When Richard Blanco read his poem One Today at the second inaugural of Barack Obama, he was only 44 years old. That made him the youngest inaugural poet in history.
Blanco describes the experience of being picked to read his poetry on stage with the president as a "chaotic wonderland." That journey, along with the continuing fame ushered in by his very public appearance, plus Blanco's multicultural history of being — as he puts it — "made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States," spurred him to write a memoir.
It recounts his childhood in New York City, where his mother puzzled over what to do with the monthly five-pound jars of peanut butter she received from the immigration department. It describes his "electrified" frame of mind, which he physically channeled by conga dancing in the off-stage holding room, after reading his poetry at the inauguration. And it covers his adjustment to celebrity status and the perks that come with it, like discovering that Beyoncé asked to meet him.
WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with Blanco about his self-described "memoirette."
Richard Blanco, poet and author of the new book For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey.
Excerpts from Interview
On practicing for his inaugural appearance using a podium constructed from a cardboard box:
My partner Mark had made a podium and I thought he was cracking under the pressure at first. I thought, this is the dumbest idea I've ever heard! And then I started realizing I had never read to a crowd of 800,000 people out in the open air, so I thought it might be nice just psychologically to get used to that. Then my nephews had put together a snowman...so I practiced to the snowman. He was my only audience — and he was a tough audience, I've got to tell you. Those stony eyes!
How he felt after the inauguration ceremony:
It was such a relief with my entire team — my publicist, my speakers agent, partner and other friends. It really takes a village, as they say. And there was just finally this sense of relief and joy because I didn't trip over any of the words, I didn't trip on stage. But there was one little funny incident...I couldn't hear any applause and I thought to myself, well, Richard, I guess you better not quit your day job as an engineer. But there's about a second-and-a-half delay, so as soon as I turn around I hear the applause. There's the whole Congress, everybody, a standing ovation. And I thought, well, I guess I didn't do so bad!
His techniques for stimulating creativity:
Usually when I get a big project like the inaugural poem — and I had to write three poems in three weeks — I always move from my office or from wherever. I kind of try and find a new space, whether that's the kitchen table or sprawled on the living room floor, to just change my environment. It's amazing what that does. It gives you a little bit of a different view both literally and figuratively...And also not to just freeze in front of the computer. Take a walk. Sometimes you'd be amazed — you know, you get stuck in front of something and you think that because you're sitting there you're working. And sometimes it's more useful to go walk the dog in the park and help clear your mind and immediately things will start clearing up for you.
His view on the particular power of poetry:
Poetry, perhaps maybe more than any other art except music, or equally with music, really captures the emotional kernel, the emotional core of what people feel and want to express. And I think poetry has that power to do that very concisely and very briefly. I always thought in our rushed, multi-faceted, multi-tasking world that poetry would enjoy a greater place because you could read a poem on the subway and come away with something for the rest of your life. And it's a genre I think can do that like nothing else.
This segment aired on December 12, 2013.