By Cara Kenefick
Richard Blanco had six minutes to capture a nation. His words needed to be grand, universal, Whitmanesque even, but at the same time intimate enough to connect with each listener.
And so he read:
“Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días in the language my mother taught me—in every language spoken into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.”
The words flowed from within Blanco as he read his poem “One Today” during President Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony. The inaugural poet – the first Latino bestowed the honor and “a child of exiled immigrants”- reflected on his experience with the inauguration, saying,”I finally feel like I’m 100 percent American.”
Through the process of writing and reading “One Today”, as well as the positive reception following the inauguration, Blanco said he felt embraced by America, both figurative and literally. People began stopping him in streets and telling him their stories of how it made them feel accepted the country as well.
Later this July, he will share his poem penned for the President, as well as many of his other works, when he returns to the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Farmington.
Engineering a love of poetry
For such an anticipated act, Blanco traces his roots in poetry in a nonconventional way. Oddly enough, he recalled, he found his calling as a poet through his career in engineering. Through his profession he realized the power of language, and had to learn how to write and craft words that are transformed into an art or a persona.
“Language is an alive thing,” he said. “It got me obsessed with language like I would with a math problem or a design problem.”
He began to dabble in poetry and soon mastered the art of engineering the written word.
A product of a working class family, he was guided toward a career in engineering, which they saw as a safe and financially rewarding profession.“We didn’t talk about art around the dinner table. As an adult, I went back to that and merged those things together.”
Blanco said by the time he was 45 days old, he had already belonged to three different countries. According to his website bio, he was “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States.”
Growing up in Miami, Blanco grappled with straddling two worlds, which he has dealt with well into adulthood and later learned to express through his poems. Blanco recalled Miami as “one of the most culturally isolated places” he has ever known, and that it certainly did not feel like America growing up there. With only other Cubans – from the maids to the mechanics to the lawyers – to identify with, Miami did not fit with his image of America reruns of Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch left him with.
At the same time, he grew up with a family who would wax sentimental over Cuba, a land he had only heard of and never experienced as his own. As a Cuban-America, both countries that made up his identity seemed imaginary.
Being raised by immigrant parents, Blanco has always felt that there is a part of himself that “isn’t quite American.” That abstract feeling of questing for an identity, grasping for answers to the quintessential question of “Where do I belong?” is Blanco’s grandest thematic focus and the thread that ties together a majority of his work.
Since the inauguration, Blanco’s life as engineer-by-day, poet-by-night has been transformed. Poetry is now his full-time job, for the time being at least. Since January, he has been attending talks and workshops and writing commissioned poems.
Riding the wave of his recent success, he is now working on a memoir as well as an illustrated children’s book of his inaugural poem. In the back of his mind, another book of poetry is in the works, he teased.
“It is the magic of art that transforms our lives, it’s not about me,” he said. “That’s really the space I write for — that eternal quest for paradise and a complete sense of belonging to a community and landscape. . . and those intangible things we call home.”
Return to Sunken Garden Poetry
During his reading, Blanco will not only read his inaugural poem, but selected works mostly from his third book, Looking for the Gulf Motel, as well.
“It’s a terrific venue. . . The setting is amazing and has a great following and really wonderful poetry lovers,” he said.
Even more exciting for Blanco is that Sunken Garden is a place where people who wouldn’t normally go to poetry readings can be exposed to a new art-form. The night is more than just poetry, he said, but an exciting social night as well.
“Accessible” and “emotionally-centered”, Blanco’s work caters to all audiences.
Breaking down complex emotions and natures of daily life in to “crystal clear moments or images” that lead to moments of clarity are what he says make a Richard Blanco poem. “I would not describe my work as highly intellectualized,” he said, explaining his style.
“The tones and themes, a lot are about my family. I pride myself on creating works that are accessible that reach people. I want people to appreciate my poems.”