Conversations with smart people about stuff that affects our world, and how we affect it
Richard Blanco earned his engineering license and MFA in poetry in the same year. Within a short time, he found himself among a group of only five poets who have read their works at a United States presidential inauguration. Through the fame, the newfound career success as a poet, and the book tours and speaking engagements, he keeps it real.
Megan Hayes: Richard Blanco is the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. History, joining the ranks of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou in this role. He's the youngest, first Latino, immigrant and gay person to have served in such a role. Born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents, and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity and place characterize his body of work.
He is the author of the poetry collections "Looking for the Gulf Mattel," "Directions to the Beach of the Dead" and "City of 100 Fires"; the poetry chapbooks "Matters of the Sea," "One Today" and "Boston Strong"; a children's book of his inaugural poem "One Today"; and "Boundaries," a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler.
His latest book of poems, "How to Love a Country," both interrogates the American narrative, past and present, and celebrates the still unkempt promise of its ideals. Blanco's many honors include the Agnes Lynch Starett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, the Pen Beyond Margins Award, the Patterson Poetry Prize, a Lambda Literary Award and two Maine Literary Awards. He's been a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and received honorary doctorates from McAllister College, Colby College and the University of Rhode Island.
He's been featured on CBS "Sunday Morning" and NPR's "Fresh Air." The Academy of American Poets named him its first education ambassador in 2015. Blanco has continued to write occasional poems for organizations and events, such as the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. He lives with his partner in Bethel, Maine.
Richard Blanco's mother, seven months pregnant, and the rest of the family arrived as exiles from Cuba to Madrid, where he was born on February 15, 1968. Forty-five days later, the family immigrated once more to New York City. Only a few weeks old, Blanco already belonged to three countries, a foreshadowing of the concerns of place and belonging that would shape his life and work.
Eventually, the family settled in Miami, where he was raised and educated. Growing up among close-knit Cuban exiles instilled in him a strong sense of community, dignity and identity that he'd carry into his adult life as a writer. Richard Blanco, welcome to Appalachian, and welcome to "SoundAffect."
Richard Blanco: Great to be here.
Megan Hayes: So glad to have you here on our campus, and also in our studio. It's definitely our honor to have you here. You have described yourself as an emotional historian. How did you arrive at that, and what does that mean?
Richard Blanco: Well, I think that part of the role of poetry, really arts in general, is to record what it feels like to live in a certain time period, or a certain group of people, or through a certain crisis, or whatever that case might be. For me, personally, part of my motivation when I first started writing was to document my own generation as a bridge generation of Cuban Americans, which is a unique generation, but also the stories of my communities at large, my exile community.
Richard Blanco: And so, in part, it's that idea, that drive to record stories. Things you're not going to find in the newspaper. You're not going to find it in magazine article. You're not going to find in other sources, because ultimately, the arts record what it feels like to live, right? And I think, if you look at all civilizations, what we end up always remembering is the art, right? That's what lives on, because it's still translatable over centuries.
Megan Hayes: Sure, yeah. You know, that actually was a great segue to my next question, because I want to ask you when you knew you wanted to, and when you knew you could, be a poet for a profession, because I really think this is something our students will want to know, in particular, because to your point, people appreciate the arts and the arts last, and it's something that we look back on. But I think there's a long standing skepticism that the arts can be a living. I'm a daughter of an artist, so I can relate to that, a little bit, and also to what it's like to be the daughter of an artist, who's trying to make that living through the arts. So, can you talk a bit about what that realization was like for you, and when you knew you wanted to, and then when you knew you could?
Richard Blanco: I'm still kind of waiting for that part. I think, to be an artist, is always to be part of something that doesn't exist. And in that way, there's always a certain amount of skepticism, a certain amount of healthy skepticism, a certain amount of healthy self-doubt that I think keeps you driving.
Richard Blanco: But there's many layers to that answer. One, I think that sometimes we overly romanticize the idea of what it means to be an artist. If you're not painting by 2 years old, or in the womb, you're not a real artist. And everybody's story is sort of unique; everybody's journey into the arts, and many other fields. They discover who they are and what they want to do.
Richard Blanco: I was actually, circumstances were such, as a working-class kid from a family that did not have books in their house, there were limitations on what possibilities I had, or even would even know of. We weren't reading Frost or talking about Picasso around the dinner table. That was one element.
Richard Blanco: The other element was a cultural divide. My parents did not even know who The Rolling Stones were, much less Frost. So, they knew some of their Cuban artists and some Cuban poets and whatnot, but that had sort of nothing to do with me, in some ways, at least at an early age. And then there was another element, which was homophobia. My grandmother, who was the person who was my primary caretaker, was quite homophobic, so one time, I wanted to study architecture, and she thought even that was too gay.
Richard Blanco: So, the stage was set for me. It was either doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I should preface all this by saying that I was always a left brain, right brain kid. I loved everything, still love everything. Knowledge, to me, is all-powerful, and all of it is, at some point, useful to whatever you do. I studied engineering, not necessarily because my parents forced me. This was the only possibility I had, the only thing I knew to do. Sometimes the narrative that people think in their head is that I was forced to study engineering, that I discovered poetry and the clouds parted open and the cherubs came down. I always like to tell people, "Yeah, I really wanted to go into poetry full time, because there was so much money in it, but I decided ethically had to stay as an engineer."
Richard Blanco: But anyway, I graduated as an engineer, started working as an engineer full time in a consulting office. And that's where I discovered poetry.
Megan Hayes: How did that happen?
Richard Blanco: Engineering paved the road to poetry. Well, again, knowledge is knowledge, and about 50% of my job involved writing and all sorts of written and oral communication skills — writing reports, studies, letters, proposals. The viability of an engineering firm depends on proposals, on getting in that $400 million job, and a proposal's nothing but a narrative of words, a story.
