Festival Poet Richard Blanco: Poetry That Resonates Publicly and Personally

by Michelle Gillett
This is the seventh in a series of stories on headliners of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3).
Attend Richard Blanco's event at the festival.

President Obama’s Inaugural planners asked Richard Blanco to draft not one but three poems for them to choose from for his reading at the President’s swearing-in on January 21, 2013.  “One Today” was selected, and reading it to millions of viewers that day became for Blanco a “life changer, a game changer.”  

Since the inauguration, he has given over 300 talks and speeches at a variety of events and organizations, and has written half a dozen  or so occasional poems including ones for the Tech Awards and the Fragrance Awards. His poem Boston Strong” was performed at the TD Boston Garden Benefit Concert and at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. All the proceeds from his limited edition Boston Strong chapbook went to those most affected by the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. Blanco admits it is a challenge to “fuse” poetry with demand – “there is a nuance to writing this kind of poem—it is finding the one thing you care about.”  His poem Until We Could,” commissioned by Freedom to Marry, became the script for a film the campaign made to celebrate its tenth year of working to legalize same-sex marriage nation-wide. Freedom to Marry is a cause Blanco cares about deeply. Blanco was not only the youngest inaugural poet, but also the first Latino and first openly gay man in that role.

Blanco thinks one of the reasons “One Today” continues to resonate with so many is because he made himself “vulnerable” in it. “I used the first person, I talked about my mother and father.” Listeners could see themselves in his words as well as relate to the broader theme of what it means to be an American, a theme that his informed Blanco’s work since he began writing. Being an immigrant and being gay have driven his search for personal Identity and for home. As he says in his poem, “Of Consequence, Inconsequently,” “I’d like to believe I’ve willed every detail/ of my life, but I’m a consequence, a drop/of rain, a seed fallen by chance, here/ in the middle of a story I don’t know/having to finish it and call it my own.”

Writing One Today,” he says, “gave me permission to think about home in new ways. The idea of home is my central obsession. Blanco was born in Spain to Cuban parents who immigrated there in 1963, and then moved to Miami where he grew up. In many ways, his home was more Cuban than American. But he says, being asked to write the poem “brought about new obsessions. It brought a sense of home I hadn’t had before. My work looks at the broader issues now-- like what makes us yearn for people and

places. As America becomes increasingly a nation of immigrants, “the idea of home is more relevant than ever. We are constantly negotiating our country and culture. The idea of home changes as we evolve.”

Blanco has published three full collections of poetry. Last year, his memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood,  was published by HarperCollins.  Writing a memoir made sense he says because, “There is so much back story to my poems, the memoir was a way to tell more. Poetry does all the emotional work, memoir allows me the whole spectrum. “ He adds,  “I was curious about what my life would look like without line breaks.  It’s like playing the same song on different instruments.” One of the hardest lessons of prose, he admits, “is keeping the action going, the poet part of me wants to hold back. You have to keep asking yourself, what happens next?

One of the biggest game changes for Blanco has been a determination to engage people in reading and understanding poetry. The inauguration, he said, spoke to me about the power of poetry in America.  My mission is to keep connecting people to poetry. Education is one area he is zeroing in on because of cuts to arts and the focus on testing rather than creativity.  “Teachers are worn out with preparation for core testing.” Changing the curriculum, replacing the teaching of older works with contemporary poetry will be interesting to students and teachers alike, he believes.  Change needs to happen from the “bottom up not from the top down. We teach the harder stuff like Beowulf in high school – we should be teaching it in college. Middle school and high school are the times to introduce students to poetry that they can relate to. People walk away from high school misinformed because we teach poetry backwards.

His role as an inaugural poet has given him contacts and access to people and organizations that can offer the educational support necessary for him to introduce and implement some of the changes he envisions.

“One of the things I am most excited about,” Blanco says, “is the children’s book  of One Today that is coming out.  It speaks to the idea that poetry speaks to all ages.  As Elizabeth Bishop said, ‘It can meet you wherever you are.’”  One Today certainly met many people where they were and are. As he says in the last stanza,  perhaps heading home through the gloss of rain or weight/of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,/ always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon/ like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop/and every window of one country-all of us-facing the stars/ hope—a new constellation/ waiting for us to map it/ waiting for us to name it-together.

Michelle Gillett has won poetry fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and published work in numerous literary magazines. She is the author of Blinding the Goldfinches, winner of the Backwaters Press Poetry Prize,  2005; a chapbook, Rock &Spindle  (Mad River Press, 2000), and The Green Cottage, winner of The Ledge 2010 Poetry Chapbook competition. Her book, Coming About is forthcoming from Salmon Press. She writes a regular op ed column for The Berkshire Eagle, teaches writing workshops and is co-partner with Nina Ryan of g&r Editing, Writing and Book Development.