Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco: 'I Finally Felt Like I Was Home'
"I just got the phone call one day," is how poet Richard Blanco describes to Fresh Air's Terry Gross how he learned he had been selected to write and read the inaugural poem for President Obama's second swearing-in on Jan. 21.
Blanco is the first immigrant, Latino and openly gay poet chosen to read at an inauguration and, at 44, also the youngest. The author most recently of the collection Looking for the Gulf Motel, which explores themes of sexuality and home, says he doesn't know how or who put his name up for consideration.
"I'm sure it will come to light at some point," he says, "[but] in some ways I don't want to know. ... In some ways I like the mystery myself that I'm not sure exactly. ... I'm wondering if I'll be disappointed when I find out. ... [Now] I can imagine him sitting in the Oval Office with my book and saying, 'Get this guy in here!' "
After the phone call came, Blanco wrote three poems for the inauguration committee. Of those, they chose "One Today." Written shortly after the Newtown shooting, the poem references the 20 children killed:
It's something I've always thought of in the sense of we're not where we're from necessarily, but where we choose to die. Where we choose to be buried, in a sense, tells more about who we are than where we're born, which we have no say over.
the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever ...
"What I find interesting about the inaugural poem as almost like a subgenre," says Blanco, "is that it's a unique snapshot of where we are as a country at that moment," and Newtown, of course, says Blanco, was part of that snapshot and "emotional landscape" that he was trying to illustrate.
The balancing act then came in deciding where he, himself, belonged in the poem.
"One of the hardest challenges of the poem itself overall was how to at once put myself in there, but realizing that this poem isn't about me, it's about our country," he says. "Part of the process that I went through was deciding what was important enough to me that I felt I needed to put in there. Of course, the first impulse was — because I was the youngest, first openly gay, first Hispanic or Latino — the first impulse was: I have to represent all this in the poem, and sort of be more of an in-your-face kind of poem. Then I took a step back from that and I realized, well, yes, it's all those things, but I think there's a larger platform here, a larger sense of what America is that I need to come through in the poem."
On his Cuban grandmother
"My grandmother was as xenophobic as she was homophobic, so I remember growing up so that anything that seemed culturally odd or weird or strange was also sort of tagged as 'queer' — and I'm talking like things like Legos and Fruit Loops — so anything she perceived as strange she also questioned in terms of my sexuality. ... My grandmother was also a very central figure in my life for being one of those relatives that ended up doing a lot of good for you, in terms of all the harm that they did to you."
On where he's "from"
"I always claim that my soul is Cuban — my soul was made in Cuba — and I was assembled in Spain and then imported to the United States, because I was only 45 days old when we left Spain for Manhattan, so my green card photo is my first baby photo."
On how being an engineer — as he is — is similar to being a poet in the sense of having a catastrophist's temperament
"As an engineer ... in your designs and whatnot, you're trained to figure out what's going to go wrong. That's how you design a lot of things. You're like, 'OK, that's a decently designed curve there in the road, but what could go wrong? What's wrong with this design?' And you're constantly putting things up to the test and up to the test, and overdesigning and implementing things and safety factors, and if I wasn't like that already, 25 years of engineering have pretty much reinforced that."
On writing a poem about his father's grave
"That poem really started with this idea of, 'Where I will be buried, where do I ultimately belong, and where do I want to spend eternity?' And, as it mentions in the poem — especially in New England — you see these really old graveyards and you're wondering, 'I don't know. I love being in New England, but I don't know if I want to be buried here, and I don't know if Miami is the right place either.' So I haven't decided, but it's something I've always thought of in the sense of we're not where we're from necessarily, but where we choose to die. Where we choose to be buried, in a sense, tells more about who we are than where we're born, which we have no say over."
On how being the inaugural poet affected his sense of being American
"All along, through different stages of my relationship with America ... I've always been sort of wondering: Where's home? Is home America? That ideal doesn't really exist, does it? Where's all those sort of principals that I grew up with? And when I was up on that platform — for those two hours or so that we were up there — it was like all those ideals came to life in ways that I had never imagined. So even with all the politics and all the fiscal cliff and all the rest that [was] going on, for those two hours there was still this sense that was still so pure about America. ... Just the idea that all those hundreds of thousands of people have just come to bear witness. ... I really embraced America up there like I never had before, and I think I finally felt like I was home in some way. ... And I turned to my mother at one moment and I told her, 'Well, I think we're finally American.' "
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I really enjoyed the poem that Richard Blanco wrote for and read at President Obama's second inauguration last month, the poem "One Today." I wanted to talk with him, and this Presidents Day seemed like a good day for that.