Richard Blanco: So, I really dove into language, and my right brain kicked in. I was like, "Oh, this is really cool." And I finally understood these ideas of audience and tone and diction, and word choice. Then I thought, I knew I wanted to do something creative, as well, in addition to, and I thought, "What's the weirdest thing I can do?" I was like, "Let's write poetry." And so I just started writing poetry, really, really bad, rhymey rhymey poetry. My sense of poetry was really archaic, but I really didn't start writing until I was 25 or 26. So the learning curve was pretty fast.
Richard Blanco: I skipped all the teenage angst poems and whatnot. But to answer your question, I fundamentally think that we're living in a world where we worry too much about those things. Writing is not a career, and the sooner you realize that, the better. It's a vocation. That means you're going to do it no matter what. And I wrote and was a professional engineer all my life. And I was a successful poet and a successful engineer.
Richard Blanco: Of course, when the White House called, it was of course a game changer, but I did the work. I showed up, and you just never know what's going to happen with your artwork. Of course, you never want to lose sight of your vision and whatnot, but the truth and the practical matter of it is that we have to earn a living, and if we want families, we have to support our families and whatnot. And there's nothing absolutely wrong with that, and just because you have another job or another career, another thing that puts bread on the table, you're not a sellout. We all have to find our ways, and we all come from different means, and we all come from different stories and different backgrounds that limit.
Richard Blanco: Or, say, we discover new things for ourselves, and how to make our way in the world. I think that's really true of whatever we pick, whether civil engineer, doctor, lawyer, artist, painter, we always have to find our own unique way through life.
Megan Hayes: So, I have a question about what it meant to become an inaugural poet, but I'm also really curious, now that I know more about your background, how you got from that moment where you were an engineer saying, "Hey, I'm going to try poetry." and writing the poems, the rhymey poems that you say were bad, to getting that call from the White House. How do you get from point A to point B there?
Richard Blanco: Well, I took a couple classes at community college. I was just exploring my creative curiosities, and my intellectual curiosities. I was really just doing it for me. In a way, it was a luxury, because it was something, of course, that my family would have never paid for, because they didn't understand it. So, it was just doing it for me, and I think that made all the difference. I never quit my day job, did a couple community college classes, like I said, and then eventually applied to Master in Fine Arts in creative writing, and was accepted. Went through the whole program and graduated while still working full time as an engineer.
Richard Blanco: Thinking, "Yeah, maybe someday I'll get a book published. Maybe some day I'll teach in an MFA program." And then that happened. I took a hiatus from engineering for about three, four years, and taught in Connecticut State at Georgetown, American University. Those three. Well, Wesleyan was later on.
Richard Blanco: And then, after that, a lot of my work has to do with place, home and belonging. That's very important to me. Where I live is very important to me. As an academic, you can't always choose where you want to live. You have to go where the job is. So, I decided to just go back to Miami and resume my engineering career. And actually, I ended up liking that separation, because compartmentalizing my left brain and my right brain was really healthy for me. When I was having a bad poetry day, I'd immerse myself in engineering. When I was having a bad engineering day, I'd write poetry at work.
Megan Hayes: That's probably really handy for the ego, too, I would imagine.
Richard Blanco: Yeah, yeah, because you have something else to draw from, to pull yourself up. But even then, in sharing the story of the journey, even after two books and awards and all this stuff, I was still like, "I'm not a poet. This is just a fluke. I'm really meant to be an architect. I'm the world's greatest architect."
Richard Blanco: And I got a portfolio together and was accepted to a master's program in architecture. I quit after three weeks because I realized I was the world's worst architect. And the reason I share that, is that sometimes we insist on things in our lives, and that was something I thought I really, really wanted to do, not poetry. But you never know where your journey takes you.
Richard Blanco: So, I recommitted myself to this idea that I wasn't a fake and there were no mistakes in my life, that I was meant to be a poet engineer. And that was actually a great thing, a great, healthy and wonderful thing. I went about writing and working as an engineer, and then, eventually, after the third book, shortly after the third book, the White House called.
Richard Blanco: But yeah, you show up. You keep on doing the work. I think a lot of times in America, we only see the polished end product of a celebrity or of anybody that has any kind of success, and we don't realize the story behind that are the underpinnings of the doubts, the journeys, the ups and downs that happen with a career.
Richard Blanco: And now I'm in another phase, actually, because it's a whole brand new world. I mean, I have never earned a living as a writer, so I'm negotiating all these other doubts and all these other complexities that I never had to before. So, the journey continues.
Megan Hayes: Are you the only poet engineer that you know?
Richard Blanco: As far as I know, yeah. It's interesting. When you get your professional license, you get the two little letters after your name, PE. Except in my case, it was poet engineer [crosstalk 00:11:40]
Megan Hayes: I love it.
Richard Blanco: I got my MFA and my engineering license in the same year, so I got my poetic license and my engineering license in the same year.
Megan Hayes: Wow, you're such an underachiever.
Richard Blanco: I try to be. I try to be an underachiever.
Megan Hayes: Speaking of which, only three presidents, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have had poets read at their inaugurations. What did that mean for you, to join this elite group of five poets, personally, and was that a moment for you, career-wise, that you recognized at the time, or obviously, maybe, in retrospect, recognize?
Richard Blanco: Yeah, I didn't quite recognize it at the time, in the sense that, first of all, when the White House called, I couldn't wrap my head around it, because it's not ... I mean, there's a Pulitzer Prize every year, and then there's ... It's something you're not even a finalist for. You never applied for. It's kind of like winning a lottery and never even buying a ticket. So, at the time, I couldn't wrap my head around it.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, what was that like? I mean, phone just rang and then, "Hi, this is the White House calling"?
Richard Blanco: I was driving to Maine, I think, from New York City, and I was like, "What?" And the person finally said, "Like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou." And I was like, "Oh." And then, for a while, I thought, "This is my friend Bryan setting me up for a prank. This is ridiculous."
Richard Blanco: So, I Googled the person's name, and sure enough, it says Presidential Inaugural Committee Scheduler. So, this was December 12th. The inauguration is January 21st. And you're asked to write three poems. Yeah.
