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Building in Verse


April 1, 2014

The inaugural poet on writing through cultural dualities, the pleasure of bilingualism, and why “the poem is a kind of mathematical proof.”

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When the Presidential Inaugural Committee invited the poet Richard Blanco to pen some verse for Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony in January 2013, Blanco had been living with his partner in Bethel, Maine, and volunteering his spare hours to the local planning board. Blanco is a civil engineer by training, and at that time his poetry had garnered a few honors, including the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and a modest following. In a memoir that tracks this recent course of events, Blanco confesses to being mystified as to why he was chosen to join the ranks of celebrated artists like Maya Angelou and Robert Frost in addressing the nation.

But talent, as Blanco considers in the interview that follows, may not be the whole story. At forty-six, he is the youngest inaugural poet; he is also the first who is openly gay, and, born in Cuba, the first immigrant to assume this role. In an age when identity politics plays a central part in crafting public figures, the very qualities that not long ago would have affirmed Blanco’s outsiderness now make him an ideal figure to speak for the Obama era. The White House reported that Blanco was selected because his “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.” His inaugural poem, “One Today,” was broadcast across a TV, radio, and online audience of twenty million, transforming Blanco from a writer working in relative obscurity to a household name.

Unlike poet laureates, inaugural poets have no official duties beyond a singular delivery of verse. But over the course of the past year, Blanco has worked to popularize his medium, taking poetry on tour to schools, colleges—where overflowing audiences sometimes require last-minute changes to bigger venues—nonprofits, law firms, engineering companies, and anywhere else he is invited. Standing firm behind a credo that poetry is for everyone, a populist form of art, Blanco has also initiated a dialogue with the Library of Congress to find ways to improve poetry education in public schools. “I want to keep the connection with people going and, dare I say, evangelize poetry around the country,” he says. He has written little during a hectic year of appearances, apart from For All of Us, One Today, an account of writing his famous poem, which has generated little press. A full-scale memoir is coming out later this year, along with a children’s book version of “One Today.”

I spoke to Blanco by phone late last year while he was in Westchester, Florida, visiting his mother, who continues to live in the home where he grew up. It’s his make-believe Cuba, as described in his poems. In the background, I could hear steam hissing as he brewed himself Cuban coffee and took comfort, I imagined, in a familiar world.

Parul Kapur Hinzen for Guernica

Guernica: In For All of Us, One Today, you describe the shock of getting a phone call while driving down the interstate in Maine with the news that you’d been chosen to deliver a poem for President Obama’s inauguration. What was it like to write that work?

Richard Blanco: Entering into writing a poem is an emotional endeavor for me as well as a spiritual and creative one. Having to write those poems [for the inauguration], I started asking deeper questions about my cultural identity, and my connection to America.

I was at a stage in my life where I felt sort of comfortable being a dislocated person emotionally, feeling in some ways like a man without any particular country. I had come to a nice space with the imaginary Cuba or the imaginary America that I thought existed. The assignment made me rethink those questions and ask new ones.

I understood that my story, my mother’s story, the story of those hundreds of thousands of people up there, is America.

As an immigrant, there’s a little part of you that always says, “Well, I’m not a hundred percent American.” America is some other little boy or some other place I haven’t been to yet.

What was transformative was being at the inauguration, reading my poem, and realizing that the quest for home and identity had always been part of my work, but that I’d been home all along. I understood that my story, my mother’s story, the story of those hundreds of thousands of people up there, is America. I had the dawning of a new connection with America, a new love affair. Not a blind patriotism, but just an understanding that it is part of who I am.

Guernica: All politics deals in symbolism. In your book you admit to some doubt that your poetry alone led to your selection as inaugural poet, and ask if your demographic profile had something to do with it.

Richard Blanco: Like you said, everything is symbolic. If they’d picked some middle-aged white guy, well, that would have been a symbol, but it wouldn’t have been shocking because that’s the expected norm, right? I felt I was a good match: here’s an accomplished poet, and he’s also gay and Latino. I like the labels because I think they tell my story in a very concise way: gay, Latino. I think the responsibility that comes with accepting labels is that now I get a chance to break stereotypes. It gives me the opportunity to tell the unique stories of what those labels mean.

Guernica: How did the opening line, “One sun rose on us today,” come to you?

Richard Blanco: I had been thinking about the question, “What do I love about America?” I kept coming back to this idea of community and home, which already obsessed me in my work. But I couldn’t quite figure out how to lead beyond my immediate experience. Then I was just standing at the kitchen sink, and I watched the sun rise, and I thought, “How many hundreds of thousands of people are watching the same sun rise right now?” I just knew the poem would go from that line.

Guernica: Your Cuban background shapes the context of many of your poems, and you’ve written that your mother, who left her entire family behind, has been your connection to Cuba.

