Getting to Know Richard Blanco and His forthcoming book, How to Love a Country

Selected by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history, Richard Blanco is the youngest and the first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. Born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity characterizes his three collections of poetry:  City of a Hundred Fires , which received the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press;  Directions to The Beach of the Dead , recipient of the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center; and  Looking for The Gulf Motel , recipient of the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award. He has also authored the memoirs  For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey  and  The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood , winner of a Lambda Literary Award. His inaugural poem “One Today” was published as a children’s book, in collaboration with renowned illustrator Dav Pilkey. His latest book,  Boundaries , a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler, challenges the physical and psychological dividing lines that shadow the United States. A new book of poems,  How to Love a Country , is forthcoming from Beacon Press in April 2019. Blanco has written occasional poems for the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Freedom to Marry, the Tech Awards of Silicon Valley, and the Boston Strong benefit concert following the Boston Marathon bombings. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and has received numerous honorary doctorates. He has taught at Georgetown University, American University, and Wesleyan University. He serves as the first Education Ambassador for The Academy of American Poets.

Selected by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history, Richard Blanco is the youngest and the first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. Born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity characterizes his three collections of poetry: City of a Hundred Fires, which received the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press; Directions to The Beach of the Dead, recipient of the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center; and Looking for The Gulf Motel, recipient of the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award. He has also authored the memoirs For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey and The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. His inaugural poem “One Today” was published as a children’s book, in collaboration with renowned illustrator Dav Pilkey. His latest book, Boundaries, a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler, challenges the physical and psychological dividing lines that shadow the United States. A new book of poems, How to Love a Country, is forthcoming from Beacon Press in April 2019. Blanco has written occasional poems for the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Freedom to Marry, the Tech Awards of Silicon Valley, and the Boston Strong benefit concert following the Boston Marathon bombings. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and has received numerous honorary doctorates. He has taught at Georgetown University, American University, and Wesleyan University. He serves as the first Education Ambassador for The Academy of American Poets.

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems? 

I should first note that since childhood I had an equally active left and right brain, fascinated by every subject matter. But as a child from an immigrant working-class family from Cuba who spoke only Spanish at home, there was little understanding or support for the arts—much less poetry. As such, I majored in Civil Engineering—a more practical choice meant to guarantee a prosperous living. But ironically, it was engineering that paved the road to poetry (pun intended). Much to my surprise, my responsibilities as an engineer included writing letters, reports, studies, and proposals. As a result, I began to appreciate and love language like never before. Then, at about age twenty-five, my right brain began to nudge me. On a whim, I followed my creative curiosities and started writing poetry—really terrible poems at first, though I was mature enough to know that I had a lot to learn. So, I took a creative writing course at a community college; and it was there that the universe of poetry was first revealed to me.  By that I mean contemporary poetry by “real-live” poets who were writing poems relevant to my life and my times. In particular, the poetry of Sandra Cisneros in her book, “Loose Woman.” Her work gave me the emotional permission, passion, and urgency to tell my story. All this to say that I don’t subscribe to overly-romantic and notion that poets are born poets—but rather that every poet has a unique journey and story—and that poetry, as a whole, is all the better for it.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

Having to maintain my day-job as an engineer throughout my creative writing studies and most of my writing career, by necessity I’ve had to write at night. I was and happily remain a vampire writer, often sitting down at my desk past midnight (in fact, it’s 12:48 right now as I am writing this!). At times I’ll keep writing until sunrise. There’s something delightfully secretive and daring about writing late at night, like a sleuth investigating the mysteries of life while the world is asleep. On the other hand, at times it is difficult to get into a creative mindset after a full day of to-do lists, emails, and the mundane tasks of daily life—like changing the cat litter! As such, often I will relocate from my office to the kitchen table or my den to change the energetic field. And before I sit down to write I take just a minute or two of mindfulness. I light a candle and/or a stick of incense to call forth my inner-child and my familial and literary ancestors to guide me.  But I must say, there is no formula or patented process that guarantees great writing. I’m sure that if twenty writers were asked this same question, there would be twenty very different answers.  What’s more, sometime my routine “works,” sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes we need to change things up. The point being that we should be constantly tuned-in to what is, and what is not yielding the best possible work. 

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

Well, I would say from all of these—at various times and in various contexts. However, the poems I’m most “suspicious” of are the those that first come to me as ideas. I run into a lot of trouble in such cases because I feel compelled to remain loyal to  the idea that inspired the poem, when in reality that idea might merely be a trigger for another poem that has yet to be written; another ”idea” that has yet to be discovered by the conscious mind as it dives through the sea of language into the depths of the subconscious. It’s like putting the proverbial cart before the proverbial ox. Richard Hugo speaks to this in his contemporary classic, “The Triggering Town.” His general premise posits that what triggers a poem isn’t always the poem-to-be in the end; we have to be willing to let go of that trigger to arrive at the “real” poem. Besides this, I would say that many of my poems find their way to the page only after a process of fermentation through memory.  I am not one of those writers that writes everyday (an adage I frankly find loaded with an elite socioeconomic bias). But I do try to think of the world as a writer everyday—and I record tidbits of images, sounds, images, etc. that catch my attention.  I don’t know what they mean yet, until they ferment in my mind and feel ready (or not) to seed a poem.

