Richard Blanco has published three poetry collections, City of a Hundred Fires, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and Looking for The Gulf Motel; he has received critical acclaim for his work, winning the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and the Paterson Poetry Prize, among others. He read his poem "One Today" at President Obama's 2013 inauguration, becoming the fifth inaugural poet in US history. As an educator, Blanco has taught at Georgetown University, American University, Central Connecticut State, and Writer's Center. He guides his readers through complex cultural, sexual, and artistic intersections, addressing the necessary and the urgent. Please join us in our interview with Richard Blanco, an engineer, teacher, memoirist, public speaker, and poet.
Your writing is varied and multifaceted in a way that allows it to appeal to a fairly wide array of readers. Is there usually a certain readership or audience that you tend to write for, or are there other elements that primarily guide your writing process instead?
I don’t insist on being accessible for the sake of some imaginary audience; I just naturally want to write work that is accessible. But accessibility and complexity are not antonyms. An accessible poem can be very complex and multi-layered. Take for example the work of Elizabeth Bishop, one of my greatest influences. On the surface her work seems fairly straightforward and conversational, yet when you dig deeper you discover many nuances and complexities. I strive to do the same in my work. My personal definition of great poetry is to take something emotionally complex, such as the idea of home, and distill it into its “parts,” crystalize it into a poem that elucidates some dimension of it. To completely paraphrase Einstein, any fool can make complex things more complex. All this to say, that’s where my sense of “audience” comes from. I’m writing to take something as complex as love, home, sorrow, or death, and understand it more clearly for myself, but knowing that I’m doing the same for my readers as well. In that context, my audience is all humanity. All of us, regardless of the particulars of our lives, are grounded in and experience the same set of core emotions. In the end, I think that’s what great art unwittingly strives to do: connect to the universal through the particular.
You are certainly no stranger to reading your work aloud. What do you think changes in a piece be it a poem, a section of a memoir, etc. When it goes from being read on the page to being spoken aloud? Do you believe an audience gains more from one medium than the other?
Reading a poem silently only engages the sense of sight. But, when a poem is read or heard out loud, two additional senses are activated: sound and the sensation of breath or vibration of sound in the body. This engages our minds in a more powerful way, opening up our understanding or feeling of the poem in a new dimension. It’s analogous to the difference between simply reading the lyrics of a song on a page versus singing, playing and/or hearing the song. Also, our voices are musical instruments. When we read or hear a poem out loud, the voice naturally adds inflections and cadences; it elongates or shortens syllables, etc. Essentially, a musicality emerges that the page alone doesn’t possess, per se. That’s because poetry and music share a lot of the same “DNA,” so to speak. So, yes, an audience gains a whole lot when they go to a poetry reading, or even when one reads a poem out loud to oneself. I think the same is true for prose, but to a lesser degree because the connection between prose and music is not quite the same.
When writing the inaugural poem, you were working with the time constraint of one poem a week as well as the unusual circumstance that your final piece would be selected for you from the three you had written. How did these outside factors influence your writing process?
Well, time can be a friend as well as an enemy to writers. Sure, we need ample time to write, but too much time can make us linger and obsess in unproductive ways that stall us. I usually try to finish a decent draft of a poem in one week when I’m in an intensive writing period. As such, the writing of the inaugural poems wasn’t that much different, except that they were arguably the most important three poems of my life! But in a way, the pressure made me more efficient and brought out the best in me. I’m glad they didn’t give me three months to write the poems—that might have really driven me crazy.
You’ve said before that the inauguration made you believe that not only is there a place for poetry in America, but there’s “a hunger and need for it.” In line with this, much of your poetry carries with it a number of political and social undertones that imbue your work with a sense of urgency and a desire for change. What do you think is the role of the poetry in American society? How can writers best meet the aforementioned “hunger” for poetry?