Blanco was the youngest of the five inaugural poets in American history. He just turned 45 a couple of days ago. He was also the first Latino and first openly gay person in that role. Many of his poems are about identity. His parents emigrated from Cuba in 1968, the year he was born. He grew up in Miami, aware of the mix of nostalgia and anger adults in his community felt toward Cuba. Blanco is the author of three collections of poems. The latest is called "Looking for the Gulf Motel."
He's taught at Georgetown University and American University and now lives in Maine with his partner Mark. He writes: A Cuban like me living in Maine? Well, what the hell. Mark loves his native snow, and I don't mind it, really.
Richard Blanco, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to talk with you after hearing you read your wonderful poem on inauguration day. How did whoever it was that selected you know who you were?
RICHARD BLANCO: You know, it's still a mystery. I have no idea. I'm hoping to get to the bottom of it soon. You just - I just got the phone call one day, and there's so many layers with the Inaugural Committee and then the White House. There's so many layers of I guess coordination and whatnot. The person that originally called us, we had asked if they knew - it's one of the first questions you have on your mind, and they said no, I don't, I was told to call you.
So for lack of wanting to pry too much and the fact that I had to hurry up and write the poem, I haven't dug any deeper, but I'm sure it'll all come to light at some point. In some ways I don't want to know. I don't know if that makes sense, Terry. In some ways I like the, sort of the mystery myself, that I'm not sure exactly how it was, and I'm wondering if I'll be disappointed when I find out.
GROSS: Sure, you just go on and keep thinking that it was President Obama himself who said I know, I know who I want.
BLANCO: I imagine him sitting in the Oval Office with my book, you know, and saying get this guy in here.
GROSS: Yeah. So did they give you a time limit? Did anybody say keep it short, kid, people don't really have much of an attention span for poetry?
BLANCO: I think they roughly - again, there were such a - this was such a crazy time, I'm not sure, you know, if they gave me any - so much information was transpired or filtered through other people. But they did say about three minutes, and I think the poem ran a little bit longer than that.
But once they picked the poem that they picked, because as you know, I had to wrote three, it was - they didn't change a single word, they didn't tell me about the timing, anything at all. I think they really liked the poem enough to trust it at that point, so...
GROSS: Right, so they said give us three poems, and we'll choose the one we want. Did they have a Plan B? Like say they didn't like any of those three poems.
BLANCO: Not that I know of, but I believe other inaugural poets have only had to write one.
BLANCO: So maybe I was Plan B. I'm thinking because of the short time span, and I was trying to sort of do the timing on when they actually - they called me on December 12th, which is kind of late, I think, a little bit. But I'm not sure. I don't know the details of other - when this has happened before with inaugural poets.
But I think I may have been Plan B in the sense here's, you know, write three, I'm sure we'll like one, or one would be suitable, rather than writing one and taking, you know, the three weeks to write one and then it's a week before the inauguration, they're like, um, we're not sure this is going to work.
So as far as I know - also speaking of firsts, I think I'm also the first one that had - the first inaugural poet that had to write three poems.
GROSS: So I've asked you to read an excerpt of "One Today," your inaugural poem, and I've chosen a couple of my favorite verses. So this is - begins with the second verse. The first verse is the opening with, you know, one sun rising over so many different people with so many different days ahead of them. So if you could pick up with the second.
BLANCO: Sure. My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors, each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day, pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows begging our praise.
Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper - bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us, on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives - to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem for all of us.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever.
Many prayers, but one light breathing color into stained glass windows, life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth onto the steps of our museums and park benches, as mothers watch children slide into the day.
GROSS: You refer in that verse to the massacre in Newtown, in which 20 children were killed. You gave this inaugural poem a month after the massacre. How did you decide to include it, and how did you think about how to include it? I thought what you wrote was just beautiful, the empty desks of 20 children marked absent today and forever.
BLANCO: Yeah, this was, of course, in the emotional landscape of what was happening while I was writing the poem, and it just - as it, you know, as it struck us all so deeply, at the time I could barely watch the news, but I just - something, something emotionally in me felt that it was just right to include it. At the same time, in a poem like this, you want to be very careful to not sort of throw in references that are just gratuitous or for the sake of enlivening the poem in some way or in some, you know, shaping the poem in some way that feels disingenuous.
