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Inaugural poet Richard Blanco recalls how he fell in love with words

Illustration of author Richard Blanco.
(Joe Ciardiello / For The Times)

What does it take to be a writer: A room of one’s own? A weakness for words? To celebrate the Festival of Books, we asked some celebrated authors to recall a turning point in their evolution as writers.

How did I decide to become a poet? Well, that’s like asking how I decided to fall in love with Mark, my partner of 14 years. I don’t think anyone really makes conscious decisions when it comes to matters of love or vocation. Still, I understand the spirit of such a question, which is really asking: How did I meet and fall in love with poetry? Like every love story, it all feels fated yet completely up to chance; the details seem haphazard yet perfectly orchestrated.

I’m not one of those poets who claims to have been writing since I was in the womb. My parents weren’t professors or patrons of the arts. I didn’t grow up surrounded by bookshelves or paintings. The arts were certainly not dinner conversation. We were a relatively poor working-class family simply trying to survive. What’s more, there was a cultural divide: My parents didn’t even know who the Rolling Stones or Mary Tyler Moore were, for example, much less Walt Whitman or Robert Frost. A life in the arts was just outside the realm of possibility.

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Nevertheless, I was possessed by a creative spirit and curiosity since I was a child, taking great pride in my Mickey Mouse coloring books, my Lego houses and my Play-Doh sculptures. But I was also a whiz at math and the sciences. Truly a left-brained, right-brained person, I would score exactly the same on the analytical and verbal sections of every standardized test I’d ever take. And so, like many immigrants, my parents strongly encouraged me to pursue a more traditional, sound career to ensure I’d have a better life than they had had.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

Trusting their advice, I “chose” civil engineering, believing that someday, somehow I’d explore my other creative half, though I never thought poetry would be the one to complete me.

After graduating and establishing my civil engineering career — making my family and myself proud — I felt accomplished and confident enough to begin exploring those creative impulses that had lain dormant. I entertained thoughts of becoming a painter or getting a master’s degree in architecture, but nothing felt quite right. Then my chance (or fated) meeting with language happened in a most unexpected way. At my engineering office, I began writing inch-thick reports, proposals and lengthy letters; consequently, I became infatuated with language, seduced by its power to organize my thoughts, argue a point or create a persona.

Eventually I couldn’t resist the temptation to pick up a pen and explore writing for my own personal expression, merely as a creative outlet at first. I began “dating” poetry, so to speak. My earliest poems weren’t very good, but they weren’t terrible either, according to the friends and former writing instructors with whom I shared my work. Encouraged, the more I wrote and read poems, the more my fascination with and love for language and poetry grew. We started going steady.

One night, after my first reading of “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, I looked up from the page and began studying my mother preparing dinner in the kitchen: the violence of her hands chopping onions and bell peppers, the dull glint of that same old knife she’d used since I was a child, the faded tomato-sauce stains on her apron, and the smell of olive oil sizzling through the house.

Suddenly, the ordinary was transformed into the extraordinary, into poetry, into a poem where my mother was not just my mother, and a wheelbarrow was not just a wheelbarrow. Time stopped. I knew poetry was more than a curiosity or a casual interest — it was love, a vocation.

I went on to earn an MFA in creative writing and publish three books of poetry. Thousands of days and poems later, I’m still amazed by the mystery of my love for words that have remained faithfully by my side.

Blanco served as the inaugural poet for President Obama’s reelection and is the author, most recently, of “For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey.”

calendar@latimes.com


Festival of Books

What: Richard Blanco in conversation with Leigh Haber
Where: Seeley G. Mudd, USC
When: 3 p.m. April 12
More info: latimes.com/festivalofbooks


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