Richard Blanco: But my first response, emotional response, wasn't really terror. That came later. It was really just this feeling I've never had before, which is this really overwhelming sense of gratitude, not because of what was happening to me, but realizing that this journey that began with my parents and my grandparents, that the decisions that they made, their insistence on education, the sacrifices they made as immigrants, the things that they lost, so many things that just had to line up.
Richard Blanco: And I felt like, in a way, a page had turned in my life, and part of that was that, that story came way before me, and it was finally now my story. And it's this weird feeling of being handed the baton, so to speak. But everything had led up to this point. And it was really just, again, a sense of incredible gratitude, more than anything else. Then, later, terror.
Richard Blanco: But I still didn't realize the historical significance of it, because I just need to write a poem right now, right? And also, what's really weird, it's isolating, because who are you going to call?
Megan Hayes: Right.
Richard Blanco: Luckily, I kind of marginally knew Elizabeth Alexander, but I wasn't going to call Maya Angelou, just like, "Hey, girl. So, what did you wear?" What do you do with that? What poet friend could I possibly call and tell them ... first of all, how do you write something like this, and what do you do with it? So, I was just caught up in the moment, and luckily, my partner, Mark, at the time, just took over all the logistics and everything.
Richard Blanco: And realized this is huge. And I was like, "I'm just going to read a poem." I was just like, "I'll come back, walk the dog." And here it is, almost seven years, and I still feel like I've not gotten back home yet, from being on the road. So, it was later that it sort of hit me. And it actually hit me right at that moment, when I'm sitting, waiting to be called up to the podium to do the poem. It was really the first time I really had a quiet time with myself, with my mother sitting next to me.
Richard Blanco: It was that moment I said, "Oh my God, some gay Cuban American immigrant Latino kid is going to read a poem, and it's me." More so, I finally felt, "I'm finally home." In a way. This grand sense of having a place at the American table, and not just for me, but also for probably millions of people that felt just like me, that weren't quite sure that they were part of the American heart, not quite sure they had a place at that table, that have always been on the margins of our narratives. So, the honor of being able to represent that, and feel that, at the same time, was really immense.
Richard Blanco: I turned to my mother and I said, "Well, I guess we're finally Americanos." In the sense that, if this doesn't do it, what does? Right?
Megan Hayes: Do you still feel that way?
Richard Blanco: Yes and no. I think yes. I certainly do not, not feel that way. But at the center of all my work is this question of home, right? And home is a very complex word, and it's a huge word. It's like asking what is love, and it evolves and changes over time.
Richard Blanco: I've had several phases of what home, in terms of cultural identity, in terms of sexuality, what does that mean to me. I won't give you the whole nine yards but at first, you grow up, initially rejecting your given culture, because it's your parents, and whatever your parents represent, people often misunderstand that. They think, "Oh, I just love being Cuban and eating pork on Thanksgiving every year." So, you want to be this American.
Richard Blanco: And then, eventually, the writing, when I started writing, made me explore those deep questions of where am I from, where do I belong. Usually happens around early to mid-20s, and writing drew that out of me. Went to Cuba and then fell in love, or really reclaimed, or claimed, for the first time, the totality of my cultural heritage, and really embraced it.
Richard Blanco: And I became a bit of an anti-American. Started reading all that really happened in our history, and then I lived in New England, still chasing that quintessential America. That didn't really quite exist, and then, traveled a lot. And then, at some point, I was just in a doldrum about where I belonged. I had explored a lot of avenues, and all seemed to be tentative answers.
Richard Blanco: But this quote by the poet Bashō says, "Life is a journey, and the journey itself is home." Hope I didn't misquote that. And I was kind of in that space when this happened with the White House. But it didn't end there, because then Obama, we're having a group dinner one time, and he walked in, and he said, "I just got off the phone with Raul Castro."
Richard Blanco: I'm like, "Oh my God." So, it was the beginning, if I do the timing right, the beginning of this conversation of opening up relations with Cuba, and then we got asked to read and write a poem for the reopening of the U.S. Embassy. And that sort of tossed the question of home back in the air. Like, "Oh, maybe I can have a little place in Cuba. Maybe I am Cuban. Maybe I'm not American."
Richard Blanco: And even to that moment, what I realized, then, was that I was still thinking I had to pick one or the other. And that experience taught me, "You don't have to pick, not in today's world." That's kind of just silly, because today's world, the question of home is even more complex than when I was growing up.
Richard Blanco: And I just realized I can be both. I can be four things if I want to. And that we exist in the intersection of all those things. So, that's where I'm at in this place. It's not like I'm a die-hard American, I'm a die-hard Cuban. I've tried to think of myself as a global citizen.
Megan Hayes: I think this would be an interesting point in our conversation for you to read one of your poems. In particular, from your new book, "How to Love A Country," "Declaration of Interdependence."
Richard Blanco: Sure. OK, so this poem, obviously the title refers to the Declaration of Independence, but this is the "Declaration of Interdependence." And here, you'll see excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. And what I think I was trying to do in this poem, I think, we've gotten at a point in our country where we've stopped seeing each other.
Richard Blanco: There's a great saying, which also inspires this poem, by the Zulu people, not a saying, but in the morning, the greeting is not, "Good morning." It's look straight into someone's eyes and say, "I see you." And there's immense power in that.
Richard Blanco: We can sort of objectify and have [inaudible 00:20:05] whole cities, states, regions, by what color they are on a map, on a presidential inauguration once every four years. And so I think we need to break through these stereotypes and just start seeing each other as people. That, I think, is part of what might break the deadlock of where we're at.
Richard Blanco: "Declaration of Interdependence."
Richard Blanco: Such has been the patient sufferance …
Richard Blanco: We’re a mother's bread, instant potatoes, milk at a checkout line. We’re her three children pleading for bubble gum and their father. We’re the three minutes she steals to page through the tabloid, needing to believe even stars’ lives are as joyful as bruised.
Richard Blanco: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury …
Richard Blanco: We’re her second job serving an executive absorbed in his Wall Street Journal at a sidewalk café shadowed by skyscrapers. We’re the shadows of the fortune he won and the family he lost. We’re his loss and the lost. We’re a father in a coal town who can't mine a life anymore because too much and too little has happened, for too long.