But that part, I lived through that whole thing while I was writing the poem, and I wanted some place for it to be recorded in this very moment because what I find interesting also about the inaugural poem as, as I said, almost like a sub-genre, is that it's a unique snapshot of where we are as a country at that moment.
GROSS: So in a poem that simultaneously celebrates difference and commonality in America, you mention personal things about your family. You don't mention that you're gay. Did you say to yourself, OK, I'm going to leave that out of the poem, or did it just not fit in the poem, was it not relevant to the poem?
BLANCO: You know, that was one of the hardest challenges of the poem itself overall, is how to, how to at once sort of put myself in there but, you know, not realizing, or rather realizing that this poem isn't about me, it's about our country and whatever that means in its totality.
Part of the process that I went through was deciding what was important enough to me that I felt I needed to put in there, and of course the first impulse was to sort of, because I was the youngest, first openly gay, first Hispanic or Latino, the first impulse was kind of - I have to represent all this in the poem and you know, sort of be more of in-your-face kind of poem.
And then I took a step back from that, and I realized, well, yes, it's all those things, but then there's - I think there's a larger platform here, a larger sense of what America is that I need to come through in the poem.
I didn't have any specific references to my sexuality in here. You know, in the creative process, sometimes things come up, sometimes they don't, but sort of if you see the sort of - the texture of the poem is about these, you know, the people going through their days and whatnot, and I always, in the back of my mind I always thought about my father and my mother.
Even the moment I heard the news, well, after it sunk in for about a couple hours, I was overcome with this sense of gratitude and understanding that all this sort of happened because of all the sacrifices and hard work that my parents did to - to let my brother and I have a better life, education, et cetera, et cetera, the sort of - the more typical sort of immigrant or exile story in my case.
And so I felt like that was really part of my emotional center for this poem, was my mother and my father and my ancestors, so to speak, the people that got up here, the people that ushered me forward into this world in more ways than one.
GROSS: Your parents left Cuba in 1968. Why did they leave and why at that moment?
BLANCO: As far as I understand - because of course there's nothing like living through something like that. The revolution was obviously '58, '59. So historically, as I understand, there was a lot of momentum after the revolution, and people weren't sure exactly what was going on or how things were moving.
And I think slowly throughout the years they saw the changes that they weren't keen on, and I think they saw that they - you know, it's again, you know, the typical sort of American exile immigrant dream of a better life, someplace that also means freedom and liberty and all the rest. And I think they went for that reason.
And it was - by 10 years after the revolution, I think they made that decision, and back then, of course, there was no really diplomatic, as there is now, no official diplomatic relations with Cuba. So we had to go to Spain as a third country, they used to call it, before coming to the United States.
But I think their - you know, it's - I think their motivations were very similar for the reasons that people come to America from all over the world in that sense. We weren't - there wasn't - there isn't any political sort of - you know, my dad wasn't a political prisoner or anything like that. But there was a sense of just not wanting to - not agreeing with what was going on and seeing a better life for themselves and my brother and I.
GROSS: You talk about "we" left Cuba. You were in utero. You were still - your mother was pregnant with you when the family left for Spain.
BLANCO: Yeah, I always claim that my soul is Cuban, my soul was made in Cuba, and I was assembled in Spain and then imported to the United States because I was only 45 days old, actually, when we left Spain for Manhattan. And so my green card photo is actually my first baby photo. So...
BLANCO: And I always say when I - the first time I went back to Cuba, I always say, and it does feel literally like you're going back because there's so much - you grow up with so much family lore, so many photographs and stories and things like that, that you feel like you have been there in some way, emotionally. So when you do go, it does feel like a going back, sort of things coming back to life.
GROSS: So you're a poet, so words are obviously very important to you. How good was your parents' English when you were growing up, and were you fluent in Spanish? What language did you use in the house?
BLANCO: In the house, in our house we spoke Spanish. After several years, maybe when I was around already nine or 10, my parents could understand enough English that we would speak to them in English in parts, and they would answer us in Spanish, but they hardly ever spoke English to us.
I don't ever remember having a first language. As far as I can remember, I've always known Spanish and English. And I was the first - speaking of other firsts, I was the first in my house that I remember that actually started learning English, because my brother was six years, six and a half years older.
