Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco: 'I Finally Felt Like I Was Home'
This is an excerpt from a longer interview that was originally broadcast on Feb. 18, 2013.
"I just got the phone call one day," is how poet Richard Blanco describes to Fresh Air's Terry Gross how he learned he had been selected to write and read the inaugural poem for President Obama's second swearing-in on Jan. 21.
Blanco is the first immigrant, Latino and openly gay poet chosen to read at an inauguration and, at 44, also the youngest. He is the author of the collection Looking for the Gulf Motel, which explores themes of sexuality and home, says he doesn't know how or who put his name up for consideration.
"I'm sure it will come to light at some point," he says, "[but] in some ways I don't want to know. ... In some ways I like the mystery myself that I'm not sure exactly. ... I'm wondering if I'll be disappointed when I find out. ... [Now] I can imagine him sitting in the Oval Office with my book and saying, 'Get this guy in here!' "
After the phone call came, Blanco wrote three poems for the inauguration committee. Of those, they chose "One Today." Written shortly after the Newtown shooting, the poem references the 20 children killed:
the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever ...
"What I find interesting about the inaugural poem as almost like a subgenre," says Blanco, "is that it's a unique snapshot of where we are as a country at that moment," and Newtown, of course, says Blanco, was part of that snapshot and "emotional landscape" that he was trying to illustrate.
The balancing act then came in deciding where he, himself, belonged in the poem.
"One of the hardest challenges of the poem itself overall was how to at once put myself in there, but realizing that this poem isn't about me, it's about our country," he says. "Part of the process that I went through was deciding what was important enough to me that I felt I needed to put in there. Of course, the first impulse was — because I was the youngest, first openly gay, first Hispanic or Latino — the first impulse was: I have to represent all this in the poem, and sort of be more of an in-your-face kind of poem. Then I took a step back from that and I realized, well, yes, it's all those things, but I think there's a larger platform here, a larger sense of what America is that I need to come through in the poem."
On his Cuban grandmother
"My grandmother was as xenophobic as she was homophobic, so I remember growing up so that anything that seemed culturally odd or weird or strange was also sort of tagged as 'queer' — and I'm talking like things like Legos and Fruit Loops — so anything she perceived as strange she also questioned in terms of my sexuality. ... My grandmother was also a very central figure in my life for being one of those relatives that ended up doing a lot of good for you, in terms of all the harm that they did to you."
On where he's "from"
"I always claim that my soul is Cuban — my soul was made in Cuba — and I was assembled in Spain and then imported to the United States, because I was only 45 days old when we left Spain for Manhattan, so my green card photo is my first baby photo."
On how being an engineer — as he is — is similar to being a poet in the sense of having a catastrophist's temperament
"As an engineer ... in your designs and whatnot, you're trained to figure out what's going to go wrong. That's how you design a lot of things. You're like, 'OK, that's a decently designed curve there in the road, but what could go wrong? What's wrong with this design?' And you're constantly putting things up to the test and up to the test, and overdesigning and implementing things and safety factors, and if I wasn't like that already, 25 years of engineering have pretty much reinforced that."
On writing a poem about his father's grave
"That poem really started with this idea of, 'Where I will be buried, where do I ultimately belong, and where do I want to spend eternity?' And, as it mentions in the poem — especially in New England — you see these really old graveyards and you're wondering, 'I don't know. I love being in New England, but I don't know if I want to be buried here, and I don't know if Miami is the right place either.' So I haven't decided, but it's something I've always thought of in the sense of we're not where we're from necessarily, but where we choose to die. Where we choose to be buried, in a sense, tells more about who we are than where we're born, which we have no say over."