Richard Blanco: A history of repeated injuries and usurpations …
Richard Blanco: We’re the grit of his main street’s blacked-out windows and graffitied truths. We’re a street in another town lined with royal palms, at home with a Peace Corps couple who collect African art. We’re their dinner-party talk of wines, wielded picket signs and burned draft cards. We’re what they know: It’s time to do more than read the New York Times, buy fair-trade coffee and organic corn.
Richard Blanco: In every stage of oppressions we have petitioned for redress …
Richard Blanco: We’re the farmer who grew that corn, who plows into his couch as worn as his back by the end of the day. We’re his TV set blaring news having everything and nothing to do with the field dust in his eyes or his son nested in the ache of his arms. We’re his son. We’re a teenager who drove too fast or too slow, talked too much or too little, moved too quickly, but not quick enough. We’re the blast of the bullet leaving the gun. We’re the guilt and the grief of the cop who wished he hadn’t shot.
Richard Blanco: We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor …
Richard Blanco: We’re the dead. We’re the living amid the flicker of vigil candlelight. We’re in a dim cell with an inmate reading Dostoevsky. We’re his crime, his sentence, his amends, we’re the mending of ourselves and others. We’re a Buddhist serving soup at a shelter alongside a stockbroker. We’re each other’s shelter and hope: A widow’s 50 cents in a collection plate and a golfer’s $10,000 pledge for a cure.
Richard Blanco: We hold these truths to be self-evident …
Richard Blanco: We're the cure for the hatred caused by our despair. We’re the good morning of a bus driver who remembers our name, the tattooed man who gives up his seat on the subway. We’re every door held open with a smile when we look into each other’s eyes the way we behold the moon. We’re the moon. We’re the promise of one people, one breath declaring to one another: I see you. I need you. I am you.
Megan Hayes: Wow. I really love that poem, because it speaks to the outsider and the insider in all of us, I think. I wanted to ask you about whether you felt like an outsider in any aspect of your life, and what that experience was like. And also, if there are advantages, maybe, to being the outsider.
Richard Blanco: Yeah, I think, to be an artist, you always feel like somewhat of an outsider. That's part of what drives your work, is to push open things, push through things, to break boundaries that you feel are real, or at least perceive them as such. Certainly, always questioning.
Richard Blanco: And the place of questioning is always, in a sense, isolating, and feeling like an outsider. Because sometimes you're saying, "Isn't anybody else asking these questions?" I mean, the poem itself, in a way, what I wanted to do in this book, and also in this poem, is not just preach to the choir, not just hear a on-sided argument.
Richard Blanco: And this was a little dangerous for me. Because I'm trying to push a boundary that I feel, also, the perspectives of working-class kid, as a Latino, and sometimes, I feel outside even of the liberals' perspective, in some ways, that can have its own blind side. And so, that, the people that populate this poem also have their own blind sides, and are also outsiders in different ways.
Richard Blanco: But yeah, I just wanted us to, again, see through those boundaries, and thinking about what is an outsider.
Megan Hayes: Yeah. You've talked about coming out as gay in an environment that was not supportive. Do you find yourself being asked to or offering advice to young people in similar situations? And if so, what do you say?
Richard Blanco: I do, often, and I try to do as much work as I can. Or I should say I have a soft spot in my heart for teenage LGBTQ youth, in that respect, because of what I went through. But also, we're in, again, there's so many layers. We talk about outsider where you live. I worry that there's this appearance that, "Come out, come out, wherever you are." And everything's fine, because we see on TV, because now there's marriage equality, and all this stuff.
Richard Blanco: And so, it really depends where you live, and it really depends on what family you come from, and it really depends on what religion you come from, and it depends on a lot of other factors. I've heard horror stories of kids that are thrown out of their house at 15 or 16, and it's one thing to be disowned, so to speak, when you're 25, when you're financially, hopefully, independent, and have an education. It's another thing to do that when you're 16.
Richard Blanco: So, I try to be that person for them, because actually I went through a world where you did not come out, and I try to remember. And actually, sometimes even with parents, have talked to me. "I know my son's gay, but he won't come out." I'm like, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It doesn't happen that way. Give everybody room." And also just letting youth know you don't have to come out. It's when you're ready, and whenever you feel like you're ready. Someone very close to my family, just came out to me. And I was like, "Great." Because you could tell he was ready. He was ready.
Richard Blanco: And so, I think there's sometimes this popular pressure, in a way, that you're supposed to. I lived on the other extreme, where that thought couldn't even cross your mind, by going to high school in the '80s. That just did not even cross your mind. So, I try to work with youth in that respect.
Megan Hayes: This morning on NPR, driving in, I heard about what they called, I had to look this up so I could get this right, the most profound shift in public attitudes ever recorded, and they were referencing public opinion on homosexuality. They quoted the General Social Survey, which measures general social attitudes in America, and that showed a shift from '88, when 11% of Americans said that they believed gay people should have the right to marry, to 68% in 2018.
Megan Hayes: And the Freedom to Marry group commissioned a poem from you, to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the first U.S. State, Massachusetts, to legally recognize the right of same sex couples to marry. So, you wrote the poem "Until We Could" in 2014. I'd like to ask you to read the poem "Until We Could."
Richard Blanco: Sure. Do I talk about it a little first, or after?
Megan Hayes: Before or after, either one. It's up to you.
Richard Blanco: Yeah. Freedom to Marry, as I understood it, and when I got this commission, the commission poem was a whole new thing for me. It's kind of an occasional poem, but different. Largely, what they did was change the rhetoric and change the language, and that was a tipping point, at least in this particular topic of marriage equality.
Richard Blanco: But a lot of people were doing a lot of work, and they had come to a standstill, like a plateau. And changing the language, of course I'm geeking out on that, but how powerful language is. When we change language, we change how we think, we change who we are, we change how we think about other people.
Richard Blanco: And so, I'm so happy for that. That they got that. It was an honor to write a poem in that respect. It was also turned into a short film. Produced into a short film as a celebration of the 10-year anniversary. You can YouTube that, if you like. It's called "Until We Could," Richard Blanco, Freedom to Marry. It was the first poem I ever wrote knowing that it would be a film, which was really interesting.