So I remember my parents asking me how do you say this in English, how do you say that in English, from the time I was like maybe four or five years old.
GROSS: And how did that affect your feelings of competence and responsibility, to be able to help your parents like that?
BLANCO: Well, it was very empowering. It was also something I write about in my prose. It was very empowering to know a language that you could get away with things that they wouldn't know about. So there were - there's a lot of tricks that my brother and I used to - or not tricks but things, how we used to get around things by speaking English.
We weren't the best behaved kids. But there was certainly - as I look back on it, there was a sense of power of knowing something that your parents, you know, didn't and linguistically how you had sort of the upper hand in the family.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read a poem from "Looking for the Gulf Motel" that's about your father. It's called "The Port Pilot." And some of the lines in this poem refer to various jobs your father had. He was a meat butcher in a butcher shop. Did he work in a bank for a while? Is that the reference to counting money?
BLANCO: He was, yeah, a bookkeeper - by trade.
GROSS: Bookkeeper. OK. So those are the two things I wanted to mention before you read the poem. Is there anything else you'd like to say before you read it?
BLANCO: Well, the genesis of this poem had to do with finding out one day, many years after, that my father was a port pilot, and of course in Miami there's these big cruise ship terminals, and one day my mom tells me that's what your dad studied or was going to do in Cuba, he was a port pilot.
And so he - I just found that so interesting, that little factoid about my dad's life that I had never known before. And this is what happens when you grow up sort of in an exile family or immigrant family. You just get little pieces of information, like throughout the years, and you've got to piece all this stuff together. And so this is sort of piecing together some of my father.
"The Port Pilot." Before I knew him as a butcher, coming home with blood stains on his cuffs that Mama could never wash out in the kitchen sink, before I learned he'd spent all day in the sky in loafers and a necktie counting other people's money in a tower with a view he couldn't afford, years before he started gambling with me on cockfights at Tio Budede's(ph) farm every Saturday night, teaching me how to bet on death, long before he was diagnosed and staying alive became his fulltime job, his agenda filled with appointments to kill whatever was killing him, a lifetime before I had to cradle him in and out of bed, he carried me on his shoulders over the jetty at the port.
Minutes after I'm called to the hospital, I remember that day, sitting together on a rock, watching the ships glide past us, when he told me that years before he was my father he was a port pilot in Havana, steering ships safely into harbor, then guiding them out to sea again, never to see them again, seconds before I hear his last breath, told to leave the room.
GROSS: That's Richard Blanco, reading his poem "The Port Pilot" from his latest collection of poems, "Looking for the Gulf Motel." What did it mean to you when your father told you he'd been a port pilot in Havana? Why did that have such a big effect on you? Because of the responsibility that he had or because of the fact that he was guiding these ships to safety and they'd never know who he was?
BLANCO: Well, I mean I think that's an afterthought as an adult. At the time, I was much younger, and I just thought it was just neat as all hell.
BLANCO: I mean you've got to understand the landscape of growing up in Miami, these huge, like, ships that we used to watch, you know, going off into the Caribbean on sunset. And so I just thought it was so neat. But it was also sort of the story of my father, of how being such a sort of emotionally absent person that, you know, finding out these little bits and pieces about him, were so interesting to me.
And since he died when I was relatively young, before I really was a mature adult, I never got to sort of meet him, in a way. And so through the poetry I've gone back to these little tidbits and sort of tried to re-create him on the page and see what he meant to me and what our relationship was about.
GROSS: So you were in your early 20s when your father died. How did that change your life?
BLANCO: In ways, not immediately at first, in the sense of, as I said, you know, my father was sort of emotionally distant and so there wasn't that great sense of sort of someone who was my pal or my buddy kind of feeling. But it left an incredible - an ever bigger hole in the sense of understanding that now I would never really be able to get to that moment with him.
And I only understood that actually later in life. I mean now, you know, as I hit my late 20s, 30s, you know, my relationship with my mother is completely different. I've come to that relationship now as an adult, as a mature adult. We've hashed out a lot of things. I really know who my mother is now. And I always feel, you know, that I never got the chance to do that with my father.
So my life would change in ways not immediate but in ways I would see afterwards, and I think that's why he becomes a topic of my poetry a lot, to sort of understand what that relationship could have been in some way. I have to say some emotional outlet to understand that connection that never was.