On how being the inaugural poet affected his sense of being American
"All along, through different stages of my relationship with America ... I've always been sort of wondering: Where's home? Is home America? That ideal doesn't really exist, does it? Where's all those sort of principals that I grew up with? And when I was up on that platform — for those two hours or so that we were up there — it was like all those ideals came to life in ways that I had never imagined. So even with all the politics and all the fiscal cliff and all the rest that [was] going on, for those two hours there was still this sense that was still so pure about America. ... Just the idea that all those hundreds of thousands of people have just come to bear witness. ... I really embraced America up there like I never had before, and I think I finally felt like I was home in some way. ... And I turned to my mother at one moment and I told her, 'Well, I think we're finally American.' "
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Richard Blanco, who was 44 when he unveiled his poem in Washington, D.C., is the youngest of the five inaugural poets in American history. He was also the first Latino and first openly gay person in that role. Many of his poems are about identity. His parents emigrated from Cuba in 1968. He grew up in Miami, aware of the mix of nostalgia and anger adults in his community felt towards Cuba. He now lives in Maine with his partner, Mark.
Terry spoke with Richard Blanco in 2013, about a month after he read his poem "One Today," at Obama's re-election inauguration.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
I'm going to ask you to read a poem from "Looking for the Gulf Motel" that's about your father. It's called "The Port Pilot." And some of the lines in this poem refer to various jobs your father had. He was a meat butcher in a butcher shop. Did he work in a bank for a while? Is that the reference to counting money?
RICHARD BLANCO: He was, yeah, a bookkeeper - by trade.
GROSS: A bookkeeper. OK. So those are the two things I wanted to mention before you read the poem. Is there anything else you'd like to say before you read it?
BLANCO: Well, the genesis of this poem had to do with finding out one day, many years after, that my father was a port pilot, and of course in Miami there's these big cruise ship terminals, and one day my mom tells me that's what your dad studied or was going to do in Cuba, he was a port pilot.
And so he - I just found that so interesting, that little factoid about my dad's life that I had never known before. And this is what happens when you grow up sort of in an exile family or immigrant family. You just get little pieces of information, like throughout the years, and you've got to piece all this stuff together. And so this is sort of piecing together some of my father.
(Reading) "The Port Pilot." Before I knew him as a butcher, coming home with blood stains on his cuffs that Mama could never wash out in the kitchen sink, before I learned he'd spent all day in the sky in loafers and a necktie counting other people's money in a tower with a view he couldn't afford, years before he started gambling with me on cockfights at Tio Budede's(ph) farm every Saturday night, teaching me how to bet on death, long before he was diagnosed and staying alive became his fulltime job, his agenda filled with appointments to kill whatever was killing him, a lifetime before I had to cradle him in and out of bed, he carried me on his shoulders over the jetty at the port.
Minutes after I'm called to the hospital, I remember that day, sitting together on a rock, watching the ships glide past us, when he told me that years before he was my father he was a port pilot in Havana, steering ships safely into harbor, then guiding them out to sea again, never to see them again, seconds before I hear his last breath, told to leave the room.
GROSS: And that's Richard Blanco, reading his poem "The Port Pilot" from his latest collection of poems, "Looking for the Gulf Motel." What did it mean to you when your father told you he'd been a port pilot in Havana? Why did that have such a big effect on you? Because of the responsibility that he had or because of the fact that he was guiding these ships to safety and they'd never know who he was?
BLANCO: Well, I mean I think that's an afterthought as an adult. At the time, I was much younger, and I just thought it was just neat as all hell.
BLANCO: I mean you've got to understand the landscape of growing up in Miami, these huge, like, ships that we used to watch, you know, going off into the Caribbean on sunset. And so I just thought it was so neat. But it was also sort of the story of my father, of how being such a sort of emotionally absent person that, you know, finding out these little bits and pieces about him, were so interesting to me.
And since he died when I was relatively young, before I really was a mature adult, I never got to sort of meet him, in a way. And so through the poetry I've gone back to these little tidbits and sort of tried to re-create him on the page and see what he meant to me and what our relationship was about.
GROSS: Your grandmother was a very important figure in your life and you write about her in a few poems. I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt of one of those poems and it's called "Queer Theory According to My Grandmother." Do you want to introduce it for us?