Richard Blanco: I grew up in an emotional environment, in a community where there was always a sense of nostalgia and loss. There was something curious about that. I remember, as a kid, trying to understand what they were talking about, what they were feeling. Why are we sad? Why are we happy? It was a feeling of great hope and belief in the American dream and yet, still, this sort of sadness and longing. I can still remember my mother sitting here at this very table that I’m looking at now and getting a telegram from Cuba saying her mother had died and locking herself up in her room for three days.

But the new discovery for me was that my mother is also coming to represent my connection to America. She’s made a life for herself here. I had never thought about that until this inaugural assignment. I always thought about her in Cuba and all her loss. But she is, finally, at this point in her life, very comfortable with the decision she made. The life that she hoped for is the one that came through.

There’s a misconception that the children of immigrants grow up loving their immigrant culture.

Guernica: You started traveling to Cuba as an adult?

Richard Blanco: Actually, when I started writing. The very first poem I had to write in graduate school was a poem about America and that immediately started me thinking about the idea of cultural negotiation. There’s a misconception that the children of immigrants grow up loving their immigrant culture. In my case, at least, there was a rejection of that culture, because anything my parents did was tacky. So, as I was writing, all the questions I grew up with surfaced. When you’re twenty-something you start contemplating the big questions: Who am I? Where am I from? Writing led me to that. The first half of my first book was about exploring all this within the exile community in Miami. The next step, which felt so natural, was to go to Cuba for the first time. I get so many “aha” moments when I travel to Cuba. Every time I think I’ve got everything down, some other story or family gossip I’ve never heard before comes up. It’s a process of falling in love with your culture.

Guernica: Some of your poems are written partly in Spanish, or they appear to translate English stanzas into Spanish. What’s driving this?

Richard Blanco: Certain words have no resonance for me in English. I can’t say a word like “aunt,” I have to say “tia.” The other part is that it adds a level of authenticity. If I’m speaking about a family Thanksgiving at my house, I’d like to use some Spanish, especially when I quote a family member. In my ear they don’t live their lives in English, and neither have I really. It’s a reflection of that bicultural, bilingual world I know. I’ll usually write a poem or two in Spanish from my traveling experiences in Cuba. What I love to do, even though in the book it looks like a literal translation, is begin line by line, or stanza by stanza, and translate it into English. And then what doesn’t work in the English, I’ll play with the images, change whatever strikes my fancy, and I’ll reverse-translate it back to the Spanish. And if it doesn’t work in the Spanish, I translate it a second time into English. So even if what you see on the page looks like a literal translation, really the poems are co-created in English and Spanish. It’s a private pleasure. Comparing and contrasting the two languages makes me think about how Spanish works versus how English works, and also how my Spanish psyche works versus my English psyche. It’s like responding to another poet, because your thoughts in another language are almost like another person’s.

Guernica: You’re on a mission to popularize poetry, probably the most marginalized literary art. How do you envision making it vital to people?

Richard Blanco: Like most other poets, I was guilty of, “Oh, nobody reads poetry. Oh, poetry doesn’t sell. It’s a labor of love.” But when I saw what poetry could do when people are exposed to contemporary, accessible work, it changed my mind about the potential for poetry and its place in America.

Poetry isn’t one monolithic thing. We just teach it backward. We begin with the really old stuff.

But the way we teach poetry is very outdated. We have to think about how to let people know that poetry is still a vibrant art, and that hundreds and hundreds of poets are writing about every single community, and on every single issue of the day. It’s just letting people know there’s contemporary work—it’s like any genre. It’s like music. There’s jazz and classic rock. Poetry isn’t one monolithic thing. We just teach it backward. We begin with the really old stuff. I look back at my own education and see I had never read a living poet. It’s got to change.

Guernica: I recently read an article in the New York Times about poetry’s willful exclusivity. Established figures, including Richard Howard and Helen Vendler, were quoted as essentially saying poetry should be kept the preserve of a few in order to maintain its aesthetic standards.

Richard Blanco: I could not be more at odds with that statement. It’s fine for the one that won the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award. But what about the rest of the poets in this country? Who’s to say who’s the keeper of the bar of good poetry? That’s what’s happened in America with poetry. It’s either high art or low art. There’s no in-between for anyone. If I’m not mistaken, no American poet has ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Look at the Latin American poets and how engaged they are with people, even someone like Lorca. It comes from the earth, it’s folkloric. The connection between poetry and folklore hasn’t been severed. That’s why my cousins in Cuba still sing decimas in rhyme, drinking moonshine in the cane fields. These are people with, at best, a high school education. But they know their national poets, know how to quote them, know that poetry is a part of their lives. “And that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” That’s by [the Salvadoran poet] Roque Dalton. How do you deny that?