Immediately after, luckily, you know, the family stepped in in terms of any financial hardship and all that. There wasn't anything sort of drastic in that context.
GROSS: Your grandmother was a very important figure in your life and you write about her in a few poems. I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt of one of those poems and it's called "Queer Theory According to My Grandmother." Do you want to introduce it for us?
BLANCO: Oh, sure. So my grandmother was as xenophobic as she was homophobic, so I remember growing up so that anything that would seem culturally odd or weird or strange was also sort of tagged as queer - and I'm talking like things like Legos and Froot Loops - so anything that she perceived as strange she also questioned in terms of my sexuality. And so I think that's where this poem sort of gets its - a lot of its sort of energy from. But it was also, my grandmother was a very central figure in my life for - as one of those relatives that end up doing a lot of good for you in terms of all the harm that they did to you. And so this poem, which I thought at first was this very poignant, angry, bitter poem, first time I read it, people just were like laughing in their seats. And then I got the humor behind this and I realized how I was treating the subject. And this is in the voice of my grandmother.
GROSS: And this is your Cuban grandmother who was your father's mother?
BLANCO: Yes, my father's mother.
BLANCO: "Queer Theory According to My Grandmother." Never drink soda with a straw. Milkshakes? Hmm. Maybe. Stop eyeing your mother's Avon catalog and the men's underwear in those Sears flyers. I've seen you. Stay out of her Tupperware parties and perfume bottles. Don't let her kiss you. She kisses you much too much. Avoid hugging men, but if you must, pat them real hard on the back - even if it's your father. Must you keep that cat? Don't pet him so much. Why don't you like dogs? Never play house - even if you're the husband.
So the poem goes on to catalog all these sort of atrocities, my grandmother used to say. And then towards the end - I'll pick it up about two thirds into the poem, towards the end.
Don't watch "Bewitched" or "I Dream of Jeannie." Don't stare at "The Six Million Dollar Man." I've seen you. Never dance alone in your room. Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, the Captain and Tennille, Bette Midler, and all musicals, forbidden. Posters of kittens, "Star Wars" or the Eiffel Tower, forbidden. Those fancy books on architecture and art, I threw them in the trash. You can't wear cologne or puka shells. And I better not catch you in clogs. If I see you in a ponytail, I'll cut it off. What? No, you can't pierce your ear, left or right side. I don't care. You will not look like a goddamn queer. I've seen you, even if you are one.
GROSS: Great poem. How did you respond to your grandmother at the time when she was giving you all these do's and don'ts - mostly don'ts?
BLANCO: That's a good question. I think I've written a few essays sort of retracing what that meant and how it affected me. And one of the things that I realized is what it made me was a very sort of self-conscious child and therefore much more introverted than maybe I was naturally, and a great observer of the world because I had to understand how to react. I had to, how could I say? I had to pick up how people were perceiving me, in other words, so that I knew how to respond. Or at least that was my interaction when my grandmother - you know, sit straight. Don't fold your legs. No, cross your legs. Don't do this. You know, say - don't say things this way. Do, you know, all that stuff. So it made me very self-conscious. But at the same time I learned the skill of how to read people and read people's sort of emotions. And I think in part - I don't want to attribute all this to my grandmother, but I think in part that made me, I mean as writers, as poets, what do we do? I mean we sit back and sort of watch the world and observe what may be other people miss. And I think that's part of how I became interested in writing in some way subconsciously.
GROSS: Did you try to win your grandmother's approval by trying to fix yourself in her eyes, and you know, not listen to musicals or Bette Midler or look at your mother's Avon catalogs or any of the things - you know, have a cat, the things she urged her not to do because it was too feminine?
BLANCO: Yeah. Certainly. I mean every, you know, of course I wanted my grandmother's love and approval. So yeah, at every turn I would try to please her and try to do things that I - well, in everything I did there was always the before thought of will my grandmother like this? And literally almost everything I did. So you never knew what you were going to get.
BLANCO: You know, sometimes I'd do something or say something or ask for something that would be met with OK. And then sometimes there were these other responses that you couldn't stand, but nonetheless, yeah. I remember my grandmother, I always wanted to be in the Cub Scouts and to her that was queer.
BLANCO: You would think the Cub Scout, you know, boys camping.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
BLANCO: Oh no, because it was this - also this culture component. It's like what is that? You know, that's queer, you know.
