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.
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?