BLANCO: Oh, sure. So my grandmother was as xenophobic as she was homophobic, so I remember growing up so that anything that would seem culturally odd or weird or strange was also sort of tagged as queer - and I'm talking like things like Legos and Froot Loops - so anything that she perceived as strange she also questioned in terms of my sexuality. And so I think that's where this poem sort of gets its - a lot of its sort of energy from. But it was also, my grandmother was a very central figure in my life for - as one of those relatives that end up doing a lot of good for you in terms of all the harm that they did to you. And so this poem, which I thought at first was this very poignant, angry, bitter poem, first time I read it, people just were like laughing in their seats. And then I got the humor behind this and I realized how I was treating the subject. And this is in the voice of my grandmother.
GROSS: And this is your Cuban grandmother who was your father's mother?
BLANCO: Yes, my father's mother.
BLANCO: (Reading) "Queer Theory According to My Grandmother." Never drink soda with a straw. Milkshakes? Hmm. Maybe. Stop eyeing your mother's Avon catalog and the men's underwear in those Sears flyers. I've seen you. Stay out of her Tupperware parties and perfume bottles. Don't let her kiss you. She kisses you much too much. Avoid hugging men, but if you must, pat them real hard on the back - even if it's your father. Must you keep that cat? Don't pet him so much. Why don't you like dogs? Never play house - even if you're the husband.
So the poem goes on to catalog all these sort of atrocities, my grandmother used to say. And then towards the end - I'll pick it up about two thirds into the poem, towards the end.
(Reading) Don't watch "Bewitched" or "I Dream of Jeannie." Don't stare at "The Six Million Dollar Man." I've seen you. Never dance alone in your room. Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, the Captain and Tennille, Bette Midler, and all musicals, forbidden. Posters of kittens, "Star Wars" or the Eiffel Tower, forbidden. Those fancy books on architecture and art, I threw them in the trash. You can't wear cologne or puka shells. And I better not catch you in clogs. If I see you in a ponytail, I'll cut it off. What? No, you can't pierce your ear, left or right side. I don't care. You will not look like a goddamn queer. I've seen you, even if you are one.
GROSS: Did you try to win your grandmother's approval by trying to fix yourself in her eyes, and you know, not listen to musicals or Bette Midler or look at your mother's Avon catalogs or any of the things - you know, have a cat, the things she urged her not to do because it was too feminine?
BLANCO: Yeah. Certainly. I mean every, you know, of course I wanted my grandmother's love and approval. So yeah, at every turn I would try to please her and try to do things that I - well, in everything I did there was always the before thought of will my grandmother like this? And literally almost everything I did. So you never knew what you were going to get.
BLANCO: You know, sometimes I'd do something or say something or ask for something that would be met with OK. And then sometimes there were these other responses that you couldn't stand, but nonetheless, yeah. I remember my grandmother, I always wanted to be in the Cub Scouts and to her that was queer.
GROSS: The Cubs? Really?
BLANCO: So you would think the Cub Scouts, you know, boys camping.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
BLANCO: Oh no, because it was this - also this culture component. It's like what is that? You know, that's queer, you know.
GROSS: OK. So the first career that you had, the one where you thought you wouldn't be called queer was being a civil engineer. But your grandmother threw out your architecture and art books when you were young, which is exactly the kind of thing you'd want as preparation to later be a civil engineer.
BLANCO: Yeah. No, no. Architecture was queer....
BLANCO: ...because it involved painting and drawing and things like that...
BLANCO: ...so, so that was out the door. Civil engineer was manly. And I also - part of that influence was also my father, and I think he also always wanted to be an engineer and I don't think he had the opportunity to.
GROSS: Was your mother any more supportive than your grandmother??
BLANCO: My mother was - I wouldn't say exactly supportive, but certainly not my grandmother at all. When I came out - in fact, when I came out to my mom, one of the things I told her was, like, grandma was right.
BIANCULLI: Poet Richard Blanco, speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with poet Richard Blanco, part of our salute to National Poetry Month. When Terry spoke with him, Blanco had recently served as the official poet for President Barack Obama's second inauguration - only the fifth inaugural poet in our nation's history.