GROSS: So did it make it hard for you to have your own compass because you always had to be wondering - well, I want to do this, I like doing this but my grandmother might think it's bad, I don't know if it's bad, I have to see what she has to say?
BLANCO: Yeah. I think in the long run, yeah. At such an early age, that as I'm still discovering ways in which my grandmother's relationship was so significant and affected my life sometimes positively, a lot of times negatively. But one of the things that has happened is, I always say, I should do this or I should do that and I catch myself saying these things. And a friend of mine, a poet friend of mine said why do you say I should be doing this or should be doing that? And how about I want to do this or I want to do that? And I realized that - this was just about eight months ago. And I realized, damn, there's my grandmother again saying - I always measured or always was cautious of doing the right thing. And when it came to decide for a career, I think it was the same element, that same idea of like I should do this because this is what everybody wants me to do or this is the thing where, you know, I won't be called queer, you know, on subtext on that. And so, yes, I definitely, I still behave that way.
GROSS: OK. So the first career that you had, the one where you thought you wouldn't be called queer was being a civil engineer. But your grandmother threw out your architecture and art books when you were young, which is exactly the kind of thing you'd want as preparation to later be a civil engineer.
BLANCO: Yeah. No, no. Architecture was queer....
BLANCO: ...because it involved painting and drawing and things like that...
BLANCO: ...so, so that was out the door. Civil engineer was manly. And I also - part of that influence was also my father, and I think he also always wanted to be an engineer and I don't think he had the opportunity to.
GROSS: So when you realized that you were gay and your grandmother had been warning you all these years not to do things because those things were queer, did it scare you about being gay? Did you see that through your grandmother's eyes before you could accept that in yourself?
BLANCO: I think naturally, yeah. I mean that was - I didn't come out till I was about 25. And I think part of the delay in that was obviously having to overcome that fear. And she was still living when I came out but I never spoke to her about it. So she was already getting on in age, way on. And so, again, you say when I realize, I mean all through that poem that I read I already knew in that - I mean I had known since I was three years old probably that was gay. I didn't know what that meant but I knew it. So it's sort of a double-edged sword. Here you are sort of not really understanding and being chastised for something that you don't understand, but in some other level in your subconscious you know you are, so that really you are this bad thing that your grandmother, even though you're not sure what it is that your grandmother is pointing at, some other element of that comes into play at that childhood, you know, that consciousness of a child. So I think it took me longer than probably I would have ordinarily simply because of all that I had to overcome and just grow up and face the music.
GROSS: Was your mother any more supportive than your grandmother?
BLANCO: My mother was - I wouldn't say exactly supportive, but certainly not my grandmother at all. When I came out - in fact, when I came out to my mom, one of the things I told her was, like, grandma was right.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Blanco, who read that his new poem "One Today" at President Obama's second inauguration last month. His latest collection of poems is called "Looking for the Gulf Motel."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Richard Blanco. Last month he read his poem "One Today" at President Obama's second inauguration, becoming the youngest inaugural poet in American history, as well as the first Latino and first openly gay writer in that role.
So you live in Maine where it's now legal to be married. And my understanding is that you and your partner, Mark, might at some point in the future get married. You have a poem about him I want you to read. And just to preface this, you know, you grew up in Florida but now you live in Maine because it's where he has lived, and I guess where his work is too. So that must be quite an adjustment, living in the Maine climate, especially after big snowstorms like the one you recently had.
But anyways, the poem I want you to read is called "Killing Mark."
GROSS: It's not what it seems. So you're welcome to introduce us or to just jump in and read it.
GROSS: And this is going to be an excerpt of the poem. We're just trying to squeeze in a lot of poems, so I've been asking you to excerpt them.
BLANCO: What's always sort of surprised me about this poem a little bit is that it is obviously - "Killing Mark" is the title. It's about my partner. It's about being in a gay relationship. And yet in the small town where I live in, in Bethel, this is one of the favorite poems...
BLANCO: ...which is greeted with such enthusiasm because I think what it speaks about is something that really transcends a gay relationship. I mean it's just something fundamental and one understands a gay relationship is a relationship. So "Killing Mark."