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?

As I already mentioned, Sandra Cisneros was key to my emotional and artistic development. And yet I acknowledge this with some hesitation because I think there’s an unfounded assumption that ethnic writers only look to other ethnic writers for influence and inspiration. Undoubtedly, there’s an undeniable power when I see my own life reflected in the lives and work of writers of my own ilk and clan. But I think—again with hesitation—that it’s equally powerful—or even more so—when I connect with the poetry of those that I don’t expect to see myself in. For example, Elizabeth Bishop, who was effectively orphaned at age four and was psychologically in exile, like me, craving a place and home to call her own. She has been one of my greatest influences, despite the obvious differences in our ethnicity, geography, and socioeconomic background. I believe that poetry at its best—no matter from where or from whom—is grounded in the universal human condition. As such, I am as inspired by Frost as I am by Neruda; by Sheamus Heaney as much as by Martín Espada; by James Wright as much as by Garcia-Lorca.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: What's the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? What was the process of assembling it? Was is a project book? Etc.

My tenure as Presidential Inaugural poet for President Obama altered every dimension of my life: personally, spiritually, and aesthetically. As for the latter, I was compelled to explore my role as a civic-minded poet of sociopolitical conscious. I realized that many people like me, from many different walks of life, also felt marginalized from the standard American narrative. And so, over the course of several years, I was drawn to write poems that expanded that narrative and spoke to and for “us.”  I wrote several more occasional poems, commemorative poems, as well as autobiographical poems all questioning our past and present place at the American table. While this book might seem somewhat of departure from my previous books which dealt with my personal quest for a sense of home and belonging, HOW TO LOVE A COUNTRY is really an expansion on the same theme, as seen through a more collective lens. The title is a statement and a “how to,” as well as a question that I have been asking all my life, only now I’m asking it in the name of all of us. 

READ A SAMPLE POEM FROM HOW TO LOVE A COUNTRY

In September 2017, President Trump’s administration decided to repeal D.A.C.A. (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the policy that allowed children brought to the United States illegally to receive deferred action from deportation. I began to contemplate their circumstances in light of my own. Having arrived here in my mother’s arms when I was only forty-five days old, I wasn’t a legal citizen of any country until I was 17 years old. Luckily, I was at least a documented immigrant. But what if I had not been? What if I had to live with the fear and threat of being deported to Cuba, my parents’ homeland, which I knew only through my cultural imagination? These reflections inspired this poem, written to stand in solidarity with the plight of all D.A.C.A. children as brethren who belong to two countries, yet none; who are caught in the crossfire of politics and the crosshairs of bigotry without any legal right to have a say in the determination of their destinies.

COMO TÚ / LIKE YOU / LIKE ME

{for the D.A.C.A. DREAMers and all our nation’s immigrants}

. . . my veins don’t end in me . . . mis venas no terminan en mí
but in the unanimous blood sino en la sange unánime
of those who struggle for life . . . de los que luchan por la vida . . .
ROQUE DALTON, Como tú

Como tú, I question history’s blur in my eyes
each time I face a mirror. Like a mirror, I gaze
into my palm a wrinkled map I still can’t read,
my lifeline an unnamed road I can’t find, can’t
trace back to the fork in my parents’ trek
that cradled me here. Como tú, I woke up to
this dream of a country I didn’t choose, that
didn’t choose me—trapped in the nightmare
of its hateful glares. Como tú, I’m also from
the lakes and farms, waterfalls and prairies
of another country I can’t fully claim either.
Como tú, I am either a mirage living among
these faces and streets that raised me here,
or I’m nothing, a memory forgotten by all
I was taken from and can’t return to again.

Like memory, at times I wish I could erase
the music of my name in Spanish, at times
I cherish it, and despise my other syllables
clashing in English. Como tú, I want to speak
of myself in two languages at once. Despite
my tongues, no word defines me. Like words,
I read my footprints like my past, erased by
waves of circumstance, my future uncertain
as wind. Like the wind, como tú, I carry songs,
howls, whispers, thunder’s growl. Like thunder,
I’m a foreign-borne cloud that’s drifted here,
I’m lightning, and the balm of rain. Como tú,
our blood rains for the dirty thirst of this land.
Like thirst, like hunger, we ache with the need
to save ourselves, and our country from itself.

*This poem was originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 9, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the poet and the Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Blanco, from How to Love a Country (Beacon Press 2019).

—>Watch a video of Richard reading this poem here.