When Richard Blanco became the inaugural poet this year, he was the first Latino, the first immigrant, the first openly gay person and the first engineer to serve in that role. Blanco describes the life-changing experience in his new book, "For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey."
How did you become a poet?
I was always one of these left-brained, right-brained kids. But being from an immigrant, working-class family, I studied civil engineering. After the first year I started working, I realized how much writing was involved — reports and proposals — and I started falling in love with language.
The next step was, let me start doing something more creative with it as a form of self-expression. And eventually I was accepted into a master's in fine arts program at Florida International University and I kept doing it mostly out of pure passion. So in some ways, my cultural economic circumstances led me to engineering and that led me to poetry, which led me to write about my cultural circumstances.
You write that you still don't know how you were chosen and you figured the details weren't what you imagined. What did you imagine?
I still cling to the more romantic version in my head: the president sitting in the Oval Office, completely consumed with my poetry and telling the chief of staff to hold all his calls and perhaps the first family reading my poems around the dinner table. I still don't know to this day. When I met with the president later, in May in the Oval Office, he did tell me that it was brought to his attention. And we both left it at that. On the other hand, I can't help but think the president must have felt some kinship with my work and some of the themes that I write about, which is the idea of my place in America, the idea of cultural negotiation, the concept of the American dream.
What else did you guys talk about?
They said we'd be there maybe 20 minutes and we were there 30 minutes. We presented him with a broadside of the poem and he took us to the back office where he likes to hang things that are personal. We talked a little about poetry in general and the state of poetry in America. And we talked a little about healthcare because my partner Mark [Neveu] was with me and he is a [molecular cell biology] research scientist. And it did go by very quickly. But in the end we hugged it out. I shook his hand and he pulled me in and he hugged me and he hugged Mark, and it was all very special. He seemed like the guy next door.
So how does one go about writing an inaugural poem?
When I got the call, I was comfortable with the idea of always trying to define for myself what America is and what my place is in it, but the challenge of the inaugural poem is that it had to be something larger. The real challenge was that I had to write three poems in three weeks [so the White House could pick one it preferred] that had that Whitman-esque, broader reach, a poem that I knew millions and millions were going to hear and read. And yet at the same time it had to be intimate because I wanted it to be true to my voice and I do write from a very soulful place.
So as the poem developed, the idea of nature set in — which was "one sun rose on one ground" — and the idea of nature is such a powerful symbol, has that grandness to it. It's so transcendent across cultures, across borders. So I then pursued the intimate details of the extraordinary in some of the ordinary things of our day. And then I managed also to sneak in a personal reference to my mother and my father and my history as an immigrant and also to place myself in the poem. I am one of those people in "One Today." I didn't want it to sound like this poetic voice that was pontificating about who we should be or who we are.
Did the experience change you or your poetry?
Yes, both. When I sit down to write a poem, it's to reach some deeper part of myself or to ask questions I haven't asked. I realized in that search that although I consider myself American, there was still a little part of me that said to myself, "Well, Richard, you're not 100% American." So there's this very serious question I asked myself and it was "Richard, are you American? Do you love this country?" And by love I don't mean the blind, patriotic "I love America" way. Is this really your country? And I had to sit with those questions for a few days, but I really solidified the feeling that this is my country.
You mentioned your concern about the state of poetry in America.
I think what the inauguration does in that moment is it connects poetry in America on such a grand scale to people from firemen to lawyers to grandmothers to teachers, surprised that they were able to connect to it because they were expecting a poem that was too challenging and didn't speak to them emotionally. A lot of it is just plainly that we're not exposed to contemporary work enough in America, beginning from grade school, and I think that we're teaching it backward. We should start with contemporary stuff, something that is easier to open the door for people to be able to connect to poetry at an earlier age. People usually have a moment in high school where they're beat over the head with something that they don't understand. And I don't blame educators, they were probably taught the same way. It's just that over the years, we just haven't been approaching it the right way. We haven't been worried about poetry readership.
Why do you think that is?
I have my suspicions. I'm a product of an MFA in creative writing, and I have no gripe with the idea of teaching writing differently from teaching English lit. It's given poets a way to earn a living by teaching poetry. But I think the shadow side of that is that in some ways lots of poets have failed to think about poetry readership and education and poetry literacy. If we don't foster new generations of readers of poetry, I really don't know where the art is going to go with just reading to each other.
Are other cultures as disconnected from poetry as we are?
I compare it to my first trip to Cuba. I came across some guajiros, country folk. I told them I was a poet. They brought out a bottle of moonshine rum and their guitar and said, "Sing to us." They sing what they call décimas [10-line stanzas of poetry]. They know their national poets, living and dead. They can quote from them. Poetry never left the folklore of the country. Even the figurative liberator of Cuba is a poet, José Marti. He's a national hero. There's not the idea of a high and a low art, but rather that poetry comes from its very people. The bottom line is they weren't scared of poetry. They loved poetry. I always compare it to how in America people are scared of poetry, and as a poet, you have to say, why?