His plane went down over Los Angeles last week, again. Or was it Long Island? Boxer shorts, hair gel, his toothbrush washed up on the shore of New Haven, but his body never recovered, I feared. Monday he cut off his leg chain-sawing. Bleed to death slowly while I was shopping for a new lamp. Never heard my messages on his cell phone. Where are you? Call me. I told him to be careful. He never listens. Tonight, 15 minutes late. I'm sure he's hit a moose on Route 26. But maybe he survived. Someone from the hospital will call me, give me his room number. I'll bring his pajamas and some magazines. 5:25, still no phone call. Voice mail full. I turn on the news, wait for the report. Flashes of moose blood, his car mangled, as I buzz around the bedroom dusting the furniture, sorting the sock drawer.
By 7:30, I'm taking mental notes for his eulogy, suddenly adoring all I've hated, 10 years worth of nose hairs in the sink, of lost car keys, of chewing too loud and hogging the bed sheets, when joy yowls. Ears to the sound of footsteps up the drive and darts to the doorway, I follow with a scowl: Where the hell were you? Couldn't you call? Translation. I die each time I kill you.
GROSS: I really liked that poem. Who hasn't done that? Who hasn't had those horrible imaginings when the person they love is late?
BLANCO: Yeah. I had a friend of mine who told me you can divide the world into two kinds of people, those that panic when you don't call in five minutes and those that have no idea and they're the ones who are not calling.
GROSS: Oh. So what does Mark think of that poem?
BLANCO: He likes it. It makes him chuckle as well. I think he totally gets it and understands. And it hasn't changed his behavior whatsoever, so. He knows it's a love poem at the end of the day and I think it helped him to understand sometimes why I do get so out of control and neurotic. It's not out of - it's just out of - I have that sense of that something's going to slip away at any minute.
Something I've tried to get better at in my day-to-day life and with other things of impending doom and panic. It sort of, I guess, follows maybe poets around. I'm not sure.
GROSS: So are you a catastrophist about other things?
BLANCO: Yeah. And I think it's as an engineer, which is something that sort of reinforced that. As an engineer in your designs and whatnot you're trained to figure out what's going to go wrong. That's how you design a lot of things. You're like, OK, that's a decently designed curve there on the road but what could go wrong? What's wrong with this design?
BLANCO: And you're constantly putting things up to the test and up to the test. And over-designing and implementing things and safety factors. And if I wasn't like that already, you know, 25 years of engineering have pretty much reinforced that.
GROSS: Are you still doing engineering work?
BLANCO: I was. I'm still officially employed by my firm in Miami, by C3TS Santec where I've been for decades. Well, not decades. I'm not that old. But certainly about 20 years on and off. I enjoy it very much. I'm not sure I'll have time to continue at the same pace. But I've always felt it's important for the way my brain functions. I need to have a left brain activity constantly.
I can't be too much in my right or in my left because they suffer. Since I was, I think, a kid I always was like that. And so I'm hesitant to say I can't go back to engineering because I really do hope I can in some capacity, in some way. But I know it's going to be very difficult.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Blanco who wrote his new poem "One Today" at President Obama's second inauguration last month. Blanco's latest collection of poems is called "Looking for the Gulf Motel." This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is poet Richard Blanco. Last month, he read his poem "One Today" at President Obama's second inauguration, becoming the youngest inaugural poet in American history, as well as the first Latino and first openly gay writer in that role. A lot of your poems are about place - Cuba, where your parents are from, America where you're from, Florida where you grew up, Maine where you live now.
There's a poem I want you to read called "Bones, Teeth" that's also about a sense of place, a grave. Your father's grave. Would you read that for us?
BLANCO: Sure. (Reading) Bones, teeth. His bones, his teeth. Does his hair decay, I ask myself as I watch my mother on her knees pouring water over my father's gravestone, her palm gently washing the bronze letters as if she were stroking his face once again. With school scissors she cuts the blades of grass from edges, yanks the weeds creeping underneath the crown of thorns still alive 10 years since she planted it in the dirt that is my father now forever.
His wedding band, cufflinks, bones, teeth - that's probably all that's left of him here, I tell myself, as she replaces the dead mums with a dozen fresh ones that will last only a few days in the sun, she complains. Her eyes fixed on the ground, she speaks silently with him, feeling what I cannot - the haunt of his breath, his touch rising from deep inside the Earth that waits for her also.
Beside him again someday. Who will tend his grave when she's gone too? I worry, suddenly thinking of winters driving past old cemeteries, gravestones under snowdrifts, the dead and their dead children and grandchildren forgotten. Where will I be buried? There's no place for me here. Who will visit with flowers, speak to what's left of me? Yet I don't kiss his grave. Forgive me, Papa, bones that are my bones, teeth that are my teeth.