GROSS: So you live in Maine where it's now legal to be married. And my understanding is that you and your partner, Mark, might at some point in the future get married. You have a poem about him I want you to read. And just to preface this, you know, you grew up in Florida but now you live in Maine because it's where he has lived, and I guess where his work is too. So that must be quite an adjustment, living in the Maine climate, especially after big snowstorms like the one you recently had.
But anyways, the poem I want you to read is called "Killing Mark."
GROSS: It's not what it seems. So you're welcome to introduce us or to just jump in and read it.
GROSS: And this is going to be an excerpt of the poem. We're just trying to squeeze in a lot of poems, so I've been asking you to excerpt them.
BLANCO: What's always sort of surprised me about this poem a little bit is that it is obviously - "Killing Mark" is the title. It's about my partner. It's about being in a gay relationship. And yet in the small town where I live in, in Bethel, this is one of the favorite poems...
BLANCO: ...which is greeted with such enthusiasm because I think what it speaks about is something that really transcends a gay relationship. I mean it's just something fundamental and one understands a gay relationship is a relationship. So "Killing Mark."
(Reading) His plane went down over Los Angeles last week, again. Or was it Long Island? Boxer shorts, hair gel, his toothbrush washed up on the shore of New Haven, but his body never recovered, I feared. Monday he cut off his leg chain-sawing. Bleed to death slowly while I was shopping for a new lamp. Never heard my messages on his cell phone. Where are you? Call me. I told him to be careful. He never listens. Tonight, 15 minutes late. I'm sure he's hit a moose on Route 26. But maybe he survived. Someone from the hospital will call me, give me his room number. I'll bring his pajamas and some magazines. 5:25, still no phone call. Voice mail full. I turn on the news, wait for the report. Flashes of moose blood, his car mangled, as I buzz around the bedroom dusting the furniture, sorting the sock drawer.
By 7:30, I'm taking mental notes for his eulogy, suddenly adoring all I've hated, 10 years worth of nose hairs in the sink, of lost car keys, of chewing too loud and hogging the bed sheets, when joy yowls. Ears to the sound of footsteps up the drive and darts to the doorway, I follow with a scowl: Where the hell were you? Couldn't you call? Translation. I die each time I kill you.
GROSS: I really liked that poem. Who hasn't done that? Who hasn't had those horrible imaginings when the person they love is late?
BLANCO: Yeah. I had a friend of mine who told me you can divide the world into two kinds of people, those that panic when you don't call in five minutes and those that have no idea and they're the ones who are not calling.
GROSS: Oh. So what does Mark think of that poem?
BLANCO: He likes it. It makes him chuckle as well. I think he totally gets it and understands. And it hasn't changed his behavior whatsoever, so. So he knows it's a love poem at the end of the day and I think it helped him to understand sometimes why I do get so out of control and neurotic.
It's not out of - it's just out of - I have that sense of that something's going to slip away at any minute, something I've tried to get better at in my day-to-day life and with other things of impending doom and panic. It sort of, I guess, follows maybe poets around. I'm not sure.
GROSS: So are you a catastrophist about other things?
BLANCO: Yeah. And I think it's as an engineer, which is something that sort of reinforced that. As an engineer in your designs and whatnot, you're trained to figure out what's going to go wrong. That's how you design a lot of things. You're like, OK, that's a decently designed curve there on the road but what could go wrong? What's wrong with this design?
BLANCO: And you're constantly putting things up to the test and up to the test and over-designing and implementing things and safety factors. And if I wasn't like that already, you know, 25 years of engineering have pretty much reinforced that.
GROSS: It's been a pleasure to talk with you.
BLANCO: Thank you, Terry. It has been wonderful.
BIANCULLI: Poet Richard Blanco, speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. The story of the poem he wrote for President Obama's second inaugural and the poem itself are included in Blanco's recent book " For All of Us, One Today - An Inaugural Poet's Journey." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.