Academy of American Poets staff spoke with Richard Blanco about his new book, For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey, published by Beacon Press on November 19, 2013.
Poets.org: How long did it take to write the inaugural poem and what was your daily writing routine?
Richard Blanco: Whenever I have a big writing project (and this was big!), I usually move out of my office. I find that changing my environment—my creative space—helps stimulate my imagination and new creative energy. So the very next day after I received the call from the inaugural committee, I set up at the kitchen table with my laptop, printer, and pencil cup, and got right to work. There I sat, each day, writing (or trying to write) every available minute. I had three weeks to write three poems for the committee’s consideration. I gave myself about a week for each poem, enough to come up with a decent draft for each that I felt I could show the committee, knowing that later I'd have a little more time to revise whichever poem would be selected.
Poets.org: When you were writing the inaugural poem, what were your primary obstacles or challenges?
Richard Blanco: Like every poem I write, I think the biggest obstacle was finding the key that opens up the emotional door to the poem. To paraphrase Richard Hugo (from his essay “The Triggering Town”), most writers’ problems are like everyone else’s—they are psychological ones. I’ve always taken this to mean that the blocks we encounter in writing are often emotional blocks. In the case of the inaugural poems, I—as an immigrant and child of exiles—had to reflect seriously on my relationship with America. I realized that in a way I still felt like the “other.” In my mind an American was some other little boy from the television shows of the 1950s and 1960s that had formed my idealized version of the country and what it meant to be an American. As such, I had to ask myself some very important questions: Am I truly American? Do I love America? Is this home? I knew that in order to write an honest poem, I had to answer these questions honestly. And, after much contemplation, I did come to understand that indeed I am an American and that this is my country. Once that was clear, the emotional door opened, and I felt I could then write an inaugural poem that was not only honest, but heartfelt and true to my voice. The other obstacles were related more directly to matters of craft. I knew the poem for such an occasion had to have a grander, Whitmanesque reach, and could not be solely autobiographical. On the other hand, I did not want to write an uppity, pontifical poem. I think I found that balance by alternating between the grand images of nature and the intimate details of people going about their day. Those decisions were intentional.
Poets.org: You wrote three poems to be considered for the Inauguration that are included in the new book. How are the poems different from one another and did you have a favorite?
Richard Blanco: Of course I wanted to write three poems that were distinct and unique from each other, and I think I succeeded. The first poem, “What We Know of Country,” parallels the development of a loving human relationship with the love of our country, suggesting that we move through various phases: from innocence, to infatuation, to anger, to forgiveness, and finally to a real, mature love and understanding. The third poem, “Mother Country,” narrates part of my mother’s exile journey from Cuba, placing the reader (and me) in my mother’s emotional shoes, asking us to imagine, “What if you had to leave America tomorrow, forever?” And asking us to imagine loving a country “as if you’ve lost one.” Then, of course, there is the official inaugural poem, “One Today,” which took more of a visionary stance, asking us to contemplate how each of us is an important, intrinsic part of a whole, and recognizing the importance of community, togetherness, and belonging. Of the three poems, “Mother Country” was at one point my favorite because it was the kind of poem I felt comfortable with—the kind of poem I had written before. But after some contemplation and feedback from trusted friends, I realized that “One Today” was truly the right poem for the occasion. And after some revision, it became my favorite, by far.
Poets.org: How was the invitation from the White House framed? Did they give you specific guidelines for writing the poem?
Richard Blanco: Funny, they first asked me if I would be “interested” in serving as inaugural poet and if my “schedule was open,” as if I was going to say no! The only thing the White House shared with me was the theme of the inauguration (“Faith in America’s Future”), and they suggested the poem be no longer than three to five minutes long. Other than that, I had complete artistic freedom, which was wonderful, but also made the assignment even harder. Also, they didn’t ask me to change a single word or comma of “One Today”; there was no editorial meddling.
Poets.org: How do you feel about writing poems for specific occasions going forward?
Richard Blanco: My experiences as Inaugural Poet changed my mind completely about poetry’s place in America. The thousands of emails messages, letters, and personal exchanges with people from all over the country and from all walks of life, proved to me that not only is there a place for poetry in America, but a hunger and need for it. It showed me that when exposed to contemporary, accessible poetry, most people will connect very strongly. The inauguration makes that connection at a scale like nothing else in our country. That moment reminds millions that poetry is still an alive, vibrant art form around which we can gather, come together to commemorate, celebrate, mourn, heal, laugh. Poetry is the fire of that proverbial campfire around which we can all sit to share our stories and connect collectively. And so I think the occasional poem can and should make a comeback.
Poets.org: Who are your poetic influences?
Richard Blanco: By far, I think Elizabeth Bishop has influenced my work the most. I worship the imagery, clarity, and accessibility of her work. I also find myself returning over and over again to Robert Hass, Philip Levine, James Wright, and Billy Collins for similar reasons. And, of course, Campbell McGrath my mentor (and the “little voice” still inside my head).
Poets.org: How has being the Inaugural poet changed your relationship to poetry?
Richard Blanco: For years I think I had believed my poetry was well-received and honored because of its subject matter—what I wrote about. But through the process of writing the inaugural poems, I realized that what makes a Richard Blanco poem a Richard Blanco poem is not what I write about, but how I write about it. Namely, my love of precise imagery, lushness of language, and emotional density, which I feel are trademarks of my work. As such, I now feel more confident and excited about writing poems that take on a more collective voice. I feel as if I’ve been given permission to write beyond the sphere of my autobiographical experiences and memories. A new creative pathway has opened up.
Poets.org: What are you working on now?
Richard Blanco: The most exciting project on the horizon is a full-length memoir that will be published by Ecco in the fall of 2014; it’s a braided cultural, sexual, and artistic coming-of-age story. This working title is “Little Riqui.” I’m also thinking about publishing a volume of new and selected poems in the near future; the “new” poems being the various occasional poems that I’ve been asked to write and perform at such varied places at the Tech Awards in Silicon Valley, The Boston Strong benefit concert, and the Fragrance Foundation Awards. And also, in 2015, a children’s book based on the inaugural poem will be published by Little Brown and Co.