Meet the Cuban-American engineer-turned-poet who recited his poem at the 2013 inauguration of President Obama
President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration ceremony had no shortage of star power. Beyonce was there to sing the national anthem. James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir lent their voices to a stream of patriotic songs.
But the most profound emotional reaction from the crowd of 850,000 came when Richard Blanco – a relatively unknown 43-year-old Cuban-American engineer-turned-poet – stood at the podium and delivered a poem the American people didn’t know they needed to hear.
Poetry isn’t exactly what America is known for. Even the best and strongest poetic voices in this country get obscured by more mainstream arts like pop music and film. Most of the poems we were taught in school seem archaic and beside the point. And when a poem is commissioned for a major occasion (like a presidential inauguration), the real and relevant substance can get lost in overly ceremonious language.
But “One Today” – Blanco’s vivid and inspiring inauguration poem – appealed to Americans on a level that was at once intimate and universal. In November, Blanco released For All Of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey – a 112-page memoir documenting his three-week process of conceiving, writing, revising and delivering the inaugural poem.
On March 27, Blanco offers a reading in Lancaster at Franklin & Marshall College’s Mayser Gymnasium. We chatted with the poet last month from his home in Bethel, ME, about American identity, how the inauguration changed him and why poetry gets a bad rap in this country.
Fly Magazine: Most poets in this country don’t get to experience a rock star moment like reading at a presidential inauguration. What surprised you most about the experience?
Richard Blanco: In my naivete, I thought I’d go to Washington, read a poem, come home and go back to walking the dog and getting the mail. I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming experience of people and poetry. This moment in the inauguration connects poetry in America on a scale that nothing else does. What I found was that when given the chance with contemporary poetry in America, there’s an amazing response. It triggered a bunch of epiphanies and realizations about why poetry doesn’t have this kind of moment in America more often. People aren’t exposed to contemporary work enough to realize that poetry is still this living, breathing art, and that poets really do exist. They’re not just something in an English textbook from 1652. It was very beautiful to see that unfolding – from my peers, from grade school kids writing their own poems, from people in nursing homes, from military personnel and from immigrants from all over the globe living in America.
FM: Why is it so much harder to get people out to a poetry reading than to a concert or a theatrical event?
RB: Over the last few decades, we poets have forgotten the very oral nature and roots of poetry. We’ve forgotten the difference between writing a poem and reading a poem ourselves. It’s taken me decades to get the idea that when I read a poem, people are looking for a different kind of experience. It’s sort of like reading a play at home or going to see the play. There should be an added dimension. People enjoy spoken word and performance poets, but I think sometimes the page poets forget that. It’s not only the way you read your poems, but realizing that a reading should in and of itself have a narrative.
FM: Would it be enough for you to write your poems and leave them on the page, or is reading and connecting with an audience a crucial part of the equation?
RB: They say a poem is never done. For me, a poem feels done when I’ve read it maybe a dozen times and connected it to human beings. When I get the stories back. When someone tells me how the poem reminded them of a certain thing or someone or what it means to them in their life. That’s when I feel a poem has come full circle and becomes alive. It starts taking on its own life. I’ll change lines. I’ll add little inflections here and there. It’s like the difference between listening to a studio recording of a song and then going to see somebody live. There’s always this improvisational aspect. And that makes a poem more alive to me, too.
FM: You became interested in poetry in a really unusual way – through engineering. Do poetry and engineering balance each other out in your life, or is there a built-in tension between them?
RB: I’m a full-time poet now, but I’ve been a practicing engineer all my life. I’ve flip-flopped back and forth. I need that balance. There’s a lot of left-brained activity in language. Language is so much about logic – especially in the editing process. But if my left brain isn’t exhausted enough, it starts becoming too lefty in the writing. It starts thinking of the poem as a spreadsheet.
FM: Coming from an engineering background, was it hard to break into a poetry scene?
RB: Being naive can be a really great asset [laughs]. Luckily, at first I was just doing it for fun. I had nothing to lose, so I didn’t mind looking like a fool. The first poems I wrote were, of course, pretty bad. But I didn’t mind shoving them on people and saying, “What do you think about this?” There was always something positive that led to the next little baby step. I didn’t have any expectation. I think expectation is what paralyzes us – the ego saying, “I have to be the best poet in the world.” I didn’t care. I was just having fun exploring and giving myself the gift of being creative. Slowly, one thing led to another and another. Eventually, I got enough nerve to take a creative writing class at a community college. Then I applied to a Master of Fine Arts program. It was there where everything came together.
FM: You’ve said that writing the inauguration poem helped solidify your understanding of yourself as an American.
RB: In my very first graduate creative writing class, my first assignment was to write a poem about America. I laugh about that, because it’s kind of the same assignment I got from the White House. But that really started me on this idea of cultural identity. In some ways, I’ve been questioning and writing about America since then. What’s my place in America? What is America? What is my place at the table? Am I Cuban? Am I American? Am I both or neither? All these questions are very American questions in terms of identity and cultural loyalty. To be able to write the inaugural poem, I had to go back to some very serious questions that I had danced around. Is this my country? Is this – as my mother asked – where I choose to die? I realized I can’t write this poem honestly if I can’t answer that question honestly.
FM: How did that translate into your reading of the poem?
RB: Right before I read the poem, in that moment of listening to the speeches, I just fell in love with America all over again. I felt like a little grade school kid again. We grow up and we get a little bit jaded about the ideals of freedom and justice. And I just realized that those ideals are still intact. Are we there yet? No, of course not. But we get to all be part of that story. We get to write the history of what happens next. So I’m sitting there, and my mom – who grew up in a dirt floor home in Cuba – is sitting next to me, steps away from the president. And it hit me that my story, my mother’s story, every one of our stories – all 850,000 people out there – is America. That’s what we’re all here to celebrate. It was a very sacred moment. Suddenly I realized why everybody goes and stands in the cold for hours. It’s not about the president or the party. For that hour and a half, there’s just this really reverent sense of who we are, and we come together to honor that.