Megan Hayes: So, you knew it would at the time?
Richard Blanco: Yeah.
Megan Hayes: Oh, OK. I was wondering about that. That beautiful narration of that, too.
Richard Blanco: So, there's, I think, good parts that I thought could be dramatized, and of course, I imagined Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling kissing, but I don't think that was quite in the budget for the film.
Megan Hayes: I think the people they had were more beautiful, frankly. And some of the most beautiful images, just of the two coffee cups together.
Richard Blanco: Yeah, I love that one.
Megan Hayes: Just the mundane parts of human life, that are just so beautiful.
Richard Blanco: Yeah. It would have worked against it if it was too flashy. It got me through the poem. So, it's actually, obviously, loosely based, well, not loosely based, but obviously also based on my own relationship of 20 years. And my partner actually just proposed to me a couple weeks ago.
Megan Hayes: Congratulations!
Richard Blanco: So, that's really crazy. So, I read this poem completely differently now. I get choked up, too, and I don't usually do that with my own poetry. But here we go.
Megan Hayes: Well, I hope we both make it through without crying.
Richard Blanco: Yeah, hopefully I can just read this at the wedding, and that's it. We're married.
Richard Blanco: "Until We Could" — for Mark.
Richard Blanco: I knew it then, where we first found our eyes, and everything around us, even the din and smoke of the city disappeared, leaving us alone as if we were the only two men in the world, two mirrors, face to face. My reflection in yours, yours in mine, infinite.
Richard Blanco: I knew since I knew you, but we couldn't. I caught the sunlight pining through the sheers, traveling millions of dark miles, simply to graze your skin, as I did. That first dawn I studied you sleeping beside me. Yes, I counted your eyelashes, read your dreams like butterflies flitting under your eyelids, ready to flutter into the room. Yes, I praised you, like a majestic creature my god forgot to create.
Richard Blanco: Until that morning of you tamed in my arms, first for me to see and name you mine. Yes, to the rise and fall of your body, your every exhale and inhale, a breath I breathed on my own, wanting to keep even the air between us as one. Yes. To all of you. Yes, I knew.
Richard Blanco: But still, we couldn't. I taught you how to dance salsa by looking into my Caribbean eyes. You learned to speak Spanish in my tongue, while teaching me how to catch snowflakes in my palms, love, the great clouds of your worn out hometown. Our years began collecting in glossy photos, timelining our lives across shelves and walls, glancing back at us, us, embracing in some sunset, more captivated by each other than the sky blushed plum rose.
Richard Blanco: Us, claiming some mountain that didn't matter as much as our climbing it together. Us, leaning against columns of ruins as ancient as our love was new. Or leaning into our dreams at a table, flickering candlelight in our full mooned eyes. I knew me, as much as us, and yet, we couldn't.
Richard Blanco: Though I forgave your blue eyes turning green each time you lied and kept believing you. Though we managed to say good morning after muted nights in the same bed. Though every door slam told me to hold on by letting us go, and saying you're right became as true as saying I'm right. 'Til there was nothing a long walk couldn't solve. Holding hands in hope, under the streetlights lustering like a string of pearls guiding us home. Or a stroll along the beach with our dog, the sea washed out by our smiles, our laughter roaring louder than the waves.
Richard Blanco: Though we understood our love was the same as our parents, though we dared to tell them so, and they understood, though we knew, we couldn't. No one could. When fiery kick lines and fires were set for us by our founder mother-fathers at Stonewall, we first spoke of defiance, then we paraded glitter, leather and rainbows. Our word then became pride down city streets, demanding, "Just let us be."
Richard Blanco: But that wasn't enough. Parades became rallies, bold words on signs, shouting until we all claimed freedom as another word for marriage. And said, "Let us in." Insisted love is love. Proclaimed it. Into all eyes that would listen, at any door that would open, until no's and maybe's turned into yeses, town by town, city by city, state by state, understanding us and all those who dared to say, "Enough." Until the gavel struck into law what we always knew. Love is the right to say, "I do and I do and I do."
Richard Blanco: And I do want us to see every tulip we've planted come up spring after spring. 100 more years of dinners cooked over a shared glass of wine. And 1,000 more movies in bed. I do, until our eyes become voices, speaking without speaking. I do until, like a cloud meshed into a cloud, there's no more you, me, our names useless. I do want you to be the last face I see, your breath my last breath. I do. I do, and will, and will for those who still can't vow it yet. But know love's exact reason as much as they know how a sail keeps the wind without breaking. Or how roots dig away into the earth. Or how the stars open their eyes to the night. Or how vine becomes one with the wall it loves. Or how, when I hold you, you are still rain in my hands.
Megan Hayes: That's such a beautiful piece.
Richard Blanco: Thank you.
Megan Hayes: When I was reading the piece and watching the film, and thinking about the significance of this personal love story, and also sort of a coming of age of the movement story, as well, just all being wrapped up into that. And this was a commissioned piece for you, so can you talk a bit about what it was like to wrap all those things together?
Richard Blanco: Yeah, I mean, the inauguration has really moved the needle for me, in terms of, it's something we're never taught in school, and it speaks, to some degree, of the separation that we have of the art of poetry from the everyday person in America. You certainly see more overlap in Latin America, and almost every other country in the world, where the poetry is part of the folklore. People feel they own their poets.
Richard Blanco: I can't get into too many reasons. That's more of a historian, academic work. But certainly, and of course America has had moments like the Beat poets and then the Harlem Renaissance poets, where poetry got closer and started being part of the very fabric of what was happening, and a voice for the people, of the people and by the people. Poetry, to me, still stands.
Richard Blanco: And I think my background as such has always understood poetry in that way, at least emotionally, that it should reach beyond another poet, and beyond just a closed circle. So, the inauguration certainly was a learning curve, because I never really had those assignments. I had been commissioned to write poems for, also just not even commission poems, I've chosen to write for Boston Strong, Pulse, Pulse Nightclub shootings, the Parkland High School shooting.