America’s relationship with poetry has changed throughout history, of course, and that relationship has been very strained over the past few decades. In part, because poetry lost much of its “common touch” and became too abstracted and incestuous for a number of reasons too complex to get into right now. But I sense that has begun to change yet again. We’re moving from a poetry of “I” to a poetry of “we,” that is, poetry that is informed by a sense of public or civic consciousness, even when speaking from an autobiographical point of view. In part, that change has been prompted by the influence of spoken word poets/artists, but also because we live a much more interconnected world, aware of the many issues and problems that affect us all. In that way, as it has been for centuries in many other cultures, the poet and poetry today are reassuming their roles in America as the “village voice,” offering a medium through which we can voice the concerns of our day and share in our common humanity. There’s a “hunger” for that kind of poetry, and many poets are indeed meeting that demand, not because they feel they have to, but because they want to, because it’s just part of the natural evolution of the art that is shaped by such circumstances.
Your memoirs and poetry have explored the concept of family, specifically focusing on your own mother and grandmother. Did you ever discover something that surprised you about your family or yourself when writing these pieces?
What surprised me most was how different the “characters” of my mother and grandmother are in the memoir versus my poetry, as a result of how the different genres shape how we write. In poetry I take a deeper look into my mother’s emotional core and connect with her sense of loss and longing as a result of having had left her entire family behind in Cuba. But in the memoir, she comes across as a control-freak—the warden of the household. I realized that the latter was a result of the former; her psychological response to all her pain was to try to control everything so she could feel some kind of stability in her life. Similarly, in my poetry I draw out the uglier side of my grandmother’s homophobia and verbal abuse of me. But in the memoir, she comes across as a witty, gregarious, and somewhat loveable character. I realized that indeed she was all these things on the exterior—and that I too loved her for these characteristics, despite what happened behind closed doors with our relationship.
"Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother" is one out of many of your poems that discusses the complicated relationship between the Cuban-American community and the LGBT community. Can you talk about the intersection of these worlds that you identify with, and the effects of this coexistence on your writing?
For years I didn’t “come out” in my poetry; that is, I never wrote about the topic of my sexuality or the LGBT community. I saw the concerns of my cultural identity as separate from my sexuality. But in my third book of poetry I realized there was indeed an intersection between the two—what I began calling my “cultural sexuality.” And I started exploring the ways my identity as a gay man is connected to or affected by my cultural identity and experiences. And vice versa. Suddenly, I felt I had a “story” to tell, and that story had a lot to do with my grandmother. Through her character I began to understand that there isn’t one kind of homophobia, or one kind of gay man, but that these are intimately informed by my cultural circumstances. For example, grandmother was as homophobic as she was xenophobic, so anything that appeared as culturally “weird” to her was also thought of as queer. Things like Fruit Loops, The Brady Bunch, and Cub Scouts were tossed into the queer bin. As a gay child and teenager it was very confusing for me, trying to navigate the norms of masculinity with this added layer of cultural norms. Both of which were dictated by my grandmother through the lens of machismo—a traditional set of attitudes and values that inform gender roles and behavior and the kind of homophobia we face in Latino cultures in particular.
There’s a measure of intimacy in your poetry as you ground your identity in motifs of color, family, and food. Do you have any advice for young writers on how to cultivate this sense of individual vulnerability while still creating something that every person can somehow identify with?
As I often tell my students: writing poetry is one of the most selfish, arrogant, self-absorbed, and dumbest things you can do, and yet it is one of the most generous, kindest, vulnerable, and worthwhile things you can do in the world. Why? Because of the irony at the heart of what poets do. We begin—as we must—with a personal need to understand our lives and experiences from a very private and self-centered point of view. Yet, by instinct, we know that our poems are, in the end, meant to be offered up and shared with others as a means to collectively understand some dimension of the human condition. Put another way, we must write our poems with such vigor and passion for our lives that they end up transcending our very stories and surrendering our very selves. In my view, the greatest thing a poem can do is to become a mirror in which the reflection of the poet’s life blurs with the lives of readers. In that mirror, we see that the “other” is us, and we are the other. But I don’t think writers should set out to be “universal” on purpose or force it; it must happen naturally as an outcome of adhering to the discipline of the art and what it demands of us.
Interviewers: Erica Cheung and Steffannie Alter