When President Obama cold-called Richard Blanco and asked him to be the 2013 inaugural poet, he gave the poet three weeks to write three potential poems. Working from his home in Bethel, Maine, Blanco said he circled and circled until he landed on the first line of “One Today,” the poem he read to over one million people at Obama’s inauguration last January in Washington, D.C.
“I kind of compare it to tuning an instrument, where you hear that right chord and something amazing happens—and, for me it was that first line, ‘When the sun rose on us today,’ which was when I was watching the sun rise over Bethel and the mountains, or the pines actually,” he said. “From there, the poem sort of started writing itself.”
Blanco visited campus last Friday, October 25, headlining Family Weekend with a day that included a student poetry workshop, public book signing, and an evening reading that filled the seats of Pickard Theater. His visit was funded by the Office of Student Life, Office of Multicultural Student Programs, the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, and the Latin American Studies Program.
I caught Blanco late that afternoon, while he was smoking a cigarette outside of Smith Union. He had just finished an hour of signing books for parents and posters for students’ dorm walls; I had watched him look each person in the eye with a warm, open smile that often gave way to conversation beyond mere pleasantries.
In many ways, Blanco’s national recognition has been defined by superlatives. He is the country’s fifth inaugural poet, following in the shoes of voices like Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. But, at 45 years old, Blanco is also the youngest, first Latino, first immigrant and first openly gay poet to read at an inaugration. His first career was as an engineer in Florida.
“I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States,” Blanco told the cheering crowd Friday night. His parents left Cuba after the rise of Fidel Castro. Though born in Madrid, he had moved to New York City by the time he was 45 days old, and grew up in Miami.
Unsurprisingly, Blanco’s work is defined by meditations on belonging, home and place—both as an emotional and physical space.
“We [write] out of the most selfish endeavor about trying to find out something about ourselves or the world, or an opinion we have,” said Blanco. “But it’s really about how to transcend that very story, to understand how your life is some ways a template, in some ways an archetype for what it means for all of us to be alive. What it means to be human.”
Reading his poem “Waiting for the Gulf Motel” on Friday night, he spoke slowly and unapologetically about coming to terms with impermanence and the whiplash of nostalgia after he revisited his childhood vacation destination of Marco Island on the west coast of Florida. “My brother and I should still be playing Parcheesi, / my father should still be alive, slow dancing / with my mother on the sliding-glass balcony / of The Gulf Motel,” he read. He paused before the final line: “I want to pretend, for just a moment, that nothing I’ve lost is lost.”
Since being named the inaugural poet, Blanco has received commissions to write poetry commemorating everything from the Boston marathon bombings and the marriage equality campaign Freedom to Marry to tech awards in Silicon Valley. Blanco said the experience has made him rethink the potential of poetry as a mode of mourning and celebration in America today.
“You realize that there isn’t this built-in anti-poetry gene that we seem to think we have,” he told me. “The role of the inaugural poet in that ceremony is really about being a visionary, it’s about offering a vision of hope—of change—and in that way, it is political.”
Blanco described himself as a “vampire writer,” preferring to write late at night when the world has settled and quieted. But if he finds inspiration in solitude, it is clear he thrives in his public role as a bard of contemporary America.
“This is how poetry should be forever,” he told the audience on Friday. “This idea of coming together, this idea that goes back to the poetry’s oral traditions. That idea of coming around the campfire and listening to each other, of looking at each other’s eyes, of learning something from each other’s stories, because in the end we see the humanity in ourselves.”