everybody, for all that poetry can awaken in us, including the power of our shared humanity.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2019 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.