Richard Blanco: I was commissioned for a poem for Silicon Valley to honor innovation and humanitarian innovators, I should say. Poems for the Fragrance Foundation in New York. Reading a poem with Taylor Swift and these people in the audience. Why not? Why can't poetry be part of that world? And so the inauguration changed me, but it also opened people's eyes, and suddenly, "Oh, we can have a poet." Or, "We can have a poem here." Or, "We can celebrate life, we can honor life, we can mourn together by using poetry as a centerpiece and a poet."
Richard Blanco: So, something like this, what I've learned, the gist of it, and where I think the pitfall is, that people think, when you write an occasional poem or a commissioned poem, it's about the occasion or the commission, and it's not. It is and it isn't. It's what you feel about the occasion, what you feel. And you have to just try and find that overlap. What does my audience care about that I also care about? Because you can't fake honesty in a poem.
Megan Hayes: No, or in any art, I think.
Richard Blanco: In any art. And the inauguration, I think, I put myself in there, my mom, my dad, because I am one of those people. That was a really breakthrough moment in the poem for me. It's like, "No, no, I'm not going to be this talking head of just telling people what America should be or can be. Liberty and justice for all." That's politicians' jobs, not mine.
Megan Hayes: That's what the speech writers do, yeah.
Richard Blanco: That's what speech writers' jobs are, right? But even if you look at speech writers, if you look at, especially Obama's speech writer —
Megan Hayes: The really good ones, yeah.
Richard Blanco: There's always ethos, pathos, I forget how it goes. But there's this idea of establishing authority, but using a real-life example of people, a real honest experience, and then elaborating on that.
Richard Blanco: I've taught a course at graduate seminars. In some ways, it's not that different. It parallels the idea. When I write a personal poem, an autobiographical poem, I'm still thinking of an audience. I'm thinking, "How can I write this that will be relatable to a reader's life?" And at the end of the day, you're just appealing to the basic five kinds of human emotions, because you know that you're writing the poem. In a way every poem is an occasion. "I saw a tree." "My mother died."
Richard Blanco: I don't want to be facetious and hold poetry so high, but I think it helps us to write our own personal [inaudible 00:39:04] when we have this exercise, because you're more aware of audience. And I've seen in writing classes, what happens, it gets so insular, the idea of audience starts completely disappearing, and then it just becomes this cryptic poem, which gives the genre a bad reputation.
Richard Blanco: So, this really makes you really understand audience in the sense of there's going to be a million people watching me read this poem. Or there are going to be 10 million people seeing this film. Who are those people, and how can I appeal to them? Also, by something that moves me that I hope will move them. Or I suspect will move them in the same way.
Richard Blanco: In this case, how could I not base this poem on my own experiences of love? I would be a fool not to, and I think the honesty that comes through, but yet, opening up, so it's the irony of poetry, of all art, in a way, in that the universal is in the specific. And I think that still applies to an occasional poem, or a commissioned poem. You just find that connection between you and your audience, that is the spark.
Megan Hayes: Yeah. Well thank you. So, there's one last poem that I'd like you to read. We can talk about it before or after. Sometimes people like to do it either way, but it's "Mother Country."
Richard Blanco: So, this poem was the third poem that I wrote for the White House. They asked me to write three, as I mentioned, and I had already given them two, and they liked "One Today," so I was like, "OK, I'm just going to write whatever the hell I want. They got two poems already out of me. I'm tired."
Richard Blanco: And the press release was about to go out, and it's crazy. I'm writing all this in secret, too. I couldn't even tell my mother for three weeks. I turned to my mother's story for inspiration in this poem, in thinking my mother left her entire family behind in Cuba, so her eight brothers and sisters, her parents. Every aunt and uncle, every niece and nephew, and we always kind of admired the courage, but also lived with feeling her sense of loss and longing.
Richard Blanco: At this occasion, I also realized that my mother's more of an American for that act of faith, because it was also a complete act of faith, in our ideals, and the ideals of this country. She's more of an American than I can ever be. So, this poem asks us to look at our country through my mother's eyes, or I should say my mother's emotional shoes, and imagine that we had to lose this country. How might we reexamine our perspective of what our role is in our democracy, and how we are engaging in this democracy.
Richard Blanco: And I think immigrants, in general, remind us of that. They remind us their journeys and what they sacrifice and lose for the sake of the stuff that we take for granted every day. It's an important reminder to not take it for granted.
Richard Blanco: "Mother Country/Madrea Patria"
Richard Blanco: To love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968,
Richard Blanco: my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene
Richard Blanco: I imagine as if standing in her place — one foot
Richard Blanco: inside a plane destined for a country she knew
Richard Blanco: only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos
Richard Blanco: from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored
Richard Blanco: to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched
Richard Blanco: around one suitcase, taking only what she needs
Richard Blanco: most: hand-colored photographs of her family,
Richard Blanco: her wedding veil, the doorknob of her house,
Richard Blanco: a jar of dirt from her backyard, goodbye letters
Richard Blanco: she won’t open for years. The sorrowful drone
Richard Blanco: of engines, one last, deep breath of familiar air
Richard Blanco: she’ll take with her, one last glimpse at all
Richard Blanco: she’d ever known: the palm trees wave goodbye
Richard Blanco: as she steps onto the plane, the mountains shrink
Richard Blanco: from her eyes as she lifts off into another life.
Richard Blanco: To love a country as if you’ve lost one: I hear her
Richard Blanco: — once upon a time — reading picture books
Richard Blanco: over my shoulder at bedtime, both of us learning
Richard Blanco: English, sounding out words as strange as the talking
Richard Blanco: animals and fair-haired princesses in their pages.
