By Mark Eleveld
3:10 PM PST, February 1, 2013
When Richard Blanco was named as the 2013 inaugural poet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith said in an email that the White House had made an ideal choice, citing the scope of his poems, "their beautiful fidelity to private experience, to place, to community and to a complex sense of self." Last month, Blanco, 44, became the youngest poet to read at an inauguration; he is also the first Latino and openly gay poet to win the honor.
Blanco worked as a civil engineer before turning to poetry. One of his first poetry teachers was the former Chicago poet Campbell McGrath. Blanco, who lives with his partner in Maine, is the author of three books of poetry, the most recent of which is "Looking for the Gulf Motel."
Printers Row Journal caught up with Blanco by phone the day after he read his poem, "One Today," at President Barack Obama's second inauguration. Blanco's baritone voice was raspy from the several weeks of preparation and the celebratory events that followed. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Q: Were you relieved when your reading was over?
A: Relieved? I suppose. There was a relief from all of the work, certainly. It was more euphoric. I was misty-eyed. My mother was sitting next to me. And then I was anxious. The vice president shook my hand; the president shook my hand and whispered some things into my ear (Blanco declined to elaborate). I felt like they had my back, and that built my confidence up a great deal. I felt a good connection with the crowds. I read the way I had planned to; I read it at that moment better than I had prepared.
Q: What led up to that moment on stage?
A: [The White House] asked me to write three poems. They selected one. That's really as much as I know. I can tell you that after the selection, when it was clear which poem was to be read, it allowed me to do a rewrite which kept the poem similar, but which gave me room to make it that much better, during the editing process.
Q: What inspired "One Today"? How did you prepare to write it?
A: I read poetry. I reread Walt Whitman. I reread Allen Ginsberg. Elizabeth Bishop always is so inspiring. A friend of mine, Nikki Moustaki, wrote a poem called "How to Write a Poem After September 11th." It was one of the first poems I went to. I also moved my stuff out of my office in my home and worked at the dining room table. There is a view of the mountains that helped me creatively. I read (Elizabeth) Alexander's and Maya Angelou's poems and the history of the inaugurals. At the same time, I didn't want to be overly locked into that work. My first-draft was a bit list-y and esoteric. I had the idea that something was missing.
Q: What moved the process then?
A: How I treated the subject became eye-opening. That was the breakthrough: I remembered familiar things to me. Campbell (McGrath's) voice came back to me. I remembered lushness of language, texture, things that I knew about my own background that could speak to others. I write narrative, immediate experiences, and I went back to that for my voice. I wasn't writing about my family, but I used my language and description for this subject matter. You know, in my very first poetry class, Campbell had us write a poem about America. It is something I have always spoken to in my poems. The third poem (which wasn't used for the inaugural) was about my mother: having the courage to leave her country, Cuba, getting on the plane and looking back.
Q: Will we get to see the other two poems?
A: No one really has the text in their hands right now. I'm going to put the poems in a proper presentation, with some art that my cousin is working on, to give to the president. And then, hopefully, we will publish the poems and art in a book form.
Q: You're the youngest poet to read at an inauguration and you're also gay and Cuban-American. Did those elements of your life influence your work?
A: Absolutely. The contemporary setting speaks to my generation. And there are stereotypical items I wanted in the poem: the fruits, the colors of the rainbow in the poem. (I wanted) to acknowledge who I am, who we are in the poem: the six languages I used, our long, long history of the Latino presence. That I was up there was a statement. I wanted the pronouncement of the words to be subtle and to reference Martin Luther King Jr. My writing had to represent America. I didn't want to be selfish.
Q: Did anyone comment once you were done?
A: Walking back to my seat, James Taylor touched my elbow, like a congratulation or great job. "I can die now," I thought. Taylor had inspired so much of my own muse. Later, in the holding room, Beyoncé came up to me. These great performers are so used to this; their nerves are incredible. But Beyoncé said something like she sang someone else's song and complimented me on writing an original piece. I was honored. The entire thing has been a gift.
Q: And the public reaction?
A: I wrote the poem to move people, to try to make connections. When I was at the parade, people kept coming up to me to talk about the poem, sharing anecdotes. They had been listening. A middle-aged Asian woman asking me for an autograph. I'm just this son of a country woman, a Latino who wrote a poem for the president's day, and I was being asked by an Asian for an autograph. Being a poet, it's the only job where you say 'thank you' when someone tells you that you made them cry.
Mark Eleveld is the editor of "The Spoken Word Revolution" and teaches at Joliet West High School.
By Richard Blanco
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
Frost was the first inaugural poet, at President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. Frost had planned to read his inaugural poem "Dedication," but due to weather conditions wound up reciting "The Gift Outright" from memory.
Angelou was President Bill Clinton's choice in 1993. She read "On the Pulse of Morning."
Williams read "Of History and Hope" at Clinton's 1997 inauguration. "Robert Frost, who was a friend and mentor, said to me that if I were ever asked to be an inaugural poet I should carefully hold on to the poem, because when he was beginning to read the poem he had written for John Kennedy's 1961 inauguration it blew out of his hands and he had to say another from memory. I held on tightly," he said.
President Barack Obama brought the inaugural poem back in 2009 with Alexander, who read "Praise Song for the Day."
Blanco, 44, is the youngest inaugural poet. He read "One Today" at last month's inaugural ceremonies.
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