Accessibility doesn’t mean that a poem is simple. Part of what makes great art is the ability to disguise incredible complexity in incredible simplicity. It happens in every field. If you look at Watson and Crick, who discovered DNA, their famous “aha” moment, they said, was just pure simplicity and beauty.

Guernica: Your poems suggest snippets of memoir. There are scenes from your childhood, moments involving other people—family members, friends, lovers. What sparks a poem for you and how do you develop it from that flicker?

Richard Blanco: I come to poetry when I have an overwhelming feeling, something I can’t explain, whether it’s a memory or a relationship that I go back to because I never quite got what it meant, or an event that happened recently or in the past, like the death of a family member. I come to the poem because I want to understand what it means to me, first, emotionally. I want to break it down. I sometimes approach a poem as an engineer. It’s like, here’s the problem. How are we going to dive into it? What’s the next line? How do you get to that? And so it’s a way of discovering something for myself because I’m alive and I’m a feeling human being. Poetry makes me stop and not let these things pass by.

At first it’s just about finding out what the hell I feel about something. But at the other end, the artist also understands that what you’re discovering is not just about you but what it says about the human condition. It’s like everybody’s life is an archetype for other people to understand something about their own lives. I’m a character in my own poetry. I’m objectifying my life to say, “This is intensely personal, but at the same time, I’m offering this as a mirror for you to see yourself in.” I get that comment all the time: “I’m not Cuban, but suddenly I was crying.” And I say, “Because it’s a mirror.”

Guernica: Many of your poems ask in different ways, “Where do I belong?” In your latest collection, Looking For the Gulf Motel, in the poem “Habla Cuba Speaking,” you picture your parents’ early lives on the island and you address yourself: “here, where you are who you never were, / the other, never translated, invisible.” Even though you weren’t born in Cuba, do you feel there’s a “you” who was left behind?

Sometimes it feels like I have to carry the weight of two countries and two heritages, belonging to both and belonging to neither.

Richard Blanco: That’s a very intense poem for me. Some people really pick up on it. I wrote it because every time I go to Cuba there’s this odd feeling that I was a twin. There’s always a ghost behind me of this other person whom I could have been. “What if my parents had never left? Who would I be on this island?” Sometimes it feels like I have to carry the weight of two countries and two heritages, belonging to both and belonging to neither. Sometimes I feel like saying, “Can I just have one country, please?”

When one is monocultural there’s an implicit sense of belonging to something that doesn’t need to be analyzed. Every time I go to Cuba, there’s a dialogue with the island. It’s a unique experience only bicultural people have. I’m always looking for home, but really I’m looking to reunite with that other half. That other little Ricardo, that other piece of me.

Guernica: Ricardo?

Richard Blanco: Legally my name is Ricardo. Ricardo de Jesus—of Jesus. I hate the way it sounds in English, but there were other factors. I have one of those names people feel free to manipulate. Richard, Ricky, Ritchie. That’s why I named myself Richard. Again, it goes back to rejecting your own heritage because of your immaturity or not being ready to think about it. And, so: Richard. I was like, “Wow, I’m American.”

Guernica: Another duality in your life appears to be your sexuality. You mentioned in an interview that you grew up heterosexual and didn’t acknowledge you were gay until your mid-twenties. How do you explore sexuality in your poetry?

Richard Blanco: It seems this duality has permeated everything in my life. I’m Cuban-American, engineer-poet, straight-gay man. As far as sexuality, I had never come out in my poems. Even in the second book, there are a lot of gay love poems, but I kept them gender neutral. It was too much to think about both things at the same time in a book. I think the cultural duality affected me a lot more, or a lot sooner, than the duality of my sexuality. It was also the first question I took on, and I needed to write through it a little bit more. This third book is really where I became interested in sexuality. I was like, “Okay, so you’re gay. So what? What is the story of that?” I became interested not just in sexuality but how that interfaced or collided or meshed with my cultural identity and gender roles.

There’s a poem, “Love as if Love,” about how I was socialized as a straight man. In some ways I feel very comfortable moving about the straight world and assuming that gender role. On the other hand, I realize that’s completely not true to me. There are a lot of things I had to sweep under the rug. But then in the same section of the book, I go off and marry un Americano. In some ways I’m Ricky Ricardo, you know. I go off and marry the redhead, the exotic other.

Guernica: “One Today” is essentially a poem about the collective American experience, but one of the few stains on the brightness, one of the jarring personal notes, seems to be when you talk about “forgiving a father who couldn’t give you what you wanted.” What are you alluding to here?