Richard Blanco: I taste her first attempts at macaroni-n-cheese
Richard Blanco: (but with chorizo and peppers), and her shame
Richard Blanco: over Thanksgiving turkeys always dry, but countered
Richard Blanco: by her perfect pork pernil and garlic yucca. I smell
Richard Blanco: the rain of those mornings huddled as one under
Richard Blanco: one umbrella waiting for the bus to her 10-hour days
Richard Blanco: at the cash register. At night, the zzz-zzz of her sewing
Richard Blanco: her own blouses, and quinceañera dresses for her grown nieces
Richard Blanco: still in Cuba, guessing at their sizes, and the gowns
Richard Blanco: she’d sell to neighbors to save for a rusty white sedan —
Richard Blanco: no hubcaps, no air-conditioning, sweating all the way
Richard Blanco: through our first vacation to Florida theme parks.
Richard Blanco: To love a country as if you’ve lost one: as if
Richard Blanco: it were you on a plane departing from America
Richard Blanco: forever, clouds closing like curtains on your country,
Richard Blanco: the last scene in which you’re a madman scribbling
Richard Blanco: the names of your favorite flowers, trees, and birds
Richard Blanco: you’d never see again, your address and phone number
Richard Blanco: you’d never use again, the color of your father’s eyes,
Richard Blanco: your mother's hair, terrified you could somehow, some day, forget these.
Richard Blanco: To love a country as if I was my mother last spring
Richard Blanco: hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up
Richard Blanco: to the U.S. Capitol, as if she were here before you today
Richard Blanco: instead of me, explaining her tears, her cheeks pink
Richard Blanco: as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when
Richard Blanco: she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know, mi'jo,
Richard Blanco: it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where
Richard Blanco: you choose to die — that is your country.
Megan Hayes: I really enjoyed hearing you talk about what was behind you writing this poem. When I was reading it, I just related my own experience. All I could think of was my grandmother, who was born right over the mountain in east Tennessee, and her escape was from Appalachian poverty. But she left her family and she went off on this great adventure.
Megan Hayes: And so, I think there's something universal about looking at the matriarchs in our family, and thinking about how they got to where they are, and the struggles that they went through. And as I get older, I feel less, I guess, sad about what they went through, and more pragmatic. I think there's something extremely pragmatic at the end of your poem I really like, about it's where you choose to die.
Megan Hayes: And that, to me, I don't know, it just so beautifully tells that story, and there's something I guess I can relate to about my grandmother's experience as I get older, because when I was younger, all I could feel was the loss that she must have experienced. And the older I get, the more I'm relating to the pragmatism about her choices that she made. And so, I wonder, was there something to that? Or am I just reading too much into it?
Richard Blanco: No, I think that's what I was saying. I had always lived with her loss and her longing and [foreign language 00:46:46]. There's always a sense. And when that moment happened with my mother, and that's kind of why I'm the one, I mean, I took, obviously, my partner, but she was the one who was sitting right next to me. In a way, this was part of her story.
Richard Blanco: She said that because she's realized that she's lived more of her life here in the United States than she has in Cuba. And she, herself, has gotten over that sense of loss and longing and whatnot, and has just sort of healed. She's, I think, found a certain amount of pride and understanding that her journey, she made the right decisions, so to speak.
Richard Blanco: So, there was this awakening, that, "No, this is my country." So, it's not die for, it's where you choose to die. People think it's dying for one's country. This is not at all that. This is where you choose to die, where your bones will be buried, where your ashes will be scattered.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, for sure.
Richard Blanco: So, yeah, I think there's a lot of that, that she herself has been on that journey herself. Just thinking about what it's all meant, and I think in some ways, seeing her son read a poem to the entire country, in a way, was like, "OK, I made a very good, practical choice. This panned out." Right?
Megan Hayes: I can't imagine her feeling anything else at that moment, for sure.
Richard Blanco: But you often think, life is made up of small decisions. We often glorify things, and I have a poem about that, too. It's called, "Of consequence and consequently." These small decisions are that most of the most important things in our life are really a bunch of little teeny decisions. And so, we look back, we sort of over romanticize it. They are, in a way, just trying to survive. And there's the sense of, "OK."
Richard Blanco: Or it's step by step, and there's small decisions are made. But I often think, what a miracle that all those little decisions ended up with me, and I don't mean that, oh, me, Richard Blanco, but in the sense of gratitude. Like I said, three-quarters of your story is already written by the time you were born. A lot of what you become has already been decided, so to speak.
Richard Blanco: And I often think, if my parents would have never left Cuba, who would I be? And every time I go back to Cuba, and not even go back, because I wasn't born there, but I feel like I am going back. Every time I go to Cuba, it feels like there's this ghost of me that I'm trying to find a parallel universe. Who would Richard Blanco, Ricardo de Jesus Blanco be, if my parents hadn't left? And how that singular decision, that one of many small decisions? Right? Crazy when you start thinking the ripple effect of that.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, because you can take that back a couple more generations, too. And keep thinking.
Richard Blanco: Yeah. The poem does that. What if my great-great-grandparents never left Spain? Or what if my dad was 2 inches shorter. My mother would have never gone for him. You know? Chance and chance and chance. I think it relates to what we were talking about earlier, about journey and picking a career. The best we can generally do is point in a general direction and move. The thing is to not stand still. I think it's to keep on exploring and journeying.
Richard Blanco: I know I'm even at this stage, and even with all that's happened to me, I'm still looking for the next thing. I'm still looking for the next, "What else haven't I done that I can fold poetry into, or some other aspect?" I'm writing a play now. You just got to keep moving, but also, without necessarily knowing the exact path, because then what's the fun in that, anyway?
Megan Hayes: Well, I was going to ask you what advice you had for college students, and I think we might have just heard it.
Richard Blanco: Well, yeah, I think that's part of it. And I know that, probably, they've seen already, that they grow up with so much incredible pressure. I mean, I've seen already. I guest teach sometimes as young as third grade. I see even in grade school, already, the teachers are seriously teaching them in terms of what they're going to be when they grow up.
Richard Blanco: And no one says fireman anymore and astronaut. It's like, "No, that's not practical, little Johnny. You're going to go to MIT and you're going to study robotics." It's kind of sad. I'm like, "God." I went to my school, which is now a major research university in Florida, in Miami, but when I went, it was four buildings, and it was practically almost a community college.
Richard Blanco: And I went because my mother said, "Well, it's right there." And so, you never know.
