Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Books

Interview: Obama's inaugural poet Richard Blanco brings 'poetry of we' to Writers in Paradise

“The poem can say it better than I can," Richard Blanco says.

Four years ago this month, his poem said it well. Blanco read One Today before an enormous crowd in Washington, D.C., at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. Then 44, Blanco was the youngest ever inaugural poet; he was also the first immigrant, the first Latino and the first openly gay person to read a poem at the presidential swearing-in ceremony. One Today is a warmly inclusive poem about the many things Americans have in common.

This January is different. As of press time, no inaugural poet had been announced for Donald Trump's ceremony. And the political tone is not warmly inclusive.

"I try to keep everything in perspective," Blanco says. "As a poet, I try to dig below the surface, not be reactionary.

"I'm not happy with the rhetoric, but I believe in the process of democracy. We all have to keep working together."

American democracy has long been important to the poet's family. Blanco was born in Spain while his Cuban parents were en route to the United States. He grew up in Miami, a childhood he recounted with great humor and insight in his 2014 memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos.

Blanco now lives in Maine and Massachusetts, and in a phone interview he says he's looking forward to being back in Florida as the keynote speaker at Eckerd College's Writers in Paradise conference, which starts Jan. 14. Blanco, a Florida International University graduate, knows Writers in Paradise director Les Standiford, a longtime FIU writing professor.

Blanco notes, "I was there (for a reading in St. Petersburg) before with Peter Meinke," Florida's poet laureate. "He's a wonderful guy." Meinke, too, will be one of the Writers in Paradise speakers.

Blanco has been busy as a poet since the Obama inauguration. In 2015, One Today was published as a children's book. "It's a good time right now to have the book in the conversation," he says.

This version of the poem has lively illustrations by Dav Pilkey. "He's so well known for his Captain Underpants books," Blanco says of Pilkey. "But he's also this award-winning children's illustrator. This sort of brought him out of retirement" as an artist. "Dav's a really wonderful and serious guy as well."

Blanco has also written a number of other occasional poems. He read Matters of the Sea/Cosas del Mar at the historic reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2015. "I was writing the poem that I thought I'd never see in my life," he says. "I was so honored."

Blanco says that he has "dedicated most of my writing to the experiences of Cubans here in the United States, in the crossfire of history. All of my work was a way to heal my own mother's wounds."

He was dealing with other wounds when he wrote and performed One Pulse — One Poem for one of several videos that can be viewed on his website, richard-blanco.com.

When the Pulse nightclub mass shooting occurred, Blanco says, "I was in the middle of Oklahoma, teaching a workshop for high school arts students. All that death and destruction — I felt an urge to write for so many reasons."

The poem "wrote itself" in a day. Orlando, Blanco says, was like a second home while he was growing up in Miami. For the victims, Pulse "was more than just a nightclub. It was home. That's how I grew up, too, you know. A place like that is a community. It gives you courage as a tribe to come out to the world."

Blanco's current project is a book that will be called, he says, "Boundless. Or Boundaries."

He looks forward to reading some of the poetry from the new book at Writers in Paradise. "Writing is a very solitary thing. Poets need that performance. Going to a poetry reading is very different from quietly reading at home or even performing for a video. Poetry should be a community thing."

Blanco is working with a photographer for the book, which, he says, will explore the theme of boundaries: "geographical, racial, socioeconomic, class. We'll be breaking apart these narratives. We're told them as a way to be controlled, so the powers that be can divide and conquer us."

Blanco says he worries when he sees Americans "espousing those divisions."

"I want to bring back the poetry of we, instead of the poetry of only I."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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