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Inauguration Poet Richard Blanco Hopes to Offer Words of Unity, Belonging

January 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Jeffrey Brown talks with Richard Blanco, the poet chosen to read at President Obama's second swearing-in, about what it means to be a part of the festivities. Blanco, a Spanish born Cuban-American, is the first Latino, openly gay, as well as the youngest poet to ever at a presidential inauguration.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the man who will be just the fifth inaugural poet in the nation’s history.

Richard Blanco was, as he said, made in Cuba — he was conceived there — assembled in Spain — his mother gave birth to him there — and quickly imported to the United States. He grew up in Miami. He trained and worked as a civil engineer before turning to poetry. He’s published three volumes, most recently one titled “Looking For the Gulf Motel.”

Blanco now lives in the small town of Bethel, Maine. On Monday, he will become the first Latino, the first openly gay, and the youngest poet to read his work at a presidential inauguration.

Welcome.

RICHARD BLANCO, poet: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Congratulations.

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RICHARD BLANCO: Pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me get to some of these firsts first.

This inauguration is a political event, and it is a rare meeting of, in your case, politics and poetry. What do you see yourself bringing to it?

RICHARD BLANCO: Well, I think, first and foremost, hopefully a great poem.

RICHARD BLANCO: It is obviously a question that had been floating around in the air.

But I would think and I would hope that I was selected, first and foremost, obviously for respect and admiration for my work. But it is also a tremendous honor. I mean, one can’t help but think of all those firsts, as you just mentioned.

And I feel, I feel — just in that context, it feels so much as part of the American dream, sort of a little taste of the American — so much of what the American dream is made out of, to sort of — when I think about my background and being a little Cuban kid from Miami and all of a sudden being asked to sort of speak before the nation, for the nation, to the nation. I mean, it’s just amazing, and just besides myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, I read your work. It often is narrative. It tells stories about you, family history, Cuban Americans.

I know you can’t tell us about your poem, that you are going to give much away.

RICHARD BLANCO: Right. Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what is the narrative that you want to convey in that poem?

RICHARD BLANCO: I will say — I mean, I will say, in a word, unity.

I think that’s something that’s always been on my mind since trying to fit in since I was a kid, since I was a Cuban American kid and that sense of…

JEFFREY BROWN: Trying to fit into what?

RICHARD BLANCO: To what is the American ideal or what I thought was the American ideal.

I mean, I grew up between two imaginary worlds. One was the sort of 1950s of Cuba, of my parents from stories and photographs and pictures, and growing up in Miami in the 1970s.

The other imaginary world was America. There was this — what I saw in the “Leave it to Beaver” and all the rest of the — “Brady Bunch” — and living inside Miami at the time in an exile community, I really thought that that kind of America really existed.

So, there’s — my stories are always about negotiation and how do we fit in. Of course, that’s how I started writing. And that is what brought me to writing, that sort of question.

And as I wrote more and more about it, I realized it was a universal question. How do we belong, where do we belong, how do we belong together, what does that mean?

And so that is kind of sort of the same approach I’m taking to this poem. I’m asking a lot of questions of myself in the poem, even though it is in a different tone and a different voice. But it’s like, what does it mean to be an American in today’s — especially in my generation? What does that mean?

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, when you mentioned coming to poetry, I was curious because you — as I said, you trained as a civil engineer. You worked as a civil engineer. You came to poetry — writing poetry, at least, as far as I know, a little late, it sounds as though.

RICHARD BLANCO: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that brought you to poetry?

RICHARD BLANCO: I should preface that by saying, I mean, I always had a creative bone. I was always the kind of kid that was coloring or paint-by-number sets or whatnot.

And — but growing up in a working-class family, business is survival. Like, it would be a sort of typical sort of exile immigrant family. They wanted me to ensure that — they wanted to ensure that I had a better life than them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Poetry wasn’t one of the occupations in the plan. Right?

RICHARD BLANCO: No. No.

And then there was also sort of the cultural divide. So even though the arts, were they to be discussed around the dinner table, it wasn’t going to be Frost. So there was also that cultural divide. And so my parents are sort of — I wouldn’t say pushed me, but they sort of encouraged me towards these direction that I choose, civil engineer, because I was a whiz at math.

So, I just sort of went with that and really was outside the realm of my — of possibility at that moment. It’s one of the reasons that I try to speak at schools as much as I can. Had I met a Sandra Cisneros or something when I was younger, maybe that would have been more of a possibility.

Nevertheless, after I graduated from engineering, I started, as I say, doodling around with poetry, fooling around with poetry, then went to a creative writing course at a community college, at Miami-Dade Community College. And then the one thing led to another. And as they say, the rest is history.

But I was doing it for me. And it was interesting, because I think that it was fun. I was doing it — that degree was for me. That was just — I didn’t do it with any sort of end goal. And it was just, well, here we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here we are indeed, in quite a place.

Let me just ask you finally, briefly, I gather it’s family lore that your name, Richard, you are named after another president, Nixon.

RICHARD BLANCO: Right. Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, here you are with President Obama. You were asked to write three poems. Somebody picks one poem, right…

RICHARD BLANCO: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … that you will read.

RICHARD BLANCO: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you know if the president himself reads the poems?

RICHARD BLANCO: I’m not certain.

I mean, I get — I keep on having these images of — in my head about the president sitting around the Oval Office actually reading them and checking off. But I am not sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among all the things he has to do.

RICHARD BLANCO: Among all the other things.

RICHARD BLANCO: So I’m not sure exactly how the process worked, but that committee, I know, has worked so hard. And, so you know, we just — we’re trying to sort of be as cooperative as possible, and not get to that level of questioning or whatnot.

But they do — they picked one. I know the White House has looked at it. I don’t know exactly what that means. But, yes, they picked one, so — and overwhelmingly chose one, so…

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will all hear on Monday.

And you and I are going to continue this talk online.

RICHARD BLANCO: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, Richard Blanco, thanks so much.

RICHARD BLANCO: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also online, our website features extensive inauguration coverage, from a look back at presidential speeches to a rundown of the scheduled events. NewsHour politics editor Christina Bellantoni takes you on an insiders video tour of Washington, D.C. And we will live stream the president’s official swearing-in Sunday, plus all the festivities Monday. You can find our coverage on our home page.