Richard Blanco: I didn’t come out until after my father died, so there wasn’t that kind of conflict. My dad was an emotionally handicapped person, and I think that’s connected to gender roles and sexuality. What I focus on around my dad is that I didn’t know the man. He was a provider, and loyal, and all that stuff, but I never got to have an adult relationship with him. And he was of a generation of men who had an inability to express emotion or intimacy. I hate to say this, but he was sort of like a piece of furniture in the house.

I’ve used poetry to try to take the smallest snippets of connection and moments of love and imagine him, create him, reconstruct him, to have a relationship with him. At first there were moments of resentment, like, “Where was my dad?” But people are individuals and at some point you have to forgive them. So I’ve made peace in a way.

Guernica: “A builder of cities and poems” is how you sometimes describe yourself in bios. You say in For All of Us, One Today that you came to writing not despite your job as civil engineer, but through it.

Richard Blanco: A lot of what the engineering curriculum teaches is logic. Math is nothing but training you in problem solving using pure logic and reasoning. Language has a very strong left brain component, especially in the editing phase. The idea of how we string words together is almost a problem in logic. The poem, I often say, is a kind of mathematical proof. Here’s the problem: I feel this weird unexplainable mass of emotion around my dad, or around my mother. I begin line by line, and let the poem come out just like a proof. Finally I discover what the answer, or potential answer, is. I often think every line in a poem is like a truss in a bridge that carries the weight of the line above it, has to hold its own weight, and transfers the load back down to the next line.

There’s a really powerful overlap that’s come about in the last five to eight years, one that I’ve specialized in—town revitalization projects. I’ll come into a downtown that obviously needs a makeover, because it’s looking dilapidated or things are not functioning. We work with the townspeople, with architects and other engineering disciplines, and reimagine together what this space should look like. As I’ve done this through the years, I’ve realized the same things obsess me in poetry—belonging and what is home and our connection to place or our sense of dislocation. I have to think about all that when I’m redoing a downtown: Who is the person who’s using it? How am I altering their emotional response to this space? It’s really exciting to me because I’ve finally found an even more literal connection between engineering and poetry. I go to engineering firms to give a keynote address and open up that dialogue with them: “You’re not just changing the physical landscape, you’re changing an emotional landscape.” My gripe with South Florida in general is that so much of the landscape has changed. When I come home, I don’t feel it’s the same city I left behind. But on the other hand, I’m the engineer responsible for some of those changes. So there’s a kind of irony there. But I love that.

Guernica: You call Campbell McGrath, the MacArthur “genius” award winner with whom you studied poetry, your mentor. What’s the most important thing you learned from him?

Richard Blanco: It was almost like a love affair from the beginning. What was great about Campbell in the context of my writing was that he was not Cuban, nor was he even Latino. Campbell has had a completely other experience, and yet he was obsessed with America as well. His first book is called Capitalism, and the next one is American Noise.

Whenever I was writing a poem that didn’t transcend itself, he would call it a poem about “cultural data.” Who cares about a pot of black beans? What do the black beans mean to the sensuality of the poem? What he taught me was always write to transcend. Write the most honest, passionate, self-absorbed poem you can, a poem of discovery and complete indulgence—but it has to transcend itself. The images you choose, the details you choose, are aimed at getting a reader or listener to connect with our basic human emotions: loss, nostalgia, betrayal, love. I always sit down with a poem and say, “What is the common human denominator here?” The details are just the way we couch these things.

Guernica: You recall in your book meeting an elderly man after the inauguration who tells you he’d like to have “One Today” read at his funeral. And then you note that you’d like to have Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” read at yours. It begins: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

Richard Blanco: Elizabeth Bishop is one of my greatest influences. If you read enough of her poems and look at her biography, you realize she was a person in psychological exile all her life. She was orphaned, not literally, but I think her mother had a mental breakdown, so she was raised by her grandparents. She’s lived everywhere—Key West, Brazil for thirty years, North Haven, Maine. She was somewhat of a closeted lesbian, I believe, and had a lover who committed suicide. I see that she was always looking for her other half, too. I get emotional thinking about it. Her writing is so pristine and it seems like she’s just telling you something matter-of-factly, but if you read that poem over and over again, between every line you see her falling apart.

I remember reading that poem for the first time, and I was like, “Eh.” And then I read it a second time, and I read it a third time, and I read it a fourth time. That poem speaks to you. Here’s a person who’s had all this loss in her life. That’s something I’ve felt since I was a kid—the exile mentality of the community I grew up in, with this underlying sense of longing and halfness. What’s the last line? “Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” What she’s saying is that loss is just another beautiful element of the human condition and she finally is embracing it in the poem. It’s part of the human endeavor, these massive things we lose. And yet one of the greatest things about being human is that we survive all that, that our capacity for loss is immense.

G

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One comment for Building in Verse

  1. Comment by Deborah on April 1, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    Powerful, inspiring interview of a man I’d love to know.

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