Megan Hayes: Little decisions.
Richard Blanco: Little decisions. And that had made all the difference. If I had gone away to college, I was so confused culturally, sexually, who knows what would have happened to me. But anyway, that's part of the advice is, we have to pick a general direction, but also, more than that, what I want to say is, everything that you learn, and take it from the poet engineer, kids. Sonny.
Richard Blanco: Everything that you learn will come back to support your lead horse. I can't tell you how important the humanities are in engineering. A lot of my projects have to do with community development, and you will spend two or three years in town meetings and working on collecting the consciousness of people, and getting a consensus of what they want to do with their town, what kind of parks, what kind of this, when are we doing that, not in my backyard. Blah, blah, blah.
Richard Blanco: And all that comes from the humanities, and psychology even. So, yes, you're going to have a major, and that's OK, but also, you're going to live to be like 140 years old, so I don't think you're going to be doing the same thing. This outdated model that we're going to work for some company and retire at whatever, early retirement at 55.
Richard Blanco: Just do everything out of your pure intellectual curiosity. I shouldn't say everything. Do it with a certain amount of practicality. Know that there's chances in your life to do things, and to keep on exploring things. And this is one threshold, and it's OK. You don't have to decide what you're going to do exactly for the rest of your life. And in fact, even if you think you did, and decided it's not going to probably happen the way you think. Take it from the poet engineer. It's not going to probably happen the way you think it is, and it's probably going to be even better than you can ever imagine.
Richard Blanco: So, take that and pay attention to every single class. Everything will come back to support whatever success in whatever field you do. I mean, you can look at someone like Steve Jobs, who, he's written about this. He's humanizing the computers is his love of literature. So, here's this techno geek, but at the same time, he made the computer human. He humanized it, I should say.
Richard Blanco: And as I just said, as an example, that comes from literature. Maybe he didn't know that back then, or maybe he never really knew it, it just kind of happened. And now he's looked back on his life and said, "Wow, that's how it happened."
Megan Hayes: Wow, thank you very much. Is there anything that we didn't cover that you want to talk about?
Richard Blanco: No, I did want to thank you for letting me read the poems. I think people in general don't recognize how important it is to read a poem out loud, because it's so much more like music than a novel or an essay. It's meant to be read out loud. It's meant to be music, in its own way. Even if it's not your own poem, but just reading a poem out loud starts living in your body in the same way that we like to sing along to songs. We're not sure exactly what they mean, what the lyrics mean, most of the time, but you're singing. "Yeah. Welcome to the Hotel California."
Richard Blanco: You feel it. And I think, as you study poetry and learn to love poetry, hopefully, or not be scared of it, at least. Read it out loud. And also know that, just like music, there's 1,000 different kinds of poems, and poetry and poets. And just because, if you like, I'm going to use outdated terms, but just you might like punk rock and not acid rock. That doesn't mean that they're not both music. That just means you're going to find a proclivity and the music that you like in poetry and the poets that you like.
Richard Blanco: So, I'm just putting my plug in for poetry in general.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, well, it's a good month to do that.
Richard Blanco: Yeah, that's true.
Megan Hayes: And you read it so beautifully. I think there's real art to reading poetry, and some people are not that good at it, but you do it beautifully. It was kind of hard to pull myself back out to ask you questions after that.
Richard Blanco: Yeah. It's kind of like, I've had a lot of practice in the last few years, but it's much more enjoyable for me, because I actually go back into that emotion. It's just like singing a song again. You go back into that emotional space. That's why you can still, date myself again here, you can still hear James Taylor sing "Fire and Rain." You can still see the emotions in his eyes and his gestures. There's something that we relive.
Richard Blanco: Poetry is different that way. Just like our favorite song that we can hear over and over again. And somehow never get bored of. I think, for me, it happens every single time. It's fresh in my body, and it's my body that remembers it like music, not me.
Richard Blanco: And the only way that really happened, is actually by rehearsing it. Not rehearsing, but reading it so many times that it starts telling you how to read it. And the inflections and the breaths. It happens not in my mind, but in my blood. That's much more exciting than just reading a poem.
Richard Blanco: I remember one time, I was at a reading. I think this was a turning point for me in that regard. I was like, "I'm bored." Like, if you had little bubbles. I'm reading this poem, and I'm like, "Blah, blah, blah, blah." And it's like, "Oh my God, I'm so bored."
Megan Hayes: Reading your own poem?
Richard Blanco: Yeah, and I thought, "If I'm bored, I can only imagine what my audience must feel like." And ever since then, I just sort of stepped into it and said, "You know what? I'm just going to try to feel it. Just feel it and belt it." And then every poem is different, too. You read just like every song. You're not going to scream a ballad. You're not going to softly sing your "Bohemian Rhapsody." So, it's so much like music. The parallels are uncanny. And I think if people just approach poetry that way, even in the classroom, we wouldn't grow up so estranged from it.
Megan Hayes: Yeah. Well, thank you. It has been my sincere honor to speak with you today, Richard Blanco. Thank you so much.
Richard Blanco: My pleasure.
Megan Hayes: I just feel so fortunate to have had this hour with you. Hopefully we can continue to share this hour, as you go on and get married. Congratulations! And so, yeah, I hope that your experience on our campus also makes you want to return, maybe when you can spend a little more time and you have more time to enjoy the moment while you're here.
Richard Blanco: Sure. This is a really interesting area, because I think a lot of intersections of things in it. I can see that. A lot of negotiating as I've had to do. So, hopefully there will be an opportunity to talk to that, as well.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, for sure. Appreciate your work and where it comes from, and what it helps me think about. And really, really appreciate that you read your work with us today.
Richard Blanco: I loved doing that.
Megan Hayes: Thank you so much.
Richard Blanco: It ain't a poem until somebody reads it out loud. All right, great.
Megan Hayes: Thank you.
Richard Blanco: Thanks.
What do you think?
Share your feedback on this story.
Conversations with smart people about stuff that affects our world, and how we affect it
About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the Southeast, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls nearly 21,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.