GROSS: That's Richard Blanco reading a poem from his latest collection "Looking for the Gulf Motel." When you ask the question in that poem where will I be buried, there's no place for me here, did you mean that literally in the sense of there's no plot purchased near where your father's plot is? Did you mean that more figuratively? It's just not where you belong.
BLANCO: I think I'm going to give you the poetic answer: both.
BLANCO: No. I think there's obvious a very literal sense to it which is there isn't, yeah, I mean, that's my grandfather - both my grandparents, both his parents are buried there, and my father and so will my mother. And so there's really no place for me here. But that makes me think - I mean, that poem really started with this idea of where will I be buried?
Where do I ultimately belong and where do I want to spend eternity? And as it mentions in the poem, sometimes, especially in New England you see these really old graveyards. And you're, like, wondering - I don't know. I love, like, being in New England but I don't know that I want to be buried here.
And then I don't know if Miami is the right place either. And so I haven't decided but it makes me want to think - it makes me think something I've always thought of and something that my - in the sense of we're not where we're from, necessarily, but where we choose to die. And that sense of where we choose to be buried in the sense tells more about who we are than where we're born which we have no say over.
GROSS: Since so many of your poems are about what does it mean for you to be an American with two Cuban parents who - it sounds like they never quite fully adjusted to America, never fully got the English language and were very much of both worlds and, you know, feeling in between worlds and so on.
So now that you've given the - you know, now that you've written and given the inaugural poem for President Obama's second inauguration, has that just affected your feelings for what it means for you to be an American?
BLANCO: Oh, yes. I mean, it's in a way that I hadn't expected. It's been an incredible, incredible experience. And not till the moment where I was up there and finished reading the poem, exactly. I mean, that whole process of being on the platform was amazing. This is going to be a long answer, so.
Well, part of what I grew up with and part of what's in one of the other two inaugural poems is that ironically, growing up in an exile or immigrant family, there's actually a more heightened sense of those idealistic or those ideals of America. And so we grew up with very high expectations of America. It's not that my parents - yes, I my parents didn't adjust fully.
But it was almost as if because of how much they held up America and those values that were instilled in us in ways that perhaps other people might take for granted. So I always grew up with these ideals of America. And then living in Miami, which was a very culturally insulated place for many years, I grew up watching - I thought America was what I saw on "The Brady Bunch" and picture books of Pilgrims and whatnot.
I really believed the whole sort of American dream, the whole idealistic vision of America. Because what was around me didn't feel like America because everybody was Cuban like us. So then I really thought Miami was sort of like this sort of benevolent sort of purgatory between Cuba and the real America.
BLANCO: It was like this holding pen. And since we weren't rich, I didn't really - I never visited another American city until I was in my 20s. So I really didn't know any better. So all along I'm going along with this at some - through different stages of my relationship with America, psychologically perhaps, I've always been sort of wondering where is home. Is home America?
You know, that ideal doesn't really exist, does it? I mean, where are all those sort of principles that I, you know, grew up with? And when I was up on that platform for those two hours or so that we were up there, it was like all those ideals came to life and in ways I had never imagined.
And so even though all the politics and all the fiscal cliff and all the rest that was going on, for those two hours there was still this sense that was so pure about America, that sense of that transfer of power. Or just the idea that all those hundreds of thousands of people have just come to bear witness. I never got that. I'm like why would people go to the inauguration and sit down there in the cold?
For one moment Beyonce, James Taylor, President Obama, all the representatives, all the senators, were there for one purpose. And it was so powerful that it was something that - it was a principle to come to life that we've, as a country, as people, have not been able to mess up in some ways. At least, maybe I was in the moment, my poetic moment, but I really, really embraced America up there like I had never before.
And I think I finally felt like I was home in some way. Not, perhaps, an idealistic home that I had thought, but really home. And I turned to my mother at one moment and I told her, well, I think we're finally American.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us and thank you for, you know, for writing and delivering such a really good inaugural poem. It's been a pleasure to talk with you.
BLANCO: Thank you, Terry. It has been wonderful.
GROSS: Richard Blanco's poem, "One Today," which he read at President Obama's second inauguration will be published along with two other poems he was asked to submit for the inauguration probably sometime in the spring.
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GROSS: Blanco's latest collection of poems is called "Looking for the Gulf Motel." You'll find three poems from it on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.