The poet Richard Blanco lives with his partner in a small town in Maine, where he writes, works as an engineer, and serves on the local planning board. “Very few people knew he was a published poet,” the town’s planning assistant told a local paper last week. “He kind of kept it to himself.” Lately that has been a much more difficult task. President Obama’s inaugural committee announced last week that Blanco, the author of three well-received collections, including Looking for the Gulf Motel (2012), had been chosen to become the nation’s fifth inaugural poet. Blanco, who had kept the news to himself since December, was tasked with writing three original poems, one of which the committee will ask him to read at the ceremony in Washington on January 21. The committee’s spokesperson told the New York Times that Obama chose Blanco because his “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.” Blanco, whose official bio describes him as “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States,” will be the first Hispanic poet to speak at an inauguration. He’s the first openly gay inaugural poet, and at 44, he’s the youngest, too.
You found out you had been chosen as the inaugural poet on December 12, and the inauguration is on Monday. Was that enough time to write three new poems?
It’s almost a blessing in disguise that you don’t have six months to focus on something that’s so important. As poets, we can linger on a poem forever and ever. ... You sort of have to draw on everything you have, and draw deep inside. So yes, I wish I would’ve had maybe a couple more weeks, but I would’ve been sitting on this for six months if I’d known six months ago.
So have you been working around the clock?
Literally around the clock. I’m a night owl, so that means until 4 a.m., and back up at 9, 9:30, getting back on the computer. It’s been an intense period, but when I’m finishing a manuscript I get in this manic mode as well, so that’s not something that’s totally unfamiliar to me. I think any poet knows that feeling.
This poem has to perform so many jobs, and you’ll probably have more critics than you’ve ever had before. You want it to be personal, but it’s political, too. What makes a successful inaugural poem?
You got it right: that sense of it having to be personal at the same time as speaking to many folks—the entire nation, I should say. Because of its intensity, I did learn a lot about where my writing comes from, and about my writing process, things that maybe I had forgotten. My work is intensely narrative and comes from the realm of immediate experience, direct experience, family and whatnot. What I learned through the process is that it’s not the subject matter necessarily that makes my writing my writing. Rather, it’s my writing [laughs]. I learned through this process that if I approach the subject matter the same way I approach my more familiar subject matters, that I could possibly have a poem that I’d be very, very happy with. ... Something just finally clicked in me. It was like, “OK, I’m not writing about my mother’s exile, but I can use the same language and the same descriptions and imagery and lushness that I love to use.”
Have you written occasional poems before?
I have written one more, and it has to do with my engineering. It was the groundbreaking ceremony of a project, the South Miami Sunset Drive improvement. ... I wrote an occasional poem, not because I was asked to, but I was very moved to write one because I had seen some historical photographs of the city and that very road. I ended up sharing it with some of the council members, and they were very taken by it and they asked me to read it at the groundbreaking ceremony. It was the first time in my life I read my poetry with my hard hat on.
That’s the only sort of poem I can remember that was even close to [the inaugural poem], because it was inspired by something not in my immediate experience. It was about looking into history, looking at the town ... and that kind of voice that reaches everyone.
We think of having to encompass everybody, but one of those rules—well, not rules, but adages—in poetry is that the universal is in the details. That helps, too, to try to wrap one’s head around the poem. Even though you’re speaking to a large audience, there are also specifics in that large audience that you can draw upon: specific imagery that may help to create that connection that poetry can, rather than speaking in broad strokes only.
Are there particular poems you’ve been looking back on for inspiration?
A good friend of mine and colleague …, Nikki Moustaki, wrote a poem called “How to Write a Poem After September 11th”… . It was one of the first poems I went back to for that kind of moment I wanted to tap into.
I of course looked over the previous inaugural poems of Elizabeth Alexander and of Maya Angelou, and tried to see how they worked it out, tried to read between the lines and see how I could add to those voices as well.
Does writing a poem for the second inaugural demand a particular approach? We’re at the midway point for this administration, rather than the beginning.
I’ve thought about that… . Obviously the nation is not in the same place it was four years ago, so there’s another sort of occasion, if you will. I’ve always thought about Elizabeth Alexander’s piece, and about how nerve-racking that must have been. I do feel like this is a celebration continued, and in that way it feels a little less intimidating, but nonetheless an incredible task and an incredible honor.
Because we have had Alexander and Maya [Angelou], there is already a consciousness in the country of the poem and the inaugural. That actually helps; it hasn’t been 40 years since the last poem was read at the inaugural. I’m happy about that. I hope this is a tradition forever—just the idea of what it does for poetry in general, for poets in general, for connecting people and poetry in really powerful ways.
The story goes that John F. Kennedy suggested a word change to Robert Frost’s inaugural poem “The Gift Outright.” President Obama is a writer, so I have to ask: Did he make any suggestions to alter what you submitted?
It’s been a complete mystery as to exactly who’s reading these. I’m eager to find out myself. ... I keep having this image in my head of the president sitting in the Oval Office, reading over my poem and signing off on it. I’m not sure if they save it as a surprise for the president, or if it’s just staff that’s looking at it. To tell you the truth, I don’t ask. I’m just focusing on the poem and trying to write the best poem I can. The rest I know I’ll know someday, somehow.
Do you still work as an engineer?
I’m still on the payroll. I’ve been working ever since I moved to Maine [in 2009], on an as-needed basis with my office in Miami. ... We used to joke in the office: we’re “P.E.”s, professional engineers, but on my desk it read “poet engineer.”
I want to ask you about the performance aspect of this assignment, too. What’s the biggest crowd you’ve read in front of before this one?
Fairly recently, at the Geraldine L. Dodge Poetry Festival. It was in the auditorium where America’s Got Talent was held. ...
In a sense one has to disconnect, as you would in any reading, to make it as intimate and as authentic as possible to bring out that voice. Whether it’s 10 people or 10,000 people, the goal is the same. It’s a matter of letting your mind settle into that a little. I’ve been tempted to keep on looking at photos of inaugural celebrations, and sometimes I just have to shy away because I don’t want to be apprehensive. I just want to get there.
What’s the best reaction that you could hope to get on Monday afternoon, either from President Obama or from other listeners? What would make you feel like you really performed the job well?
I always say poetry is the only job in the world that when someone says, “You made me cry,” you say, “Thank you.” To be genuinely moved by the poem is the most incredible honor. ... I always say the poem is a mirror; both the poet and the reader are standing and looking at [it]— that sense of how they can connect emotionally to their own lives, which is where the crying, or the being moved, comes in. That would be a great compliment if someone said, “You made me cry.”
One last question: Is it true you were named after Richard Nixon?
It’s family folklore. I think my dad told me it one day, kidding, and I always believed it. Then I asked my mom and she said, “No!” My father’s passed away, and I never got the final answer.